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In his biography, Life of George Washington, Washington Irving gives us an excellent account of this important battle. In this account, you will find that Irving used journals and other material from the groundbreaking work of Dr. John Sparks, an earlier biographer of Washington, in his Life of George Washington. One also should take note that Irving's Washington is a national hero that stands out for his courage, duty, and honor in almost mythical proportions.


The Projected Plan of Attack 
The projected attack upon the Hessian posts was to be threefold.

lst: Washington was to cross the Delaware with a considerable force, at MeKonkey's Ferry (now Taylorovile), about nine miles above Trenton, and march down upon that place, where Rlahl's cantonment comprised a brigade of fifteen hundred Hessians, a troop of British light-home, and a number of chasseurs

2d: General Ewing, with a body of Pennsylvania militia, was to cross at a ferry about a mile below Trenton; secure the bridge over the Assunpink Creek, a stream flowing along the south side of the town, and cut off any retreat of the enemy in that direction.

3d: General Putnam, with the troops occupied in fortifying Philadelphia, and those under General Cadwalder, was to cross below Burlington, and attack the lower posts under Count Donop. The several divisions were to cross the Delaware at night so as to be ready for simultaneous action by five o'clock in the morning.

Seldom is a combined plan carried into full operation. Symptoms of an insurrection in Philadelphia obliged Putnam to remain with some force in that city but he detached five or six hundred of the Pennsylvania militia under Colonel Griffin, his adjutant-general, who threw himself into the Jerseys, to be at hand to co-operate with Cadwalader.

A letter from Washington to Colonel Reed, who was. stationed with Cadwalader, shows the anxiety of his mind, and his consciousness of the peril of the enterprise.

"Christmas day at night. one hour before day. is the time fixed upon for our attempt upon Trenton. For Heaven's sake keep this to yourself, as the discovery of it may prove fatal to us; our numbers, I am sorry to say, being less than I had any conception of; yet nothing but necessity, dire necessity, will, nay must, justify an attack. Prepare, and, in concert with Griffin, attaek as many of their posts as you possibly can, with a prospect of sucess; the more we can attack at the same instant the more confusion We shall spread, and the greater good will result from it. I have ordered our men to be provided with three days' provisions ready cooked, with which, and their blankets, they are to march for if we are successful, which Heaven grant, and the circumstances favor, we may push on. I shall direct every ferry and ford to be well guarded, and not a soul suffered to pass without an officer's going down with the permit. Do the same with you."

It has been said that Christmas night was fixed upon for the enterprise because the Germans are prone to revel and carouse on that festival, and it was supposed a great part of the troops would be intoxicated and in a state of disorder and confusion; but in truth Washington would have chosen an earlier day had it been in his power. "We could not ripen matters for the attack before the time mentioned," said he in his letter to Reed, "so much out of sorts, and so much in want of everything, are the troops under Sullivan."

Early on the eventful evening (Dec. 25th), the troops destined for Washington's part of the attack, about two thousand four hundred strong, with a train of twenty small pieces, were paraded near McKonkey's Ferry, ready to pass as soon as it grew dark, in the hope of being all on the other side by twelve o'clock. Washington repaired to the ground accompanied by Generals Greene, Sullivan, Mercer, Stephen, and Lord Stirling. Greene was full of ardor for the enterprise; eager, no doubt, to wire out the recollection of Fort Washington. It was, indeed, an anxious moment for all.

The Crossing 
We have here some circumstances furnished us by the Memoirs of Wilkinson. That officer had returned from Philadelphia, and brought a letter from Gates to Washington. There was some snow on the ground, and he had traced the march of the troops for the last few miles by the blood from, the feet of those whose shoes were broken. Being directed to Washington's quarters. he found him, he says, alone, with his whip in his hand, prepared to mount his horse. "When I presented the letter of General Gates to him, before receiving it. he exclaimed with solemnity: ‘What a time is this to hand me letters!' I answered that I had been charged with it by General Gates. 'By General Gates! Where is he? 'I left him this morning in Philadelphia.' 'What was he doing there?' 'I understood him that he was on his way to Congress.' He earnestly repeated, 'On his way to Congress!' then broke the seal, and I made my bow and joined General St. Clair on the bank of the river.

Did Washington surmise the incipient intrigues and cabals that were already aiming to undermine him? Had Gate's eagerness to push on to Congress, instead of remaining with the army in a moment of daring enterprise, suggested any doubts as to his object? Perhaps not. Washington's nature was too noble to be suspicious; and yet he had received sufficient cause to be distrustful.

