To Save the Revolution: George Washington and the Trenton-Princeton Campaign
Mounted atop a stunning white horse, General George Washington watched as his lead American units were driven back by bold British bayonets near Princeton, New Jersey on January 3, 1777. Breathing in the cold winter air, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army had come much too far to allow his army to crumble now. Once again, it was up to him to brave every danger of the battlefield and lead his soldiers from the front. With fresh troops rallied behind him, General Washington rode forward in the face of the enemy’s fire, personally coming to within 30 yards of the British line at one point. Drawing strength from the faith and fearlessness of their commander, the American reinforcements soon turned the tide. Washington’s counterattack cracked the British line and Crown soldiers were sent fleeing. “It is a fine fox chase my boys!” shouted Washington to his men as the enemy melted away before them. At the Battle of Princeton, Washington and the Continentals would go on to secure their second major battlefield victory in the span of 10 days, sealing one of the most audacious campaigns in military history and saving the American Revolution from ruin.
General Washington’s defeated and dispirited Continental Army was the picture of desperation in December 1776. Since being driven from New York City earlier that fall, the Continentals had suffered one crushing setback after another. Following an exhausting retreat across New Jersey, Washington and his beleaguered soldiers eventually crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, where the army fought for survival under miserable conditions. The Commander-in-Chief reported that some of his troops were “so thinly clad as to be unfit for service,” and another officer described his starving comrades as resembling “animated scarecrows.”
With the British appearing to be on the imminent brink of victory in the Revolutionary War, many lost hope in the fight for American Independence. As historian Richard Brookhiser adds, “the British were offering pardons to all in New Jersey who would rally to the crown and finding many takers,” including one signer of the Declaration of Independence.
During this dark time, the famous writer and Patriot Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of men and women.” With the fate of America’s destiny hanging in the balance, General Washington proceeded to launch a daring operation to strike the enemy and prevent the flaming torch of American liberty from being extinguished forever. The password for this secret mission said it all: “Victory or Death.”
On Christmas night 1776, the Commander-in-Chief and his troops left their frigid Pennsylvania encampments and crossed the ice-chocked Delaware River in the middle of a severe winter storm. After making it over to New Jersey, Washington and his band of 2,400 soldiers marched ten difficult miles to reach the town of Trenton, where they routed a garrison of 1,500 Hessian mercenaries on the morning of December 26. “This is a glorious day for our country,” said General Washington as he grabbed the hand of a young officer. In forty-five minutes or less, his men had finally conquered the enemy. Adding more meaning to the victory was the fact that not one American was killed during the battle. The clash resulted in the wounding of Four Americans, including the future fifth President of the United States, James Monroe, but as historian David McCullough records, the only fatalities during the operation were “two soldiers who had frozen to death” earlier that night during the perilous nighttime march to Trenton.
Washington and his soldiers crossing the ice-chocked Delaware River in the middle of a severe winter storm on Christmas night 1776. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)
The victorious Americans quickly returned to Pennsylvania, but rather than retiring to winter quarters to rest up until the next fighting season, Washington decided to strike the enemy again. Another hazardous crossing of the Delaware was made and Washington’s troops returned to the scene of their recent triumph. Before the fight could go on, however, the Commander-in-Chief had to make an urgent appeal to many of his best soldiers to stay with the army. With their enlistments about to expire, veteran American troops had earned a path back to their homes, but Washington simply could not afford to lose them. “My brave fellows,” he told his warriors, “you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.” Between those stirring words and the efforts of Robert Morris, a wealthy Philadelphia financier who rushed Washington funds to pay his soldiers, historian John Ferling records that, “Slightly more than half of those who were about to go home agreed to stay on.”
Washington and his troops quickly found themselves engaged against a British force under General Charles Cornwallis at the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777. The Commander-in-Chief had established a defensive line just outside of Trenton on a slope behind the Assunpink Creek and sharp fighting took place as Cornwallis’s men pushed through the town and tried to storm the Assunpink’s crossing points. The Continentals managed to repulse the enemy’s efforts, killing several hundred Redcoats and Hessians in the process.
With a renewed effort, Cornwallis hoped to finish off the stubborn Americans the following day. “We’ve got the Old Fox safe now,” said Cornwallis in response to an officer who suggested that Washington and his troops might escape. “We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” As it turned out, however, the “Old Fox” did indeed slip away, and he would make the British pay once more.
To give the British the impression that his army was settling in for the night, Washington left troops behind to keep the campfires burning and to give other impressions of activity while he pulled away under the over of darkness with his main force. Another agonizing ordeal awaited the soldiers of the Continental Army as they followed their commander on a frigid 12-mile march down dark and icy lanes to strike Cornwallis’s rear guard at Princeton, New Jersey.
On the morning of January 3, 1777, Washington’s lead elements ran into British troops marching to reinforce Cornwallis. It was when the outnumbered Redcoats were gaining the advantage over the Americans at the end of their bayonets that the Commander-in-Chief rallied his troops astride his terrific white horse and personally led a counterattack that turned the tide of battle. As one young American officer described Washington’s courage under fire during the engagement: “I shall never forget what I felt … when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.”
General George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
By the time Cornwallis discovered that his opponent had outwitted him back at Trenton, he rushed toward Princeton, but by the time he arrived, the Americans were long gone. Washington and his soldiers had executed a brilliant flank march and went on to win another stunning battlefield victory. Fueled by this latest success, the Continentals made their way to Morristown, New Jersey, where they finally settled into winter quarters. The setbacks at Trenton and Princeton ultimately compelled the British to pull their troops back to more secure positions near the Hudson River, thus liberating much of New Jersey from Crown occupation and control.
Under General Washington’s leadership, the soldiers of the Continental Army faced every hardship imaginable and went on to achieve two major battlefield victories in the span of ten days that saved the Revolution from ruin and inspired the public to renew their faith in the fight for liberty. Because of the Commander-in-Chief and his faithful warriors, America had survived “as dark a time as any in the history of the country,” as noted by historian David McCullough. Although there would be many more despairing moments in the war, Washington and his troops endlessly persevered together year after year until American Independence was finally secured in 1783. Through perseverance and spirit, they changed the world forever, and for the better.
1776 by David McCullough.
Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.
American Battlefield Trust: Princeton.
Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: 10 Facts About the Battle of Princeton.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Battle of Princeton.
The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.