A Time of Decision For American Soldiers in the Revolutionary War

On this day in 1777, the 2nd Battle of Trenton (Battle of the Assunpink Creek)

In the aftermath of the Continental’s existentially important victory Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, Washington and his officers surmised that the British would immediately try a strong counterattack to erase the American victory.

Before he could respond to a British counterattack or dream of getting to New Brunswick, Washington’s immediate practical problem was the same as it had been on Christmas Day. The majority of his army was on one-year enlistments and their term of service would end on January 1.  Washington’s Army, having just won the most important battle of the war at Trenton, was set to dissolve and disappear on January 1.

On December 30, Washington gathered together his army. The same group of men who, beaten and battered, had survived into December on pure determination alone, had regained confidence with their victory at Trenton. But where they willing to still carry on beyond their enlistments?

Washington made a plea to these soldiers. He first asked his men to stay under arms for one month longer for a bounty of ten dollars. Not a man moved to accept the offer.

Washington considered this for a time, then settled on a sincere appeal to the patriotism of his soldiers.  He wheeled his horse around and rode in front of his troops. Records of what he said next have passed down:

“My brave fellows, 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 only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances.

That simple appeal from their leader was enough. After a short pause, the men of Washington’s Continental army stepped forward virtually en masse. These men, stretched to the limits of human endurance during the campaigns and battles over the past six months of 1776, would stay and fight.

Washington and his officers were correct. When news of the calamity of Trenton reached the British Commander Lord Howe, he immediately dispatched Lord Cornwallis from New York City with 9,000 men to launch a counterattack against the Continentals.

Washington, with his army intact, sent out a covering force of riflemen under Col. Edward Hand to harass and slow the British advance. Meanwhile, Washington put his main body in a defensive position dug in along Assunpink Creek, near to Trenton and protecting a bridge along the road into the town.

Cornwallis, passing through Princeton, divided his force, leaving a 1,400 man rearguard to stay between Washington and New Brunswick. From that point on, Washington’s covering force did its job admirably, firing upon the British, forcing them into battle formation, and then withdrawing to new positions. It slowed the British march significantly. By 3 p.m. this day, Hand’s troops had taken up a final position just outside of Washington’s main body

As Hand’s troops came to the creek, the Hessians charged at them with bayonets fixed, causing chaos among the Americans. Washington, seeing the chaos, rode out through the crowd of men crossing the bridge, and shouted that Hand’s rear guard pull back and regroup under the cover of the American artillery.

As the British prepared to attack the American defenses, cannon and musket fire was exchanged between the opposing sides. The British moved across the bridge, advancing in solid columns, and the Americans all fired together. The British fell back, but only for a moment. The British charged the bridge again, but were driven back by cannon fire. The British charged one final time, but the Americans fired canister shot this time, and the British lines were raked with fire. One soldier said, “The bridge looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and their red coats.”

Cornwallis halted when he came upon the scene and called a council of war.

Cornwallis’ quartermaster general, William Erskine, urged Cornwallis to strike right away, saying “If Washington is the General I take him to be, his army will not be found there in the morning.” But Gen. James Grant disagreed, and argued that there was no way for the Americans to retreat, and that the British troops were worn out, and that it would be better for them to attack in the morning after they had rested. Cornwallis . . . decided that it would be better than sending his troops out to attack in the dark. Cornwallis said, “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” Cornwallis then moved his army to a hill north of Trenton for the night

Erskine was right. Washington had no intention of staying in that defensive position. It had served to bloody the British and stop their counterattack, but the creek was fordable upstream, something Cornwallis surely would have found by the morning and then sent a force to flank the Americans.  Still, during the night, Washington called a council of war and asked officers whether they should stand and fight, attempt to cross the river somewhere, or take the back roads to attack Princeton.  They agreed that the best option was to attack Princeton.

Washington left two of his cannon and several hundred men in position along the creek. Throughout the night, the cannon fired towards the British while the line soldiers appeared to be digging in trenches. Washington, meanwhile, withdrew with his main body, wrapping the wagon wheels with rags so the British would not hear them. Near dawn, the cannon and other soldiers withdrew as well, following the main body.

When Cornwallis sent his soldiers on the attack the next morning, they found the American defenses empty. Washington’s army had slipped by them in the night. Washington was headed towards Princeton.

Image: Public domain.