Episode 027

Battle of Trenton – Washington vs. Rall

Washington has crossed the Delaware river and is poised to take Trenton. Standing is his way is a Hessian garrison lead by Johann Gotliebb Rall.

Inside the city of Trenton we find Hessian Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall in command of thee three infantry regiments that made up the garrison at Trenton: his own regiment, as well as the regiments under the command of Knyphausen and von Lossberg. Aside from the regiments there were smaller units of jagers – infantry armed with short, heavy rifles – a company of artillery with six three pound guns, and twenty British dragoons for a grand total of roughly 1,400 men.

Rall was a professional soldier who made no effort to hide his contempt for the American rebels. He had received the surrender at Fort Washington a few weeks prior, taking pleasure in watching the Americans marching away without arms. He spoke no English, and made no effort to learn it, he was a hard drinker and a hard charger in battle. He made no effort to fortify his garrison in Trenton, stating “if the Americans come we’ll give them the bayonet”. He enjoyed hearing his company band play as it marched around the home he had chosen for his headquarters (the home of Abraham Hunt). Lieutenant Andreas Wiederhold spoke of the cannon parading around the home, stated that “instead of being out at the head of the streets where it could be of use”

Rall had allowed his troops to relax for Christmas (with the exception of his own regiment, which was on duty for Christmas Day). The men were allowed to relax, drink hearty German beer and sing hearty German songs while gathered around the Tannebaum (or Christmas tree) they had cut down and setup. However during their Christmas celebration, reports came in around 7:00 PM on the North side of town of gunshots.

Rall sent several companies marching from his regiment to the roads at the head of the town, where he was informed that some 30 or so rebels had shot and wounded six men from Lossberg’s regiment. Rall sent out patrols as far as as two miles to search for the offenders, but found nothing. Major von Dechow urged Rall to send out another series of patrols towards the ferry landings, but luckily for Washington and his men, Rall felt no need to send patrols and ordered his troops to stand down.

Who fired on Rall? We don’t really know. It’s agreed upon amongst historians that they were not an authorized patrol, and more likely local militia or farmers who struck back at the Hessians who were widely regarded as looters and pillagers.

The men returned to their quarters and Rall went back to his headquarters at Abraham Hunt’s where he joined a card game and knocked back a few drinks, to celebrate of course.

By 10:00pm he had dismissed his adjutant for the evening with no further orders for the night. During the course of the evening, we do see one other scenario where Rall could have been alerted to Washington’s advance, but was not. A Loyalist farmer from Bucks County knocked at the door of Hunt’s house, telling the servant he had an urgent message for Rall. He was denied an audience, and told that Rall was busy and not to be disturbed. The Loyalist farmer, wrote out a note and asked that it be delivered to Rall. The note stated that the entire American army had crossed the river and was marching on Trenton. When the note was delivered to Rall during his cardgame, he accepted it, and placed it into his pocket without reading it.

A Lieutenant by the name of Andreas Wiederhold disagreed with Rall’s complacency. Wiederhold was in charge of a forward guard position in the home of Richard Howell on Pennington Road on the North side of Trenton. He brought up around 10 more men to strengthen his position there on Christmas night. Around 7:45 AM, on the 26th of December, Wiederhold felt the need to stretch his legs and take a walk, as he stepped outside he caught sight of sixty American soldiers, roughly 200 yards away advancing towards Howell House on the double. His men caught sight of them as well and started shouting: “Der Fiend, Heraus! Heraus!” which means “The enemy! Turn out! Turn out!”

The American troops were part of Stephen’s brigade, which was the advance guard for Nathaniel Greene’s forces. They had been given orders to advance with all speed into the town and overrun any guard posts or checkpoints in their way. At the same time, in the south, regiments of Mercer’s brigade were swinging around to the south in order to support Stephen’s attack by outflanking any resistance they met. Washington’s goal and strategy here is to push all the outlying forces inward towards the center of the town, where he and his men can surround it.

Wiederhold’s guard managed to get off single volley before it had to fall back across the fields to it’s rear towards King Street. Realizing he was in danger of being flanked yet again, Wiederhold fell back one more time to Captain von Alterbockum’s company, which was forming up to block Pennington Rd. However, as soon as Wiederhold’s men arrived, Alterbockum had made the decision that he could not hold his position or delay the advancing troops and ordered a withdrawal. The American’s were now close behind, firing as they approached. Wiederhold & Alterbockum eventually met up with Captain Bruback and a guard detachment from Regiment Rall, the men used Queen Street and the houses on it, as cover for their withdrawal.

In the south, Sullivan had held his advance guard just long enough to ensure that Greene’s men had the time to drive the outposts in the North down towards him. He ordered his men to strike at the guard points at Hermitage, the home of Philemon Dickinson on River Road.

Lieutenant von Grothausen, had gotten word that troops were spotted in the north and had heard the firing. He knew he must react at once if he was to delay them. He took a sergeant and a detachment of fifty jagers and started off on the double towards the firing at Pennington Road.

Grothausen had barely gone three hundred yards when he looked over his left shoulder and saw Sullivan’s forces approaching Hermitage. He factored that he couldn’t get back to Hermitage in time to save it, so he doubled back toward the river at the south end of town, joined by a corporal and the rest of the jager detachment who had fled Hermitage, leaving everything but their muskets and belts at Hermitage.

Grothausen tried to make a stand and formed up his men near the old barracks, but after one volley his troops were forced to run or face capture. Some managed to make it across a small creek south of King street, while the bulk of the group escaped across the Queen Street Bridge (which the American forces had not yet reached)

Rall’s adjutant Lieutenant Jacob Piel, was the first officer in town to hear the firing on Pennington Rd. He sprinted from his quarters next door to Rall’s headquarters, turned out the guards stationed there, ordering them to start up King Street to reinforce the outposts there. He then commenced beating the door until the night-capped colonel stuck his (more than likely hungover) head out of an upper window. Piel informed him of the situation (of which Rall was oblivious)

When Rall stepped out of the house, American musketry and artillery could be heard coming down King Street. Rall mounted his horse, ordering his regiment to form up on him, Regiment Lossberg to form up in a nearby graveyard and march up Queen Street and for Regiment Knyphausen to stand by as a reserve on Second Street, east of King Street.

At this point, Washington has surrounded three sides of the town, without a hitch, which is no small feat for an eighteenth century military operation. He has driven all of the outposts in, and now he has to execute the next phase of his plan. Two brigades of Greene’s division took off to their left, bypassing the upper end of town to deploy between Princeton Road with their left flank extending to Assunpink Creek, cutting off any attempts to break out of Trenton in the Northeast. At the same time, the third brigade was to move to the south and extend its right flank to link up with the left brigade of Sullivan’s division, to fully encircle the town.

Henry Knox, operated almost independently and began setting up artillery positions all along the American positions. He had called out the range and his men started firing ranging rounds to set their cannon.

Not too far from the front lines, Washington took up position on a hill to survey the situation of the town. However the days visibility was not yet good enough for him to see all the way to Queen Street Bridge, which still left him wondering if Ewing had successfully crossed the river and taken position there.

Led by Lt. Colonel Brethauer forces from Rall’s Regiment and Lossberg’s regiment began marching up King Street to clear it. Henry Knox had artillery facing down King Street and American forces were deployed both on the street and in the houses lining the street. I think you can predict where this is going to go…

As Brethauer and his men moved down the street, round shot from cannon tore through their ranks, Mercer’s men firing from the cover of fences and houses took a toll on Brethauer’s left flank. The Hessians were able to stop and fire off two volleys. In doing so, Brethauer’s horse was shot, sending him tumbling to the ground. The musket & artillery fire proved to be too much and Regiment Rall broke, running through Lossberg’s men, breaking up their formation and ranks.

The Hessian artillery maneuvering towards King Street didn’t fair much better. Under the command of Lieutenant Engelhadrt they were able to fire of six rounds from each gun, but in a matter of minutes he had lost half of his men and five horses. The men left standing dropped their equipment and ran for cover.

Henry Knox saw an opportunity here and asked Colonel George Weedon from Virginia if he could send some men to capture the artillery the Hessians had left sitting in the middle of the road. Captain William Washington, Lt. James Monroe, Sergeant Joseph White and six other men, without being ordered, broke off on a run, keeping close to the houses and swarmed over the guns and tried to turn them on the fleeing Hessians. Washington ended up being wounded in both hands and Monroe in the shoulder. They successfully captured the cannon, which spurred Weedon’s men charging down King Street.

Meanwhile at the head of Queen Street, artillery under the command of Forrest was holding off any advancement from Hessian troops as well as taking out two more pieces of Hessian artillery.

Back in the south, with Sullivan’s column had driven the jagers from Hermitage and the old barracks. In Sullivan’s column was none other than Colonel John Stark, of Bunker Hill fame, if you don’t remember him, go back and listen to the Bunker Hill episodes and his defense of a fence line. Stark didn’t wait for orders, he lead a thundering charge towards Regiment Knyphausen which was now deployed facing south and joined by Major Dechow’s battalion of Regiment Lossberg.

Major Wilkinson recalls of Stark that day: “…the dauntless Stark dealt death wherever he found resistance, and broke down all opposition before him…”

Rall’s officers were able to manage a rally toward River Road at Front Street on the south end of town. They pleaded with Rall to renew the attack, the troops were ready, they needed his command. Rall seemed to be in a daze, unable to make a decision. Major von Hanstein made a final plea to the brigade commander: “If you will not let us press forward up this street, then we must retreat to the bridge; otherwise the whole affair will end disastrously” Rall agreed. Regiments Rall and Lossberg were brought into line facing north towards King and Queen Streets. Rall boomed: “Forward march! and attack them with the bayonet!” As they moved onto Queen Street, they encountered the Americans and the brave show of force by Rall came to a quick and bloody end. In a matter of minutes, from fixed positions in houses and alleys the American’s found a “target rich environment” in the heavily grouped Hessian forces and they were exposed to Forrest’s artillery firing down Queen Street. Top that off with a charge from American’s coming out of alleys into the left flank of the advancing Hessians.

The loyal and ever present adjutant Lt. Piel tried to convince Rall that there was still a chance to retreat over the Assunpink bridge. Rall ordered Piel to make sure the route was clear. It was not. Piel found that the American’s were in control of the bridge. Rall gave the order to reassemble in the apple orchard in the southeast corner of town. As he gave this order he was struck by two bullets in his side, falling from his horse. Two soldiers grabbed him and helped him into the Methodist Church on Queen Street.

The three remaining Hessian field officers got the remnants of their two regiments into the apple orchard and held a hasty conference. They agreed to make a breakout attempt from the orchard towards Brunswick Road, but when they tried to execute the plan they found their way blocked by Stephen’s and Fermoy’s brigages (from Greene’s division). The field officers gave their surrender to General Stirling.

In the south, Sullivan’s division was pounding Regiment Knyphausen and it’s attached battalion of Lossbergs. Major Dechow, the commanding officer of the Lossberg battalion was severely wounded and had to surrender. In the end, Regiment Knyphausen also surrendered to General St. Clair. It was almost 9:00 AM. The Battle of Trenton was over, lasting just over an hour.

Why do we see so much emphasis on artillery and why was it so decisive in this battle. We know from our last episode that there was a historical weather study completed. During the attack, the men were fighting through snow and freezing rain, and as we discussed last week muskets get wet very easily, and when they get wet, they don’t fire that well. The artillery however, had better measures at keeping dry, which is why we see them working so hard. It’s also one of the reasons why we see men taking shelter in houses to fight. It’s dry (and possibly warmer)! both to them and their weapons. In his book, The War of the Revolution, Christopher Ward sums up with the following “The flints would not strike a spark; the priming charges would not flash; the touch holes were clogged with wet powder…Those that got into the houses dried their gunlocks and could fire toward the end of the battle”

In capturing Trenton, Washington not only gained a much needed victory for his army, but he also gained much needed supplies: in capturing over 900 men and officers, he also captured all their muskets and accoutrements, as well as six pieces of field artillery, ammunition and supply wagons, fifteen sets of colors, and all the instruments from the Hessian band. In doing so Washington lost 1 officer and 1 private.

The morale effects however, were greater. Howe was shocked. So shocked that he sent a message to Cornwallis (who was about to board a ship for England) that he must return at once to resume command in New Jersey. And Howe also ordered reinforcements forward towards Trenton.

The news of Trenton was greeted enthusiastically in the colonies. Washington went from the depths of defeat to an overnight hero. On December 27, Congress which was now relocated to Baltimore, resolved to give Washington dictatorial powers for the next six months: to raise all kinds of troops, to appoint all officers up to Brigadier General and to take “whatever he may want for use of the army”

In Trenton, Washington learned of Ewing and Cadwalader. Ewing had turned back from a crossing, judging the conditions impossible. Cadwalader had tried to cross 600 men, but he withdrew them when he thought it was impossible to get his artillery across. This left Washington with worn-out men, 900 prisoners, and questioning if he’d be able to push towards Princeton as he originally had planned.

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