Hero Tales From American History – The Battle of Trenton
THE BATTLE OF TRENTON
by Henry Cabot Lodge
And such they are — and such they will be found: Not so Leonidas and Washington, Their every battle-field is holy ground Which breathes of nations saved, not worlds undone. How sweetly on the ear such echoes sound I While the mere victor’s may appall or stun The servile and the vain, such names will be a watchword till the future shall be free.
– By Byron
IN December, 1776, the American Revolution was at its lowest ebb. The first burst of enthusiasm, which drove the British back from Concord and met them hand to hand at Bunker Hill, which forced them to abandon Boston and repulsed their attack at Charleston, had spent its force. The undisciplined American forces called suddenly from the workshop and the farm had given way, under the strain of a prolonged contest, and had been greatly scattered, many of the soldiers returning to their homes. The power of England, on the other hand, with her disciplined army and abundant resources, had begun to tell. Washington, fighting stubbornly, had been driven during the summer and autumn from Long Island up the Hudson, and New York had passed into the hands of the British. Then Forts Lee and Washington had been lost, and finally the Continental army had retreated to New Jersey.
On the second of December Washington was at Princeton with some three thousand ragged soldiers, and had escaped destruction only by the rapidity of his movements. By the middle of the month General Howe felt that the American army, unable as he believed either to fight or to withstand the winter, must soon dissolve, and, posting strong detachments at various points, he took up his winter quarters in New York. The British general had under his command in his various divisions twenty-five thou- sand well-disciplined soldiers, and the conclusion he had reached was not an unreasonable one ; everything, in fact, seemed to confirm his opinion. Thousands of the colonists were coming in and accepting his amnesty. The American militia had left the field, and no more would turn out, despite Washington’s earnest appeals. All that remained of the American Revolution was the little Continental army and the man who led it. Yet even in this dark hour Washington did not despair. He sent in every direction for troops. Nothing was forgotten. Nothing that he could do was left undone. Unceasingly he urged action upon Congress, and at the same time with indomitable fighting spirit he planned to attack the British. It was a desperate undertaking in the face of such heavy odds, for in all his divisions he had only some six thousand men, and even these were scattered. The single hope was that by his own skill and courage he could snatch victory from a situation where victory seemed impossible. With the instinct of a great commander he saw that his only chance was to fight the British detachments suddenly, unexpectedly, and separately, and to do this not only required secrecy and perfect judgment, but also the cool, unwavering courage of which, under such circumstances, very few men have proved themselves capable. As Christmas approached his plans were ready. He determined to fall upon the British detachment of Hessians, under Colonel Rahl, at Trenton, and there strike his first blow. To each division of his little army a part in the attack was assigned with careful fore-thought. Nothing was overlooked and nothing omitted, and then, for some reason good or bad, every one of the division commanders failed to do his part. As the general plan was arranged. Gates was to march from Bristol with two thousand men ; Ewing was to cross at Trenton; Putnam was to come up from Philadelphia; and Griffin was to make a diversion against Donop. When the moment came, Gates, who disapproved the plan, was on his way to Congress; Griffin abandoned New Jersey and fled before Donop; Putnam did not attempt to leave Philadelphia ; and Ewing made no effort to cross at Trenton. Cadwalader came down from Bristol, looked at the river and the floating ice, and then gave it up as desperate. Nothing remained except Washington himself with the main army, but he neither gave up, nor hesitated, nor stopped on account of the ice, or the river, or the perils which lay beyond.
Washington Crossing The Delaware by Emanuel Leutze [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On Christmas Eve, when all the Christian world was feasting and rejoicing, and while the British were enjoying themselves in their comfortable quarters, Washington set out. With twenty-four hundred men he crossed the Delaware through the floating ice, his boats managed and rowed by the sturdy fishermen of Marblehead from Glover’s regiment. The crossing was successful, and he landed about nine miles from Trenton. It was bitter cold, and the sleet and snow drove sharply in the faces of the troops. Sullivan, marching by the river, sent word that the arms of his soldiers were wet. ” Tell your general,” was Washington’s reply to the message, ” to use the bayonet, for the town must be taken.”
Passage of The Delaware Painting by Thomas Sully [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When they reached Trenton it was broad daylight. Washington, at the front and on the right of the line, swept down the Pennington road, and, as he drove back the Hessian pickets, he heard the shout of Sullivan’s men as, with Stark leading the van, they charged in from the river. A company of jaegers and of light dragoons slipped away. There was some fighting in the streets, but the attack was so strong and well calculated that resistance was useless. Colonel Rahl, the British commander, aroused from his revels, was killed as he rushed out to rally his men, and in a few moments all was over.
Battle of Trenton By Published by U.S. Government Printing Office; painting by Hugh Charles McBarron, Jr. (1902-1992) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A thousand prisoners fell into Washington’s hands, and this important detachment of the enemy was cut off and destroyed.
Washington inspecting the colors after The Battle of Trenton by Edward Percy Moran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The news of Trenton alarmed the British, and Lord Cornwallis with seven thousand of the best troops started at once from New York in hot pursuit of the American army. Washington, who had now rallied some five thousand men, fell back, skirmishing heavily, behind the Assunpink, and when Cornwallis reached the river he found the American army awaiting him on the other side of the stream. Night was falling, and Cornwallis, feeling sure of his prey, decided that he would not risk an assault until the next morning. Many lessons had not yet taught him that it was a fatal business to give even twelve hours to the great soldier opposed to him. During the night Washington, leaving his fires burning and taking a roundabout road which he had already reconnoitered, marched to Princeton. There he struck another British detachment. A sharp fight ensued, the British division was broken and defeated, losing some five hundred men, and Washington withdrew after this second victory to the highlands of New Jersey to rest and recruit. Frederick the Great is reported to have said that this was the most brilliant campaign of the century. With a force very much smaller than that of the enemy, Washington had succeeded in Striking the British at two places with superior forces at each point of contact. At Trenton he had the benefit of a surprise, but the second time he was between two hostile armies.
Washington rallying the troops at The Battle of Princeton by William Ranney [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He was ready to fight Cornwallis when the latter reached the Assunpink, trusting to the strength of his position to make up for his inferiority of numbers. But when Cornwallis gave him the delay of a night, Washington, seeing the advantage offered by his enemy’s mistake, at once changed his whole plan, and, turning in his tracks, fell upon the smaller of the two forces opposed to him, wrecking and defeating it before the outgeneraled Cornwallis could get up with the main army. Washington had thus shown the highest form of military skill, for there is nothing that requires so much judgment and knowledge, so much certainty of movement and quick decision, as to meet a superior enemy at different points, force the fighting, and at each point to outnumber and over- whelm him. But the military part of this great campaign was not all. Many great soldiers have not been statesmen, and have failed to realize the political necessities of the situation. Washington presented the rare combination of a great soldier and a great statesman as well. He aimed not only to win battles, but by his operations in the field to influence the political situation and affect public opinion. The American Revolution was going to pieces. Unless some decisive victory could be won immediately, it would have come to an end in the winter of 1776-77. This Washington knew, and it was this which nerved his arm. The results justified his forethought. The victories of Trenton and Princeton restored the failing spirits of the people, and, what was hardly less important, produced a deep impression in Europe in favor of the colonies. The country, which had lost heart, and become supine and almost hostile, revived. The militia again took the field. Outlying parties of the British were attacked and cut off, and recruits once more began to come in to the Continental army. The Revolution was saved. That the English colonies in North America would have broken away from the mother country sooner or later cannot be doubted, but that particular Revolution of 1776 would have failed within a year, had it not been for Washington. It is not, however, merely the fact that he was a great soldier and statesman which we should remember. The most memorable thing to us, and to all men, is the heroic spirit of the man, which rose in those dreary December days to its greatest height, under conditions so adverse that they had crushed the hope of every one else. Let it be remembered, also, that it was not a spirit of desperation or of ignorance, a reckless daring which did not count the cost. No one knew better than Washington — no one, indeed, so well — the exact state of affairs ; for he, conspicuously among great men, always looked facts fearlessly in the face, and never deceived himself He was under no illusions, and it was this high quality of mind as much as any other which enabled him to win victories. How he really felt we know from what he wrote to Congress on December 20, when he said: ” It may be thought that I am going a good deal out of the line of my duty to adopt these measures or to advise thus freely. A character to lose, an estate to forfeit, the inestimable blessing of liberty at stake, and a life devoted, must be my excuse.” These were the thoughts in his mind when he was planning this masterly campaign. These same thoughts, we may readily believe, were with him when his boat was making its way through the ice of the Delaware on Christmas Eve. It was a very solemn moment, and he was the only man in the darkness of that night who fully understood what was at stake ; but then, as always, he was calm and serious, with a high courage which nothing could depress. The familiar picture of a later day depicts Washington crossing the Delaware at the head of his soldiers. He is standing up in the boat, looking forward in the teeth of the storm. It matters little whether the work of the painter is in exact accordance with the real scene or not. The daring courage, the high resolve, the stern look forward and onward, which the artist strove to show in the great leader, are all vitally true. For we may be sure that the man who led that well-planned but desperate assault, surrounded by darker conditions than the storms of nature which gathered about his boat, and carrying with him the fortunes of his country, was at that moment one of the most heroic figures in history.
Surrender of the Hessian Troops by John Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons