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The Battle of Princeton

Battle: Princeton

War: American Revolutionary War

Date: 3rd January 1777

17th Regiment at Princeton
The British 17th Regiment under Colonel Mawhood attacking the Americans at Princeton

Place: Princeton in New Jersey, USA

Combatants: Americans against the British

Generals: General George Washington against Major General Lord Cornwallis

Size of the armies: 7,000 Americans against 8,000 British and Hessians although only 1,200 British troops were principally engaged.

Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British wore red coats and headgear of bearskin caps, leather caps or tricorne hats depending on whether the troops were grenadiers, light infantry or battalion company men. The two regiments of light dragoons serving in America, the 16th and 17th, wore red coats and leather crested helmets. The German infantry wore blue coats and retained the Prussian style grenadier mitre with brass front plate. The Americans dressed as best they could. Increasingly as the war progressed regular infantry regiments of the Continental Army wore blue uniform coats but the militia continued in rough clothing. Both sides were armed with muskets and guns. The Pennsylvania regiments carried long, small calibre, rifled weapons.

The Battle of Princeton 3rd January 1777
Map of the Battle of Princeton 1777

The Americans outmanoeuvred the British and escaped Cornwallis’ encircling move, although the troops of Mawhood’s two regiments, the 17th and 55th Foot, must be considered the heroes of the battle.

British Regiments:
The only regiments actively engaged in the battle were:
16th Light Dragoons, later the 16th/5th Queen’s Royal Lancers and now the Queen’s Royal Lancers
17th Foot, later the Royal Leicestershire Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment
40th Foot, the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment
55th Foot, later the Border Regiment and now the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment

17th Foot
The British 17th Regiment of Foot

Following the surprise of the Hessians under Colonel Rall at Trenton on 26th December 1776, General Washington withdrew to the west bank of the Delaware River. He intended to return within a few days and attempt a recovery of New Jersey from the British. Meanwhile, hearing of the Trenton success, Brigadier Cadwalader crossed the river to the east bank where he found his force to be unsupported.

British Grenadiers at Princeton
British Grenadiers

Between 29th and 31st December 1776 Washington brought his troops back across the river into Trenton. He there received information that Lord Cornwallis and Major General Grant were at Princeton with 8,000 British troops and artillery and about to advance upon him. Washington force numbered 1,500 soldiers. Cadwalader was south of Trenton with 2,100 men, while at Bordenton General Mifflin waited with 1,600 Pennsylvania militia.

Washington faced the curious crisis that arose on several occasions during the war, that many of his soldiers were about to become “time expired”. That is their period of enlistment lapsed at midnight on 31st December 1776. With some frantic bargaining many of these men were persuaded to stay for a further six weeks.

Washington’s army could be categorised as either recently embodied militia, well dressed and fed, but almost devoid of training or experience, or Continentals, experienced and hardy, but almost destitute and exhausted.

General Washington leads the attack at the Battle of Princeton

On 2nd January 1777 Cornwallis advanced with his British troops from Princeton towards Trenton, leaving Lieutenant Colonel Mawhood with the 40th, 17th and 55th Foot at Princeton and General Leslie with the 2nd Brigade at Maidenhead on the Trenton road. Cornwallis continued with 5,500 troops and 28 guns up to the size of 12 pounder.

In position to the South West of Maidenhead on the Trenton road were Fermoy’s brigade, Colonel Hand’s Pennsylvania riflemen, a German battalion, Scott’s Virginia Continentals and two guns.

The weather was wet and the roads muddy. Cornwallis advanced, driving the American force back to Trenton. Resisting strongly the American troops were forced back through the town to their positions on the south bank of the Assunpink. Attempts were made that evening by the British to cross the creek and force the American lines, but in the face of stiff resistance were postponed to the morning.

Following a council of war Washington resolved to move before his army was attacked and overwhelmed the next day. In the middle of the night the Americans left fires burning and marched off to the East and then to the North towards Princeton.

A British Grenadier at the Battle of Princeton
A British Grenadier

Light infantry led the column followed by Brigadier Mercer’s brigade. The road was a new one and led through dense woods curving over the river and to the North. As the troops marched a cold wind set in, freezing the muddy roads and aiding movement.

As the Americans approached the Princeton road a rumour passed along the column that the Hessians were attacking. Some of the inexperienced militia turned and fled south. Soon afterwards the column split, with Mercer’s and Cadwalader’s men turning west towards Trenton in case Cornwallis’s regiments came up, the rest continuing towards Princeton.

At dawn that day a British force had set out from Princeton to march to Maidenhead and join General Leslie, comprising the 17th Foot, the 55th Foot and a troop of the 16th Light Dragoons, all commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Mawhood. In the early morning mist the British mistook Mercer’s Americans for Hessians and then for a small party of Americans they assumed must be fleeing from Cornwallis. Realising his error Mawhood attempted to position his force in an orchard and a fierce fight developed around the orchard against the Americans that had already occupied it. Each side brought two cannon into action.

After an exchange of volleys Mawhood ordered his men to charge and the Americans, largely lacking bayonets, fell back. Mercer attempted to rally his brigade but was struck down and mortally wounded with a number of his officers.

The death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton

Seeing Cadwalader’s men coming up Mawhood fell back to the support of his guns and with their discharges of grape shot dispersed the advancing Americans.

General Washington rode up and attempted to rally the survivors of the two brigades, but without success. That is until support arrived from Sullivan’s division: Rhode Island Continentals, Pennsylvania Riflemen and the 7th Virginia Continentals. The Americans renewed the attack on Mawhood’s hard pressed troops.

The two guns that had accompanied Mercer had not retreated and were still in action. The new assault came up and the fire on the British foot was redoubled. Assailed by overwhelming numbers Mawhood ordered his men to charge and the 17th and 55th Foot broke through with the bayonet and, covered by the light dragoons, fought their way down the road towards Maidenhead.

Some of the 55th fell back in the other direction, towards Princeton where they joined the 40th. Most of these two regiments hurried away north towards New Brunswick, but a number of soldiers took refuge in the Nassau Hall in Princeton where they later surrendered to Captain Alexander Hamilton; 194 in number.

Washington pursued Mawhood down the Trenton road until he found himself confronted by the returning troops of Cornwallis’s main force. Washington turned and marched hurriedly for Princeton, leaving the two British guns that had been taken on the field. Cornwallis’s advance was swift and the Americans were forced to march on from Princeton without securing the extensive supplies the British had stored in the town. The American army marched up the New Brunswick road, but turned off to Morristown. The British continued to New Brunswick, now their only position in New Jersey.

Casualties were not heavy. The British lost only 40 dead, 58 wounded and 187 missing. The Americans lost a number of able officers: General Mercer, Colonel Haslet and several others. They also lost 40 soldiers killed and wounded.

The effect of the battles of Trenton and Princeton were to clear most of New Jersey of the British presence. The battles impressed upon the European powers that the Americans were able to confront the British Army and the decisive intervention of France and Spain in the Revolutionary War came a step closer.

General Washington showed himself to be a leader of resource and decision.

Anecdotes and traditions:
Hugh Mercer, killed leading his brigade, had served with George Washington at Fort Necessity and then in 1755 in General Braddock’s army as a captain of Virginian Carpenters.