Episode 026

Battle of Trenton – Washington Crosses the Delaware

By December 7, 1776 George Washington had successfully retreated across the Delaware River. The British forces pursing him decided to bed down for the winter. Washington however, has a different plan in mind...

After the Battle of Harlem Heights, it was December 7 1776. George Washington had effectively retreated across the Delaware River and deployed his tiny army of 4,300 men from Coryell’s Ferry in the North to the ferry near Bordentown, NJ in the center, and down to the area near Bristol, PA in the South. Nine ferry points stretched his army thin, but Washington was wise enough to destroy or seize all of the boats along a 75 mile stretch of the Delaware River, making it difficult for British General Howe, to pursue him.

Howe’s field commander General Lord Cornwallis, had been in hot pursuit with his advance guard and arrived at the outskirts of Trenton, NJ to watch the last of the Continental Army forces cross the river to Pennsylvania. Cornwallis, however, did not pursue the forces and began massing on his side of the river. On December 13 he decided “the Approach of Winter putting a stop to any further Progress, the Troops will immediately march into Quarters and hold themselves in readiness to assemble on the shortest Notice”

Cornwallis and Howe conferred on their deployment plan along the river shore. Howe wanted a solid line between Newark and Brunswick. Cornwallis proposed a bolder, riskier strategy. Manning posts at Pennington, Trenton, and Bordentown with a base of operations at Brunswick. Howe concurred and deployed the men despite the danger of exposing the forward posts to isolation and attack, which could ultimately cut the British lines of communication to Brunswick.

Why take the risk? Howe and Cornwallis both lacked respect for the enemy across the river from them. They believed them to be not only incapable of mounting a winter offensive, but also they believed that they would not be able to survive the winter with a force capable of defending itself. The British commanders would wait until spring, then cross the river with reassembled forces and claim an easy victory. The British begin to bed down for winter. Time is on their side.

Across the river in Pennsylvania, General George Washington is running out of time. After crossing the river he began to focus on the fact that in roughly three weeks, December 31 his enlistments would expire. This would cut his already small army of 4,300 men to a mere 1,400. And if that weren’t a big enough problem he was also faced with soldiers who had not been paid, didn’t have tents, adequate food, clothing or blankets.

Washington knows that if has any chance of maintaining the Northern colonies, he has to strike now. There is evidence that he began thinking of bold strategies as early as December 14 when he confided in three separate letters that if he received the reinforcements he eagerly anticipated, he could hope to take action against one or more of the British forward positions.

Shortly before Christmas, Washington did get his reinforcements bringing his army’s strength close to 6,000 strong, but he knew he would only have those forces until the 31.

By December 23 Washington had decided upon his plan. In a letter to Colonel Joseph Reed, Washington wrote: “…to inform you that Christmas day at night, one hour before day, is the time fixed upon for our attempt on Trenton…necessity, dire necessity, will, nay must! justify my attack…” In the postscript of that same letter, Washington wrote: “For if we are successful, which Heaven grant, and the circumstances favour, we may push on.” This last script gave insight into his intention to push forward into New Jersey on the offensive.

On Christmas Eve, Washington approved the plan that his commanders had drawn up at a command conference attended by Generals Greene, Stirling, Roche de Fermoy, St. Clair and Sullivan. Also at this meeting were several Colonels, noteable Colonel John Glover who had commanded the “amphibious troops” from Massachusetts. The troops that had rescued Washington’s troops after the disaster on Long Island.

The Plan

The plan consisted of two key objectives, one for terrain: the capture of Trenton, and a military objective of was the destruction or capture of a Hessian force consisting of three regiments in the town, with cavalry and artillery detachments for a total strength of 1,400 men under the command of Hessian Colonel Johann Gotlieb Rall.

To accomplish his objectives Washington decided on a three seperate coordinated river crossings which would result in the majority of his forces converging on Trenton to seal off the town and capture or destroy Colonel Rall’s forces.

In the South, 1,900 men and artillery commanded by temporary Brigadier General John Calwalader would cross the river near Bristol and mount a diversionary attack against Hessian Colonel von Donop’s garrison at Bordentown. Donop was Rall’s superior and held overall command of the men posted at Trenton and Bordentown, so it was crucial that his attention be focused away from Trenton.

In the center, 700 Pennslyvania and New Jersey men under the command of Brigadier General James Ewing would cross at Trenton’s Ferry to take the bridge over Assunpink Creek. He would hold his position here, at the south of Trenton to seal off any escape to the south.

The main attack force would sweep from the North, and would be commanded by George Washington himself. It was broken into two columns, commanded by Nathanael Greene and John Sullivan and totalled 2,400. It would cross at McKonkey’s Ferry, nine miles North of Trenton. The force included significant amounts of artillery under the command of Colonel Henry Knox.

If the plan succeeded, and Trenton was captured…all three forces would rejoin at Trenton and resume the offensive at Princeton…and possibly Brunswick. However the entire plan was for naught if he could not manage to capture Trenton…

Troop Maneuvers

The afternoon of Christmas Day in 1776 was a clear and wintry around 30 degrees Fahrenheit and with a brisk northeast wind. It was around 2:00pm that afternoon when the units of Washington’s main division began forming in a little valley west of McKonkey’s Ferry. Company officers checked to make sure that each man was carrying his required load of three days of cooked rations, forty rounds of ammunition, bayonet and blanket.

By 3:00pm the march had begun, with the men formed into columns and traveling towards their determined crossing sites. Colonel Clover and his amphibious “Marblehead men” had left earlier and were reading their boats to take on the men.

