Charles J. Peterson, Washington at the Battle of Trenton, 1810
Shortly after eight o'clock on the morning of December 26, 1776, the Continental Army started its charge on the city. Three columns marched through thick snow with Washington personally leading the middle charge. As the soldiers pushed forward, artillery began to fire. At the same time, German drums urgently called the Hessians to arms. To his astonishment, Washington had maintained the element of surprise.
Immediately after the firing began, three Hessian regiments ran from their quarters ready to fight, quickly forming ranks. As the Hessians grouped, the Continental Army entered the city at two points: John Stark marched into the city on River Road from the west, while Nathaniel Greene and Washington arrived from the north. Andreas von Wiederholdt, a Hessian lieutenant, incorrectly reported to Colonel Johann Rall that the Continental Army had surrounded Trenton and there was no available route for retreat. As a result, Rall decided to counterattack Washington within the city and not retreat across Assunpink Creek. This proved to be costly as Washington's forces occupied the highest ground in the city and had clear views of all of Rall's movements.
Time after time, Washington countered Rall's efforts to outflank the Continentals. Eventually, Washington's forces overpowered the Hessians. Rall was mortally wounded and many of his soldiers broke ranks, fleeing from the fighting. Normally very disciplined, Rall's regiment was confused and disoriented without their commander. They retreated to an orchard east of Trenton where they were forced to surrender.
Despite the large number of Hessians that escaped Trenton, Washington still won a crucial strategic and material victory. In only one hour of fighting, the Continental Army captured nearly nine hundred Hessian officers and soldiers as well as a large supply of muskets, bayonets, swords, and cannons. Washington ordered his soldiers to treat the Hessian prisoners in a humane manner, and the general quickly focused his attention on what to do next. Washington assembled all of his officers in Trenton to discuss whether they should attack another post, hold their position in Trenton, or retreat back across the Delaware. Washington decided that because of the condition of his army, the best move was to return to their camps across the River.
Edward Percy Moran, Washington inspecting the captured colors after the battle of Trenton. Lithograph of painting by Hayes Litho. Co., Buffalo, N.Y., 1914.
When the Continental Army returned to camp on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, soldiers were exhausted. They had marched and fought for two straight days through rain, snow, sleet, and hail. Washington knew that his army had far exceeded expectations at Trenton and that they faced many more challenges going forward. However, he also understood that doing nothing was even more dangerous. As a result, Washington shifted his focus to planning another engagement, at Princeton.
Texas Tech University
Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983.
Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Mount Vernon's library holdings related to the Battle of Trenton
"George Washington to The President of Congress, John Hancock, 27 December 1776."
(Reporting on the victory at Trenton)