The Battle of Trenton

Battle: Trenton

War: American Revolution

Date: 25th December 1776

Place: Trenton, New Jersey on the Delaware River

Combatants: Americans against Hessians and British troops

Generals: General George Washington against Colonel Rahl.

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George Washington crossing the Delaware at the Battle of Trenton
General George Washington crossing the Delaware at the
Battle of Trenton on Christmas night 1776

Buy this striking picture by Emmanuel Leutze

Size of the armies:
2,400 American troops with 18 guns. 1,400 Hessians with 6 light guns.

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British 16th Light Dragoons 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.

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Hessian Commander Colonel Rahl surrenders to George Washington during the Battle of Trenton
Hessian Commander Colonel Rahl surrenders to
George Washington during the Battle of Trenton

Click to buy this iconic illustration of the Battle of Trenton

 

Winner: The battle was a resounding physical and moral victory for Washington and his American troops.

British Regiments:
Only a troop of 16th Light Dragoons who left the town at the onset of the fighting.

Account:
After being driven out of New York by the British and forced to retreat to the West bank of the Delaware during the late summer of 1776, the American cause was at a low ebb. In the harsh winter Washington was faced with the annual crisis of the expiry of the Continental Army’s period of enlistment. He resolved to attack the Hessian position at Trenton on the extreme southern end of the over extended British line along the Delaware, before his army dispersed.

Washington’s plan was to cross the Delaware at three points with a force commanded by Lt Col Cadwallader with a Rhode Island regiment, some Pennsylvanians, Delaware militia and two guns, a second force under Brigadier Ewing of militia and the third commanded by himself which would cross the river above Trenton and attack the Hessian garrison in the town. Washington had as his subordinates, Major Generals Nathaniel Greene and John Sullivan.

8th Continental
The US 8th Continental Regiment - fought in the siege of Boston,
Lake Champlain, Trenton, Princeton, Saratoga, Monmouth  and Yorktown

Washington had some 2,400 men from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

The force paraded in the afternoon and set off for the Delaware where they embarked in a flotilla of the characteristic Delaware river boats.

It was a cold dark night and the river was running with flowing ice. At about 11pm a heavy snow and sleet storm broke. Washington’s force did not reach the east bank until around 3am. His soldiers were badly clothed and many did not have shoes.

Washington’s men then marched to Trenton, some of the men leaving traces of blood on the snow.

The German garrison comprised the regiments of Rahl, Knyphausen and Lossberg, with Hessian jagers and a troop of the British 16th Light Dragoons.

The Hessian commander Colonel Rahl had been ordered to construct defence works around the town but had not troubled to do so. On the night before the attack Rahl was at dinner when he was brought information that the Americans were approaching. He ignored the message which was found in his pocket after his death. 

Battle of Trenton
A map of the Battle of Trenton

The main American force under Washington entered Trenton from the North-West. Sullivan marched around the town and attacked from the South. The remainder took a position to the North East cutting off the Hessians’ retreat.

Surrender of Colonel Rahl Hessian Commander
The surrender to General George Washington of the dying
Hessian commander, Colonel Rahl, at the Battle of Trenton

One of the American artillery sections was commanded by Captain Alexander Hamilton. Captain William Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe were wounded in the battle, the only American officer casualties.

Battle in the streets of Trenton
Battle in the Streets of Trenton

The Hessians attempted to form in the town but were under artillery fire and attack from front and rear. The Americans occupied the houses and shot down the German gunners and foot soldiers during which Colonel Rahl was fatally wounded. Rahl’s troops retreated to an orchard in the South East of the town where they surrendered.

Ewing and Cadwallader failed to make the river crossing and took no part in the attack.
Casualties: The Americans suffered 4 wounded casualties. It is said that in addition two American soldiers froze to death. The Hessians suffered 20 killed and around 100 wounded. 1,000 were captured.

General Washington
General Washington leading the attack at the Battle of Trenton

Follow-up:
The effect of the battle of Trenton was out of all proportion to the numbers involved and the casualties. The American effort across the colonies was galvanized and the psychological dominance achieved by the British in the preceding year overturned. Howe was stunned that a strong German contingent could be surprised in such a manner and put up so little resistance. Washington’s constant problem was to maintain the enthusiasm of his army for the war, particularly with the system of one year recruitment and Trenton proved a much needed encouragement.

Tradition:

  • Washington’s army crossing the Delaware in the freezing conditions has become an important national image for the United States as can be seen in Emmanuel Leutze’s picture.
  • Present at the battle were: two other future presidents James Madison and James Monroe, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

Washington Accepts
General Washington accepts the surrender of Colonel Rahl's Hessian troops.

References:

  • History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
  • The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward