Episode 028

The (Edward) Hand of Washington & the Second Battle of Trenton

Washington had won the Battle of Trenton, and a poor command decision now leaves Edward Hand to delay the incoming British reinforcements while Washington tries to organize his defenses.

At the end of our last episode: George Washington found himself as the victor of the Battle of Trenton, where he captured over 900 Hessian soldiers and most importantly, their equipment. But, his force wasn’t as strong as he had originally intended it to be. Neither Ewig or Cadawalder had made a successful crossing of the Delaware, which left Washington short of men and artillery

Mid-morning of Dec 26, 1776 Washington called a conference of his senior officers to discuss his original plan, which was to drive on from Trenton, to Princeton and New Brunswick. The group concluded that plan was out of the question, without Ewig and Cadawalder, he was short 2,600 men. His own force, of roughly 2,400 men were exhausted with most of the men having already been awake at least 24 hours, some more.

Washington also had to examine his position, the British were on their way with reinforcements, if he stayed and fought, not only would he be fighting with men who were asleep on their feet, but he would be fighting with his back to the river, which put his battlefield position ranking in a “less than ideal” status.

It’s clear to him and his senior staff that he really only has one option and that’s to retreat BACK across the Delaware and reorganize his forces on the Pennsylvania side of the river. Washington summed up his intentions in a letter to General Heath on Dec 27:

”I thought it most prudent to return the same evening, [26 of December], with my prisoners and the artillery we had taken.”

Shortly after noon, he orders his men to start marching back to the ferries that had carried them over, which were perched at McKonkey’s Ferry. In our previous episode where we covered this river crossing we talked about how bad the weather was. That same weather system was still in play. The weary men were beat down even more with snow and sleet, making this river crossing harder than the first. It was so cold in the boats, that on the way back to Pennsylvania three men had frozen to death. Those that did land, fell asleep as soon as they hit their huts. Having marched over 50 miles, with a brief break in the middle to fight a battle.

The morning of Dec 27 showed over 1,000 men unfit for duty. That was over 40% of Washington’s fighting force. But it is interesting to note here that this is almost business as usual for Washington, meaning that for any good news he gets (like the victory at Trenton) it’s met with bad news to even it out.

For example, for the next two days after landing in Pennslyvania, Washington has to focus on the fact that while he has only 1,400-1,500 men in fighting condition, 80-90% of those men would have their enlistments expire on the 31st of Dec. A few days away.

He decided to offer the men a bounty, $10 to every man who would extend his enlistment for six weeks. $10 may not seem like alot of money to you or I, but in 1776, it was equivalent to roughly $275. But where is the money coming from? The military treasury is pretty much empty at this point, but Washington, being ever bold, made the promise anyway and wrote a hasty letter to Robert Morris, the financier of the revolution stating:

”If it be possible to give us assistance do it; borrow money when it can be done…No time, my dear sir is to be lost.”

Morris was able to raise $50,000, $10,000 of it his own, which he sent, and on New Years Day, 1777 big canvas money bags, just like you see in old westerns on stage coaches arrived containing all the hard cash he could scrap up which included “410 Spanish milled dollars…2 English crowns, 72 French crowns, and 1,072 English shillings”
Robert Morris is an interesting man, and as I described him a moment ago, he was the financier of the revolution. Does that mean he paid for the entire war himself? Mostly yes. He gave large sums indeed, but he was also responsible for raising public funds.

Morris had came into his wealth by being smart, and in the right place at the right time. When he was 16 he apprenticed in the counting room for Charles Willing who was in the import/export business. When Charles died, his son and Morris entered in a partnership in that same business which lasted for over 39 years. As the shipping industry in the American colonies grew so did Morris’ wealth and reputation. Being in the import business however, the Stamp Act hit him hard, and that would ultimately lead him to side with the colonies when the war broke out.

Elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, he participated on many of the committees involved in raising capital and provisions for the Continental Army. Early in 1776, he was given a special commission by congress, with authority to negotiate bills of exchange for, and to solicit money by other means for the operation of the war. One of the most successful such devices were lotteries. Throughout the war he personally underwrote the operations of privateers, ships that ran the British Blockades at great risk and thus brought needed supplies and capital into the colonies.

