When the sun rose on December 1, 1776, morale in the Continental Army was so low, it could have walked under a snake’s belly wearing a dusty top hat and none of the dust would have brushed off. They had recently been forced from New York by British troops and the Hessian auxiliaries and now beat a retreat to New Jersey.
If this wasn’t enough, approximately 90% of the soldiers in the Continental Army had thrown in the towel and headed home. Washington was left with about 2,400 troops under the command of Major Generals John Sullivan and Nathanial Greene, along with Brigadier General Henry Knox commanding the artillery.
Though facing unspeakable odds with little help, General George Washington refused to admit defeat. His determination and the faithfulness of the troops who stayed with him resulted in the greatest military feat of the American Revolution.
As the Continental Army began to devise their plan of attack, the decision was made to bring it in from three different directions. General James Ewing was assigned 700 troops to cross the river at Trenton Ferry. Their job would be to seize the bridge spanning the Assunpink Creek and thwart the escape of enemy troops. General John Cadwalader’s forces were to launch a diversionary attack at Bordentown, NJ against the British garrison there. The main assault force would be based north of Trenton.
The week prior to the planned battle was populated with numerous ambushes on the enemy’s cavalry patrols. They captured a number of dispatch riders and attacked Hessian pickets. Following Washington’s orders, the Pennsylvania militia, led by General Ewing, was ordered to seize the bridge over Assunpink Creek to prevent enemy troops from escaping, in addition to collecting information on the Hessians movements.
Under the cover of darkness on December 25, 1776, Washington took 2,400 men across the Delaware River, beginning their journey at McKinley’s Ferry. At this point, the river was 850’ wide; armed with ice floes and a strong current to enhance the mission’s danger. In an effort to get as many soldiers across the river in the shortest amount of time, the troops stood in the boats rather than sitting down. Washington went with the first group. The plans were to have everyone on the other side by midnight, but given the best laid plans of mice and men – the crossing continued until 3:00 a.m.
What Washington was unaware of at the time was his group would be the only one to fully cross the river that night. Ewing called off his group’s crossing due to the river’s ice. Joseph Reed, leader of the third group, was able to get a number of his troops across, but discontinued the effort when they could not get their cannon across. As a result, two of the three planned attacks never took place. If this was not bad enough, weather problems still plagued Washington. A combination of driving rain, hail, sleet and snow pelted the troops, resulting in two of the troops freezing to death.
As the troops neared Trenton, General John Sullivan led a portion of them by the River Road and General Washington’s group traveled Pennington Road. – the goal being to converge on Trenton. By 8:00 a.m. on Christmas morning – an hour before daylight – the troops were in position.
The trials the Continental Army faced in their march to Trenton enhanced the outcome for the Americans because it served to conceal the Americans from the British. Surprising the enemy the way they did lead to a very important victory for the Americans in several ways:
- Washington’s forces had defeated a regular army in the field for the first time.
- The American losses were minimal, with only two soldiers dying due to exposure, none due to enemy fire. The Hessians, on the other hand, suffered 100+ casualties, in addition to having 900 of their soldiers captured. Several hundred Hessians escaped and presumably became American farmers and tradesmen.
- Washington also gained a number of spoils from the enemy – six cannons, 40 horses and a vast array of supplies. These were quickly transported to Pennsylvania.
- Washington’s command was solidified as a result of this battle. An increasing number of Congressional delegates doubted his abilities; however, following the Battle of Trenton, those critics were quickly silenced when news of the victory reached Baltimore.
- The victory also served to sharply increase troop morale. Recruitment of new enlistments was energized and many of the troops who were already a part of the military reenlisted.
- This victory also enabled Washington to execute his next daring plan — the attack on Princeton, which would occur on January 3.