On January 3, 1777, Continental Army soldiers under the command of General George Washington defeated a force of British troops near Princeton, New Jersey. The action was part of a larger campaign to regain momentum following a string of defeats in the New York City area throughout the summer and fall of 1776. With the main Continental Army able to threaten major British supply lines following the Battle of Princeton, Crown forces pulled back to more defensible positions near the Hudson River freeing much of New Jersey from British occupation.
Eight days earlier on December 26 the Continental Army had successfully attacked the isolated Hessian forces garrisoning Trenton, New Jersey. Looking to build on that success, Washington looked for more opportunities to improve American morale and drive Crown forces out of that colony. Intelligence on enemy deployments indicated that British and Hessian troops were extremely spread out. Washington believed that if he took up a position in the Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey, it would encourage recruitment of the local militia and make the British positions to the south untenable. On December 29, Washington ordered his army back across the Delaware River to begin the operation.1
Initially stunned by the American assault on Trenton, General William Howe dispatched Charles Cornwallis from New York City to stabilize the situation in the neighboring colony. Contrary to Washington’s outdated information, Cornwallis rapidly assembled the dispersed Crown forces in New Jersey and swiftly lead them towards Washington’s army. Cornwallis’ force attacked Washington at Trenton throughout January 2, as the Americans tenaciously held their position along the Assunpink Creek. During the battle, British forces learned that the Americans had a number of fords along the creek on their right flank. Cornwallis decided to assault the fords the next morning and thus pin the Americans back along the Delaware River.2
During the night of January 2, Washington convened a council of war where his assembled officers decided it was impractical to defend the creek and imprudent to retreat south. Instead, alerted that the British had failed to guard the road to Princeton and provided detailed information on the British defenses of the small college town, the Americans decided to continue with their original plan of striking deep into New Jersey and attempting to reach the mountains to the north. While a handful of Continental Army sentries maintained campfires intended to convince the British the army was still in camp, the majority of the Americans marched off to the northeast in silence and darkness.3
Information passed on to Washington by sympathetic residents of Princeton indicated that while the British had established defensive positions on the west side of the town, the east was open to attack. Accordingly, Washington’s plan was to march his army to within striking distance of the town by utilizing roads below a bluff to the south of Princeton. However, the slow speed of his army’s march in darkness retarded their efforts, and the Americans found themselves still two miles from Princeton as dawn broke. Washington amended his original plan ordering a detachment under Brigadier General Hugh Mercer to destroy a bridge to the Continental Army’s left that lead to Trenton. Meanwhile, the main force, with Major General John Sullivan’s division in the lead, would continue on to Princeton.4
In Princeton, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood commanded a 1,200-man garrison consisting primarily of a detachment of light dragoons and the 17th, 40th, and 55th Regiments of Foot. Their mission was to keep Princeton secure since it was Cornwallis’ primary route of communication to British-occupied New York City. However, during the night, Cornwallis ordered Mawhood to bring the 17th and 55th Regiments forward to Trenton in preparation for his assault on the Assunpink Creek. Mawhood and his soldiers were on the march southwest of Princeton as Washington’s forces arrived in the same area. Mawhood spotted Washington’s larger force as dawn broke and immediately ordered his force back to Princeton. Then, seeing Mercer’s detachment advancing near him, deployed skirmishers to slow the American advance and possibly cut off the exposed detachment of the Continental Army.5
A running battle ensued as both sides tried to reach Princeton before the other. Mercer’s force was overrun by the highly-trained British light infantrymen and Mercer himself was mortally wounded in the engagement. Washington ordered the militia brigade of John Cadwalader into action to support their retreating comrades, but the militia initially broke upon sighting the British. Finally, troops of the Virginia Continental Line, Pennsylvania rifleman, and Washington himself appeared on the battlefield and stabilized the situation. Washington personally directed the American musket fire, and his aide de camp John Fitzgerald shielded his eyes fearing Washington’s death was imminent. The British ranks broke and they fled disorganized as Washington shouted, “It is a fine fox chase my boys!”6
To the north, Sullivan’s division hesitantly approached Princeton in the face of it’s now alerted defenders. Though numerically superior, Sullivan did not want to risk a frontal assault, nor attempt to march around to the east side of the town and risk exposing his flank. A standoff ensued until Washington routed the British forces to the south. With their main force now in retreat, most of the British troops in Princeton also fled, but a few did take up positions in Princeton University’s Nassau Hall for a time until flushed out by Continental Army forces.7
American casualties in the engagement were relatively light with roughly 25 killed and 40 wounded. The British lost roughly 20 killed, had roughly 60 wounded, and had about 200 soldiers captured by the Continental Army. Washington did not stay in Princeton long, only stopping briefly to loot British wagons. By January 6, Washington was safely ensconced within the Ramapo Mountains at Morristown, New Jersey.8
Joseph F. Stoltz III
Fred W. Smith National Library for the
Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon
1. George Washington to John Hancock, 27 December 1776, The Papers of George Washington: Digital Edition, ed. Edward G. Lengel, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008) [hereafter cited PGW]; George Washington to William Heath, 28 December 1776, PGW; George Washington to Alexander McDougall, 28 December 1776, PGW; George Washington to William Maxwell, 28 December 1776, PGW; General Orders, 29 December 1776, PGW; George Washington to John Hancock, 29 December 1776, PGW; George Washington to John Hancock, 1 January 1777, PGW;
2. George Washington to John Hancock, 5 January 1777, PGW; Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War, A Hessian Journal, ed. and trans. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven: Yale Universtiy Press, 1979) 42-49.
3. George Washington to John Hancock, 5 January 1777, PGW; James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times, vol. 1, (Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1816), 140.
4. Wilkinson, 141.
5. Wilkinson, 141-142; Excerpt from the Journal of Captain Thomas Rodney in William S. Stryker, The Battles of Princeton and Trenton, reprint of the 1898 edition (Trenton: The Old Barracks Museum, 2001) 438.
6. Journal of Captain Thomas Rodney, 439-440; Wilkinson, 142-145.
7. Journal of Captain Thomas Rodney, 441; Wilkinson, 144.
8. George Washington to John Hancock, 5 January 1777; Nathanael Greene to Nicholas Cooke, 10 January 1777, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 2, ed. Richard K. Showman, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 4-6; George Washington to John Hancock, 7 January 1777, PGW; Ewald, 49-50; Wilkinson, 148-149; Journal of Captain Thomas Rodney, 442.
Bill, Alfred Hoyt. The Campaign of Princeton, 1776-1777. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948.
Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Press, 1973.
Stryker, William S. The Battles of Princeton and Trenton, reprint of the 1898 edition. Trenton: The Old Barracks Museum, 2001.