In 1781 he devised a plan for a National Bank and submitted it to Congress. It was approved and became The Bank of North America, an institution that brought stability to the colonial economy, facilitated continued finance of the War effort, and would ultimately establish the credit of the United States with the nations of Europe. Morris was immediately appointed Financial Agent (Secretary of Treasury) of the United States, in order to direct the operation of the new bank. Morris unfortunately never recovered the wealth that he enjoyed before the revolution. What was left of his fortune was soon lost to land speculation in the western part of New York state. He died in 1806, in relative poverty, at the age of 73.

Back in Trenton, Washington and two of his officers: Knox and Mifflin succeeded in getting all but the most feeble and sick to stay on and reenlist for six weeks. Things are starting to look up for Washington now, and he’s making his plans to go back across the river. By December 30 he had reassembled it in Trenton where he waited on 1,600 more men that General Mifflin had been able to raise in and around Philadelphia. In addition Cadwalader was bringing militia units from Allentown and Crosswicks. When all of these forces arrived in Trenton, Washington would have just over 5,000 men for his New Jersey campaign.

But, remember, that with the good comes the bad for Washington…Yes he had 5,000 men but a great part of those were militia units which contained untrained farmers and villagers who had no knowledge of combat. On the plus side, they were in good physical shape and had clothes for the winter temperatures. Washington’s Continental Army forces, were battle-hardened and dependable under fire, but were often described as a “flock of animated scarecrows”. Cornwallis was already moving towards Washington, with 8,000 men. Professional men. well fed, completely equipped, disciplined, and combat ready.

If you’ll recall from our episodes on Spying, Washington’s intelligence about the British was typically spot on, and this was no exception. He knew Cornwallis was moving across New Jersey and it was clear that he was making a march towards the American army now assembled at Trenton. On New Year’s Day, 1777, Cornwallis was preparing to advance towards the city with 7,000 men and twenty-eight pieces of artillery, all under his personal command. For a rear-guard he left the 4th Brigade under Lt. Colonel Mawhood at Princeton, this force contained about 1,200 men and was composed of three infantry regiments: 17th, 40th, 55th.

Washington’s counter, is simple. Slow down the British. He wants to get his forces established in Trenton, he also wants a way to confirm how many of his 8,000 men Cornwallis is attacking with. He decides to send a covering force under command of French General Roche de Fermoy, made up of Fermoy’s own brigade. Colonel Hand’s Pennsylvania riflemen, Colonel Hausegger’s German Regiment, Colonel Scott’s Virginia Continentals and a two-gun battery under the command of Captain Forrest. Fermoy’s main mission was to execute delaying action as the British moved southward beginning at Five-Mile Run. He was to delay on successive positions, causing the British to deploy as often as possible, slowing them down and disclosing the full strength of their army (exp: Hit and Fade, british would deploy, wait to see what was happening, fade back, etc…)

For once, in the past week, the weather actually seemed to be in the favor of the Americans. A southern wind had sprung up that begun to melt the snow and soften the ground. When Cornwallis’s men started their march on Jan 2, the once frozen roads were now nothing more than giant mud puddles. The difficulties in travel forced Cornwallis to move in three columns. He also detached General Lesile’s 2nd Brigade of about 1,500 men at Maidenhead, while he pushed ahead with his remaining 5,500.

At around 10:00am, the British advance guard units encountered the American forces under the command of Fermoy north of File-Mile Run. Strangely enough, at this point General Fermoy decides to return to Trenton. We’re unsure of the reasons, but the American forces were then passed to the command of Colonel Edward Hand of the Pennsylvania riflemen. Hand was a 32 year old Irish born former British soldier, who had resigned a commision in 1772 to try his medicine, and most importantly Hand was a natural leader.

He put his riflemen to work, taking a deadly toll on the British infantry. His riflemen’s rifle had a longer effective range then the British issued “Brown Bess” rifle, which allowed him to score hits on troops that couldn’t effectively fire back. Hand was also smart enough to deploy his other musket-carrying forces strategically enough so that they could fire on the advancing British units.

