The Battle of Princeton
War: American Revolutionary War
Date: 3rd January 1777
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
Size of the armies: 7,000 Americans against 8,000 British and
Hessians although only 1,200 British troops were principally
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
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.
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
40th Foot, the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s
55th Foot, later the Border Regiment and now the King’s Own Royal
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
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
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
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.