Boats being in readiness, the troops began to cross about sunset. The weather was intensely cold; the wind was high, the current strong, and the river full of floating ice. Colonel Glover, with his amphibious regiment of Marblehead fishermen, was in advance; the same who had navigated the army across the Sound, in its retreat from Brooklyn on Long Island, to Now York. They were men accustomed to battle with the elements, yet with all their skill and experience the crossing was difficult and perilous. Washington, who had crossed with the troops, stood anxiously, yet patiently, on the eastern bank, while one precious hour after another elapsed, until the transportation of the artillery should be effected. The night was dark and tempestuous, the drifting ice drove the boats out of their course, and threatened them with destruction. Colonel Knox, who attended to the crossing of the artillery, assisted with his labors, but still more with his "stentorian lungs," giving orders and directions.

It was three o'clock before the artillery was landed, and nearly four before the troops took up their line of march. Trenton was nine miles distant; and not to be reached before daylight. To surprise it, therefore, was out of the question. There was no making a retreat without being discovered, and harassed in repassing the river. Besides, the troops from the other points might have crossed, and co-operation was essential to their safety. Washington resolved to push forward, and trust to Providence.

The March to Trenton 
He formed the troops into two columns. The first he led himself, accompanied by Greene, Stirling, Mercer, and Stephen; it was to make a circuit by the upper or Pennington road, to the north of Trenton. The other, led by Sullivan, and including the brigade of St. Clair, was to take the lower river road, leading to the west end of the town. Sullivan's column was to halt a few moments at a cross road leading to Howland's Ferry to give Washington's column time to effect its circuit, so that the attack might be simultaneous. On arriving at Trenton they were to force the outer guards, and push directly into the town before the enemy had time to form.

The Hessian journals before us enable us to give the reader, a glance into the opposite camp on this eventful night. The situation of Washington was more critical than he was aware. Notwithstanding the secrecy with which his plans had been conducted, Colonel Rahl had received a warning from General Grant, at Princeton, of the intended attack, and of the very time it was to be made, but stating that it was to be by a detachment under Lord Stirling. Rahl was accordingly on the alert.

It so happened that about dusk of this very evening, when Washington must have been preparing to cross the Delaware, there were alarm guns and firing at the Trenton outpost. The whole garrison was instantly drawn out under arms, and Colonel Rahl hastened to the outpost. It Was found in confusion and six men wounded, A body of men had emerged from the woods, fired upon the picket, and immediately retired.(1)

Colonel Rahl, with two companies and a field-piece, marched through the woods, and made the rounds of the outpost, but seeing and hearing nothing and finding all quiet, returned. Supposing this to be the attack which he had been warned, and that it was "a mere flash in the pan," he relapsed into his feeling of security and, as the night was cold and stormy, permitted the troops to return to their quarters and lay aside their arms. Thus the garrison and its unwary commander slept in fancied safety at the very time that Washington and his troops were making their toilsome way across the Delaware. How perilous would have been their situation had their enemy been more vigilant!

It began to hail and snow as the troops commenced their march, and increased in violence as they advanced, the storm driving the sleet in their faces. So bitter was the cold that two of the men were frozen to death that night. The day dawned by the time Sullivan halted at the cross-road. It was discovered that the storm had rendered many of the muskets wet and useless. "What is to be done?' inquired Sullivan of St. Clair. "You have nothing for it than to push on and use the bayonet" was the reply. While some of the soldiers were endeavoring to clear their muskets, and squibbing off priming, Sullivan dispatched an officer to, apprise the commander-in-chief of the condition of their arms. He came back half dismayed by an indignant burst of Washington, who ordered him to return instantly and tell General Sullivan to "advance and charge."

The Battle of Trenton

It was about eight o’clock when Washington's column arrived in the vicinity of the village. The storm, which had rendered the march intolerable, had kept every one within doors, and the snow had deadened the tread of the troops and the rumbling of the artillery. As they approached the village, Washington, who was in front, came to a man that was chopping wood by the roadside, and inquired, "Which way is the Hessian picket?" "I don't know was the surly reply." You may tell," said Captain Forest of the artillery, 'for that is General Washington" The aspect of the man changed in on instant. Raising his hands to heaven, 'God bless and prosper you!" cried he. "The picket is in that house and the sentry stands near that tree."

The advance guard was led by a brave young officer, Captain William A. Washington, seconded by Lieutenant James Monroe (in after years President of the United States). They received orders to dislodge the picket. Here happened to be stationed the very lieutenant whose censures of the negligence of Colonel Rahl we have just quoted. By his own account, he was very near being entrapped in the guard-house. His sentries, he says, were not alert enough; and had he not stepped out of the picket-house himself, and discovered the enemy. they would have been upon him before his men could scramble to their arms. Der feind! der feind! heraus! heraus! (the enemy! the enemy! turn out! turn out!)" was now the cry. He at first, he says, made a stand, thinking he had a mere marauding party to deal with but, seeing heavy battalions at hand, gave way, and fell back upon a company stationed to support the picket but which appears to have been no bettor prepared against surprise.