Hand and his men fought from all kinds of cover, fence lines, trees, rocks, etc… and forced the British to deploy & advance several times before Hand’s forces would fall back through the woods or across fields. Hand knew that he couldn’t beat the incoming force, and he also knew that wasn’t his mission. He was trying to slow them down as much as possible. When he was pushed back from File-Mile Run he took up his next position near Shabbakonk Creek. The initial skirmishing and shots back and forth here turned into an all out brawl between the two forces. The concentrated fire of Hand’s men caused so many casualties on the British side, that the British thought they had stumbled on the main American line.

Hand and his men destroyed the bridge across Shabbakonk Creek and continued to lay down fire. The British artillery then took to blasting the tree lines for half an hour while two Hessian battalions waited in deployed formation to assault the defenders and when they advanced, what did they find? Hand and his men had slipped quietly away and taken up a new position behind a ravine known as Stockton’s Hollow, which sits about half a mile north of Trenton.

At Stockton’s Hollow, Col. Hand once again forced the British to deploy their troops and when they became too much of a threat to his position he withdrew into Trenton. It was now 4:00 PM, and he’d been delaying and engaging the British for almost six hours. But Hand wasn’t finished, with his men taking up position in some of the same houses they’d been in just a few days before, they continued to hold back the advance guard of roughly 1,500 men from the city. Hand was eventually forced to fall back across Assunpink Creek, where the now deployed Continental artillery was positioned and started laying fire on the British.

Hand had done his job so well that it wasn’t until around sunset (5:00 PM give or take) that the British advance units tried to push again at Assunpink Creek, and Hessian units would try and cross at a ford. The attack was somewhat half-hearted. It started as a battle of artillery, and the American artillery laid down such a field of fire that any enemy would have been easily repulsed. There was a few musket exchanges, and some British return artillery fire as well. This small exchange here is sometimes referred to as the Second Battle of Trenton, and even though both sides lost men, “battle” seems to formal of a word. To me, it almost seems as if Hand’s work that day was more important than what took place at Assunpink Creek.

Hand’s work, whether it’s described as a battle or not, had given Washington and his generals time to occupy a defensive line on the ridge just south of the Assunpink. Entrechments were built and the troops were deployed with Mercer’s brigades on the left. Cadwaladers in the center and St. Clairs on the right. Behind the front line, Washington also placed reserve units. Washington was indebted to Hand for delaying the British advance, so much so that two months later he recommended to Congress (and Congress agreed) that Hand should become a Brigadier General.

In the British camp, Cornwallis arrived around dark and counseled with his staff about the possibilities of a night attack. Sir William Erskine, his quartermaster general called for an immediate strike, stating:

“If Washington is the general I take him to be, his army will not be found there in the morning”.

General Grant disagreed – the rebels were securely dug in, and the British troops were tired from a long, difficult march (remember they had been marching in the mud all day). An early morning attack, he proposed, could turn the rebel right flank with their backs to the Delaware river (which could result in their being wiped out, or surrendering).

Cornwallis’ other officers offered many of the same points, and he himself had to be somewhat doubtful about being able to find, and subsequently turn a flank in the dark. But at the same time, a frontal attack against a well-entrenched enemy wasn’t a pleasant idea either.

In the end, he decided that any action he could take tonight, he could also take the next morning. He closed his council of war by stating:

“We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning”

Sunrise on January 3, 1777 was at 7:23 AM and rose on a chilly, in the twenties, morning. As the British sentries peered over at the American lines, not a single man could be seen. The senior commanders and Cornwallis were alerted and through the use of their field glasses (we would call them binoculars) and a small patrol to the lines, it was confirmed that the fox was not quite as cornered as Cornwallis thought. Washington had managed to move his entire army of 5,000 or so men around the 7,000 or so of Cornwallis without alerting a single sentry.

The night before, on Jan 2, Washington had called his own council of his senior staff and decided that his army would slip away in the night. The would pass by Cornwallis’ left flank, skirt around the reserve unit at Maidenhead and strike the rear guard at Princeton, and if that went well, push on to Brunswick, where the British were storing their baggage and stores.

Marching out the night of the 2nd, Washington and his troops had another break in the weather. It had previously warmed up, and turned the roads into mud. Now the temperature had dropped to below freezing, turning surface into a frozen firmament, one that his troops and cannon could quickly march over.

Washington has made a bold move, but will it pay off? Find out next week.

Also published on Medium.

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