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Battles of Trenton and Princeton

Battles of Trenton and Princeton

The early engagements of the American Revolutionary War may have shown American steel in the face of an experienced and well-numbered enemy. Still, all of their initial battles ended in American retreat and defeat. Additionally, General George Washington had yet to exemplify why he was unanimously selected to lead this army. Though he was still in the early stages of organizing volunteers into a professional fighting force, his tactics had not shown much to be admired. That changes after the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Political, economic, and social issues at the end of 1776 forced Washington into action, and he used his cunning and ingenuity on the battlefield.

Battle of Trenton and Princeton / Washington Crossing the Delaware / StudySmarterFig. 1 - Painted in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" is a dramatized portrait of George Washington's icy maneuvers over the Delaware River on December 25 - 26, 1776.

Facts about the Battles of Trenton and Princeton

After retreating from New York in late November 1776, Washington relinquished New York City to British control after losing the Battle of White Plains, and two forts, the morale in the camps of the American Army was low. In a controlled retreat and being pursued by the British, Washington ordered the Army across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The British halt their pursuit and move to return to New York for the winter; General Howe, the British commander, establishes outposts of Hessian mercenaries and some garrisons of British troops throughout New Jersey.

The Condition Continental Army before the Battles of Trenton and Princeton:

The Continental Army is in a state of ill-repair and economic turmoil. Many soldiers lack proper equipment, such as boots, socks, and uniforms. At this time in the conflict, there was no standard uniform or equipment for the Continental Army. Instead, most enlisted soldiers came from disbanded colonial militia units and utilized their own weapons, clothing, and ammunition. Most of which could not stand up to the wear and tear of long marches and continued engagements.

These two decisive victories swayed the newly formed Congress of the Articles of Confederation to increase funding for rations, weapons, and munitions. Washington also pushed for an established uniform for the Army, seeing it as not only a necessity for weather and hygiene but also central to the morale of the Army and essential to his efforts in training the military into a European style fighting unit. This push creates the blue coat, white undershirt, and gold/khaki pants of the U.S. Army uniform of the American Revolution.

In addition, many of the men were a part of the first wave of volunteers who enlisted in 1775, and their enlistment was for a term of one year. Their enlistments expired at the end of December 1776. The lack of supplies, the possibility of losing a large portion of his troops, and rumored reports of the British pillaging and plundering New Jersey- terrorizing American citizens, spurs Washington into action.

The Battle of Trenton (December 26, 1776):

Washington asks his enlisted men to stay with the Army for one last campaign before the winter sets in, and the Army must camp until spring. Many of the enlisted men agree to stay past their terms. Washington creates an ingenious plan of attack. The goals: push the British out of New Jersey, capture much-needed supplies, and improve the morale of his troops.

Washington Crosses the Delaware River: December 25-26, 1776

Washington divides his force into three divisions before crossing the Delaware River. However, a storm moves up the east coast, and ice forms in the river, forcing all but Washington's division to make it across Delaware into New Jersey, landing nine miles north of Trenton, New Jersey.

Washington Attacks Trenton: December 26, 1776

Even though the storm delayed Washington’s advance, his column of troops arrived outside of Trenton near dawn. Washington divides his troops into two units. One under the command of General Nathanael Greene and the other under the control of General John Sullivan. Greene’s forces attack from the north while Sullivan maneuvers south to stop any Hessian retreat.

The Hessian garrison is under the command of Colonel Johann Rall. In the weeks his troops have held Trenton, they have had minor but consistent engagements with New Jersey militiamen, and many of his men are exhausted. Washington moves to capitalize on the beleaguered Hessians, especially after Christmas festivities.

Greene’s forces attack the outlying forces north of Trenton. Rall’s forces are shocked, and Rall orders a hasty retreat, meeting Sullivan's troops on the south side of the town. A few Hessians escape, but many, including a mortally wounded Rall, surrender to Washington in only a few hours.

After capturing and securing the Hessians and their supplies, Washington moved his troops across the Delaware River to regroup with the soldiers who could not make the original crossing. A week later, Washington attempted another crossing south of Trenton, as the victory at Trenton worked to boost morale.

Battles of Trenton and Princeton Maps: Trenton

The following map shows the positions and maneuvers of the significant engagements during the Battle of Trenton.

Battle of Trenton and Princeton / Map of the Trenton Engagement / StudySmarterFig. 2- A Map of the positions and movements of the American and British (Hessian) forces during the engagement at Trenton. Source: U.S. Military Academy- West Point (public domain)

Facts about the Battles of Trenton and Princeton: The Battle of Trenton1:

The tables below break down the forces and casualties of the Battle of Trenton.

Total Forces Engaged:

American:

2,400

British (Hessian):

1,500

Aftermath:

Total American Casualties: 5

0 Killed

5 Wounded

0 Missing or Captured

Total British (Hessian) Casualties: 905

22 Killed

83 Wounded

800 Missing or Captured

Battle of Princeton (January 3, 1777):

After the success of the Battle of Trenton, Washington crossed back over the Delaware River a week later, south of Trenton. The engagement at Princeton's town comes unexpectedly as the Americans and the British surprise each other as neither expected the other to be there.

The British moved south towards Trenton in response to December 26th. Two main forces, one under the command of Charles Lord Cornwallis and the other under the control of Charles Mawhood. Washington’s forces spotted the advancing soldiers of Cornwallis’s forces moving into Trenton and quickly maneuvered along the Assunpink Creek, avoiding detection on January 2, 1777. Washington ordered his troops to march north to Princeton to cut off any Cornwallis retreat back to New York.