By this time the American artillery was unlimbered, Washington kept beside it, and the column proceeded. The report of firearms told that Sullivan was at the lower and of the town. Colonel Stark led his advanced guard, and did it in gallant style. The attacks, as concerted, were simultaneous. The outposts were driven in; they retreated, firing from behind houses. The Hessian drums beat to arms; the trumpets of the light-horse sounded the alarm; the whole place was in an uproar. Some of the enemy made a wild and undirected fire from the windows of their quarters; others rushed forward in disorder, and attempted to form in the main street, while dragoons hastily mounted, and galloping about, added to the confusion.

Washington advanced with his column to the head of King Street; riding beside Captain Forest of the artillery. When Forest's battalion of six guns was opened, the general kept on the left end advanced with it giving directions to the fire. His position was an exposed one, and he was repeatedly entreated to fall bank; but all such entreaties wore useless, when once he became heated in action.

The enemy were training a couple of cannon in the main street to form a battery, which might have given the Americans a serious check; but Captain Washington and Lieutenant Monroe, with a part of the advanced guard, rushed forward, drove the artillerist from their guns, and took the two pieces when on the point of being fired. Both of these officers were wounded; the captain in the wrist, the lieutenant in the shoulder.

While Washington advanced on the north of the town, Sullivan approached on the west, and detached Stark to press on the lower or south end of the town. The British light horse, and abut five hundred Hessians and chasseurs, had been quartered in the lower part of the town. Seeing Washington's column pressing in front, and hearing Stark thundering in their rear, they took headlong flight by the bridge across the Assunpink, and so along the banks of the Delaware toward Count Donop's encampment at Bordentown. Had Washington's plan been carried into full effect, their retreat would have been cut off by General Ewing; but that officer had been prevented from crossing the river by the ice.

Colonel Rahl, according to the account of the lieutenant who had commanded the picket, completely lost his head in the confusion of the surprise. The latter, when driven In by the American advance, found the colonel on horseback, endeavoring to rally his panic stricken and disordered men, but himself sorely bewildered. He asked the lieutenant what was the force of the assailants. The latter answered that he had seen four or five battalions in the woods; three of them had fired upon him before he had retreated -"but," added he, "there are other troops to the right and left, and the town will soon be surrounded." The colonel rode in front of his troops - "Forward! march! Advance! advance!" cried he. With some difficulty he succeeded in extricating his troops from the town, and leading them into an adjacent orchard. Now was the time, writes the lieutenant for him to have pushed for another place, there to make a stand.

At this critical moment he might have done so with credit and without loss. The colonel seems to have had such an intention. A rapid retreat by the Princeton road was apparently in his thoughts; but he lacked decision. The idea of flying before the rebels was intolerable. Some one, too, exclaimed at the ruinous lose of leaving all their baggage to be plundered by the enemy. Changing his mind, he made a rash resolve. "All Who are my grenadiers, forward!" cried! he, and went back, writes his corporal, like a storm upon the town. ''What madness was this!'' writes the critical lieutenant. "A town that was of no use to us; that but ten or fifteen minutes before he had gladly left; that was now filled with three or four thousand enemies, stationed in houses or behind walls and hedges, and a battery of six cannon planted on the main street. And he to think of retaking it with his six or seven hundred men and their bayonets!"

Still he led his grenadiers bravely but rashly on, when, in the midst of his career, he received a fatal wound from a musket-ball and fell from his horse, His men, left without their chief, were struck with dismay; heedless of the orders of the second in command, they retreated by the right up the banks of the Assunpink, intending to escape to Princeton. Washington saw their design, and threw Colonel Hand's corps of Pennsylvania riflemen in their way; while a body of Virginia troops gained their left. Brought to a stand, and perfectly bewildered, Washington thought they were forming in order of battle, and ordered a discharge of canister shot. "Sir, they have struck" exclaimed Forest. "Struck' echoed the general. "Yes, sir, their colors are down." 'So they are!" replied Washington, and spurred in that direction, followed by Forest and his whole command. The men grounded their arms and surrendered at discretion; 'but had not Colonel Rahl been severely wounded," remarks his loyal corporal, "we would never have been taken alive!''

The Aftermath

The skirmishing had now ceased in every direction. Major Wilkinson, who was with the lower column, was sent to the commander-in-chief for orders. He rode up, he says, at the moment that Colonel Rahl, supported by a file of sergeants, was presenting his sword. "On my approach" continues he, "the commander-in-chief took 'me by the hand, and observed, 'Major Wilkinson, this is a glorious day for our country!' his countenance beaming with complacency; while the unfortunate Rahl, who the day before would not have changed fortunes with him, now pale, bleeding and covered with blood, in broken accents seemed to implore those attentions which the victor was well disposed to bestow on him."