The boats had been under construction for the past few weeks and enough had been created to take the troops over in shifts. Each boat was forty to sixty feet long, around eight feet wide and carried a four man crew as well as 30,000 additional pounds of gear and supplies including men, horses, and cannon.

By 4:30 that afternoon, the sun had began to set and it was soon dark enough for the men to proceed. Who was to go first? The artillery. And lots of it. Each column contained around nine pieces, roughly three times what would normally accompany that many infantry. Why the large number? It was planned, based upon Henry Knox’s plan and Washington’s approval. Historian Jac Weller’s perception on artillery’s role in this campaign in his work “Guns of Destiny: Field Artillery in the Trenton-Princeton Campaign” reads as follows:

“…The usual ratio was two or three pieces per thousand foot-soldier … [This unusual proportion at Trenton was based on two factors; first,] the artillery was considered to be the wet-weather weapon … It was diffcult to load a musket in really wet weather and get it to fire. The gunners on the other hand, could plug up the vents and muzzles of their pieces and keep the inside of the weapon entirely dry … The second factor [was that] … Continental gunners had a high morale throughout their entire organization … Washington and his generals knew this and planned accordingly”

With the artillery loaded, Nathaniel Greene’s column loaded and shoved off in three groups, lead by Stephen’s brigade, Mercer’s brigade and Stirling’s brigade, which was to constitute the reserve of Greene’s forces. With this, the crossing had begun.

What type of conditions were the men crossing under? We know it’s cold. They day had been in the thirties, so the night is at least that, probably cooler. The almanac had called for a full moon, but there were heavy clouds obscuring it; which left the whole crossing to be carried out under the cover of darkness. David M. Ludlum completed a historical weather study of that night and concludes the following: “there was no lack of ice of some kind: solid shore ice, floating cakes in midstream, and a glaze tending to form on the most exposed surfaces of boats and objects in the river.” -(The Weather of Independence: Trenton and Princeton). Floating ice wasn’t the only issue the men were facing however, a winter storm had blown in and it had turned from snow to sleet and hail driven by a bitterly cold wind. The storm made sure that it didn’t discriminate by rank, everyone from private to general was miserable. Captain Thomas Rodney recalled in his diary that “it was as severe a night as I ever saw… a storm of wind, hail, rain, and snow” The conditions would last through the night and into the following day, justifying Washington’s decision to put emphasis on wet-weather fire support with his artillery.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

The river crossing operation was completed in total darkness, which makes it hard to believe the painting by Emanuel Leutze, especially with Washington standing fully tall and gazing towards the approaching shoreline. Surely he must have been seated with the others, as ice banging into the boat would have made his standing unstable as well as the wind and driving snow/sleet and falling into the water would mean almost certain death from hypothermia or drowning.

Shores of New Jersey

The original plan that Washington had created called for all of his troops to have completed the crossing by midnight, which left him five hours to march and deploy around Trenton before first light. And as we all know, plans are perfect until boots hit the ground. The storm and river conditions had pushed his landing time back to 3:00 AM, and another hour before Greene’s and Sullivan’s columns were ready in marching order, and starting on the road towards Trenton. It was only then that Washington was able to finally leave the riverside and join Greene on the march into the city. A diary entry from one of Washington’s staff officer’s gives us a glimpse into Washington as he watched the last few troops land.

“He stands on the bank of the stream, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is [again] changing to sleet and cuts like a knife.”

It says a lot about Washington’s character that he’s able to stand calm and collected. He has to have many thoughts running through his head right now… the strain he must be feeling knowing that he know has to attack Trenton in broad daylight, which will take away the element of surprise he hoped to gain by deploying at night, which his plan had counted on to succeed. Also at this point he has yet to hear word from Ewing or Cadwalader, both of whom should have crossed the river before Washington’s forces. Through all of this, he is able to stand firm in front of his soldiers.

Standing on the shore and during the nine-mile march to Trenton Washington may have been mentally stressed, but his troops were bearing the brunt of physical stress. They continued to be battered by shifting blasts of snow, sleet, and freezing rain. They were lucky however, that due to the direction of the wind and their march, it was hitting them in their backs and not directly in their faces as they marched. The rutted road, no doubt covered in ice and snow, made footing treacherous for the men without shoes. Many of those men, showing a soldier’s ingenuity in making due with what they have, had wrapped their feet with rags. It was these men that were leaving bloody footprints in the snow as they marched.

The tired and half frozen men were allowed to fall out and eat breakfast near the town of Birmingham. When the soldiers were told to fall in, to march towards Trenton sergeants were forced to wake up men who had fallen asleep over their meal.

Near Birmingham, the road forked in two directions towards Trenton. Washington now split his force into two designated columns. Greene’s men took the left fork, which would lead them to the North end of Trenton, Washington would accompany this force while Major General Sullivan took the right fork to come into Trenton from the south, in order to cut that end of the town off from the river.

Washington no doubt watched as Sullivan’s column trudged away towards the south of Trenton. No doubt understanding that the chances for a coordinated attack would have to depend on unfolding events as the two columns closed in on the Hessian outposts in the & around the city of Trenton. His intelligence, he believed, was good. He knew the location of the troops but he did not know how well they were manned or how alert would they be? In a war that started with a fearful statement “The British are coming”…it was now Washington’s turn to put the pressure on his enemy, and enemy that underestimated him and his forces, and enemy that would soon learn “The Americans are coming…”


Also published on Medium.

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