However, during this march, Washington’s forces cross the advancing division of Mawhood’s soldiers. When spotted in an area known as William Clarke’s Farm, Washington sends Hugh Mercer’s unit to engage. Mercer orders a bold, head-on charge at the British, and several British rifle volleys and bayonets demolish his mean.

Even though they outnumbered the British, Washington’s forces found themselves on the verge of being flanked and split. Washington calls up a unit of Philadelphia militia to fill the gap left by Mercer’s forces, but they also fall to the British position at Clarke’s Farm. Washington takes personal command of the next charge. With the assistance of artillery and fresh troops, it breaks the British line, opens up their flanks, and allows the American forces to route the British line into a full retreat.

Battles of Trenton and Princeton Map: Princeton

The following maps show the movements and positions of the British and American forces during the Battle of Princeton.

Troop Movements and Positions on January 2, 1777

Battle of Trenton and Princeton / Map of the British and American Forces after Trenton Engagement / StudySmarterFig. 3- The initial positions and movements of British and American forces on January 2 into January 3, 1777 Source: U.S. Military Academy- West Point

The Battle of Princeton- January 3, 1777 Map

Battle of Trenton and Princeton / Map of the engagement at Princeton / StudySmarterFig. 4- The final engagements of the Battle of Princeton were on January 3, 1777. Source: United States Military Academy- West Point

Facts about the Battles of Trenton and Princeton: The Battle of Princeton2:

The tables below describe the forces and casualties of the Battle of Princeton.

Total Forces Engaged:

American:

4,500

British:

1,200

Aftermath:

Total American Casualties: 75

Total British Casualties: 270

The Battles of Trenton and Princeton: Significance

The Battles of Trenton and Princeton end with the American’s first victories against the British. Previous engagements, such as the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, were American losses militarily but moral victories for the colonists. The loss of New York City was a devastating blow to the morale of the Army and the young nation. The victories at Trenton and Princeton reversed the ill morale and instilled the experience of victory in the fledgling Continental Army. Experience and upswell in morale that the army will take into the Campaigns of 1777.

More importantly, it shows to the delegates of the American Congress. They were attempting to fund and supply the army so that Washington could successfully create a Continental force out of militiamen and lead them to victory in the battle against the British.

Battle of Trenton and Princeton - Key takeaways

  • After retreating from New York in late November 1776, Washington relinquished New York City to British control after losing the Battle of White Plains and two forts.
  • The lack of supplies, the possibility of losing a large portion of his troops, and rumored reports of the British pillaging and plundering New Jersey- terrorizing American citizens, spurs Washington into action.
  • Washington creates an ingenious plan of attack. The goals: push the British out of New Jersey, capture much-needed supplies, and improve the morale of his troops.
  • After capturing and securing the Hessians and their supplies in Trenton, Washington moved his troops across the Delaware River to regroup with the soldiers who could not make the original crossing.
  • A week later, Washington attempted another crossing south of Trenton, as the victory at Trenton worked to boost morale.
  • The engagement at Princeton's town comes unexpectedly as the Americans and the British surprise each other as neither expected the other to be there.
  • The Battles of Trenton and Princeton end with the American’s first victories against the British.

References

  1. Trenton. (n.d.). American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/trenton
  2. Princeton. (n.d.). American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/princeton

Frequently Asked Questions about Battles of Trenton and Princeton

The Battles of Trenton and Princeton end with the American’s first victories against the British. Previous engagements, such as the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, were American losses militarily but moral victories for the colonists. The loss of New York City was a devastating blow to the morale of the Army and the young nation. The victories at Trenton and Princeton reversed the ill morale and instilled the experience of victory in the fledgling Continental Army. Experience and upswell in morale that the army will take into the Campaigns of 1777.  

With both battles ending in American victory, the core result was a boost in American morale in their first victories against the British and Hessian forces, and convincing Congress to release more funding for the Army. The victories also caught international attention, helping the US gain international support from France, Spain, and the Netherlands. 

An American victory was due to a surprise attack across the Delaware River over the Christmas Holiday that saw American troops push Hessian and British troops away from Trenton and retreat toward New York City. 

An American victory against a British counter-attack resulted from the Battle of Trenton. Again, American forces repelled British troops back towards New York City, suffering more casualties in this battle than in Trenton. 

The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776, and the Battle of Princeton took place on January 3, 1777. 

Final Battles of Trenton and Princeton Quiz

Question

What city had American forces recently abandoned and relinquished to British control before the Battles of Trenton and Princeton? 

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Answer

New York City 

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Question

Washington moved his forces into what state to retreat from the British Army? 

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Answer

Pennsylvania

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Question

Which of the following are reasons Washington decided to attack the British in Trenton, New Jersey? 

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Answer

A need for supplies

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Question

Though the forces in Trenton were under the control of the British, who made up a large number of the forces in the city? 

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Answer

Hessian Mercenaries 

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Question

Which two commanders led the American forces into the town of Trenton to attack the Hessian garrison? 

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Answer

Nathanael Greene and James Sullivan 

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Question

What river did Washington cross with his troops to engage in both engagements at Trenton and Princeton? 

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Answer

The Delaware River

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Question

True or False: The Battle of Princeton was a planned engagement to force the British back to New York

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Answer

False 

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Question

At what location during the Battle of Princeton did the American forces break the British line? 

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Answer

William Clarke's Farm 

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Question

How many total casualties did the British and Americans take over the course of the two battles? 

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Answer

Americans: 80
British: 1170

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Question

What is the significance of the American victories at Trenton and Princeton? 

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Answer

Washington could successfully defeat the British in battle and was an influential boost in morale. 

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