He was, in fact, conveyed with great care to his quarters, In which were in the house of a kind and respectable Quaker family.

The number of prisoners taken in this affair was nearly one thousand, of which thirty-two were officers. The veteran Major Von Dechow, who had urged in vain the throwing up of breastworks. received a mortal wound, of which he died in Trenton. Washington’s triumph, however was impaired by the failure of the two simultaneous attacks. General Ewing, who was to have crossed before day at Trenton Ferry, and taken possession of the bridge leading out of the town, over which the light-horse and Hessians retreated, was prevented by the quantity of ice in the river. Cadwalader was hindered by the same obstacle, he got part of his troops over, but found it impossible to embark his cannon, and was obliged, therefore, to return to the Pennsylvania side of the river. Had he and Ewing crossed, Donop's quarters would have been beaten up, and the fugitives from Trenton intercepted.

By the failure of this part of his plan, Washington had been exposed to the most imminent hazard. The force with which he had crossed, twenty-four hundred men, raw troops, was net enough to cope with the veteran garrison, had it been properly on its guard; and then there were the troops under Donop at hand co-operate with it. Nothing saved him but the utter panic of the enemy; their want of proper alarm places, and their exaggerated idea of his forces: for one of the journals before us (the corporal's) states that he had, with him fifteen thousand men, and another six thousand.(2) Even now that the place was in his possession he dared not linger in it.

There was a superior force under Donop below him, and a strong battalion of infantry at Princeton. His own troops were exhausted by the operations of the night and morning in cold, rain, snow and storm. They had to guard about a thousand prisoners, taken in action, or found concealed in houses there was little prospect of succor owing to the season and the state of the river. Washington gave up, therefore, all idea of immediately pursuing the enemy or keeping possession of Trenton, and determined to recross the Delaware with his prisoners and captured artillery. Understanding that the brave but unfortunate Rahl was in a dying state, he paid him a visit before leaving Trenton, accompanied by General Greene. They found him at his quarters in the house of a Quaker family. Their visit and the respectful consideration and unaffected sympathy manifested by them, evidently soothed the feelings of the unfortunate soldier; now stripped of his late-won laurels, and resigned to die rather than outlive his honors. We have given a somewhat sarcastic portrait of the colonel drawn by one of his lieutenants; another, Lieutenant Piel, paints with a soberer and more reliable pencil.

"For our whole ill luck'," writes he, "we have to thank Colonel Rahl. It never occurred to him that the rebels might attack us; and, therefore, he had taken scarce any precautions against such an event. In truth I must confess we have universally thought too little of the rebels, who, until now, have never on any occasion been able to with stand us. Our brigadier (Rahl) was too proud to retire a step before such an enemy, although nothing remained for us but to retreat.

General Howe had Judged this man from a wrong point of view, or he would hardly have intrusted such an important post as Trenton to him. Re was formed for a soldier, hut not for a general. At the capture of Fort Washington he had gained much honor while under the command of a great general but he lost all his renown at Trenton where he himself was general. He had courage to dare the hardiest enterprise but he alone wanted the cool presence of mind necessary in a surprise like that at Trenton. His vivacity was too great; one thought crowded on another, so that he could come to no decision. Considered as a private man, he was deserving of high regard. He was generous, open handed, hospitable; never cringing to his superiors, nor arrogant to his inferiors but courteous to all. Even his domestics were treated more like friends than Servants."

The loyal corporal, to, contributes his mite of praise to his dying commander. "In his last agony," writes the grateful soldier, "he yet thought of his grenadiers, and entreated General Washington that nothing might be taken from them but their arms. A promise was given," adds the corporal, ''and was kept.''

Even the satirical lieutenant half mourns over his memory. "He died," says he, "on the following evening, and lies buried in this place which he has rendered so famous, in the graveyard of the Presbyterian church. Sleep well dear Commander. (theurer Feldherr) The Americans will here after set up a stone above thy grave with This inscription.

''Hier liegt der Oberst Rahl, Mit ihm ist alles all!

(Here lies tie Colonel Rahl With him all is over.)" 

1. Who it was that made this attack on the outpost is not entirely ascertained. The Hessian lieutenant who commanded at the picket says it was a patrol sent out by Washington, under command of a captain, to reconnoiter, with strict orders not to engage, but if discovered to retire instantly as silently as possible. Colonel Reed, in a memorandum, says it was an advance party returning from the Jerseys to Pennsylvania. See - Life and Correspondence, vol. I., p. 217.

2. The lieutenant gives the latter number on the authority of Lord Stirling; but his lordship meant the whole number of men intended for the three several attacks. The force that actually crossed with Washington was what we have stated.

pp. 314-326 Life of George Washington, Part II, by Washington Irving, P.F. Collier & Son, New York, Copyright 1904.