Guiding Washington to Trenton

The Passage of the Delaware (1819) by Thomas Sully. Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Washington’s desperate situation in December 1776 and the critical victories at Trenton and Princeton have been described often and in great detail. His lack of support from the New Jersey militia is often highlighted, along with the fact that the few militiamen who turned out did not cross to Trenton on Christmas night due to river ice conditions at their crossing point.[1] Militiamen have not been part of the main story. However, a few militiamen made a significant contribution to the success of the operation by crossing with the main army at McConkey’s Ferry and guiding Washington and the Continentals to Trenton. The story of those guides, mostly men on duty with the First Hunterdon County Militia Regiment from Trenton and its adjoining townships of Hopewell and Maidenhead, has been misunderstood if not completely overlooked. While period maps show obvious routes to Trenton, the night of December 25/26 is renowned for its stormy conditions and the army, containing no New Jersey Continental regiments, was in unfamiliar territory without the road signs, lighting, and GPS devices we depend on today in strange places. Washington’s plan of attack required his troops to arrive in a coordinated manner at Trenton and not lose time trying to find their way among the Hunterdon County farms and woodlots, so his orders for the march began with the seemingly simple words “each brigade to be furnished with two good guides.”[2]

The guides are generally described in the standard histories of the campaign as farmers or local residents who offered their services after the crossing.[3] But in reality, the guides were selected before the crossing from among First Hunterdon men stationed with various militia units under General Philemon Dickinson at Yardley’s Ferry across the Delaware from Trenton. While the men chosen were indeed mostly farmers and local residents, they should be recognized as experienced militiamen who were out on duty in response to Governor Livingston’s call up of all militiamen and not simply as local residents who agreed to join the American army on its march as “volunteer” civilian guides.[4]

The First Hunterdon was in disarray that December owing to the British occupation of their home territory and the hard service the men had experienced in the 1776 campaign. A number of First Hunterdon men volunteered for the five-month militia levies and served in General Nathaniel Heard’s militia brigade with the Continental army in the New York campaign between July 1 and November 30. They were in the thick of the fighting on Long Island, Manhattan Island, and at White Plains and then the army’s retreat across New Jersey.[5] The men remaining in the First Hunterdon that summer and fall served alternate month tours of active duty as part of the Flying Camp under General Hugh Mercer at posts opposite the British forces on Staten Island, across the state from their homes. The law establishing the terms of service for New Jersey militiamen with the Flying Camp temporarily disrupted the normal company and regimental structures. Those Flying Camp men out on duty in November or coming out for December joined the Continental army on its retreat across the state, not quite sure what their organizational status was as the system disintegrated. They and the five-month militiamen on the retreat were among the troops Washington begged to stay with the army when their enlistments were up, but who declined and went home instead.[6]

With the British on the road leading to their homes, the First Hunterdon men did not leave the army to avoid the war.  Rather, many did what they could to secure their families; they then organized makeshift companies with whichever First Hunterdon officers they could find and crossed into Pennsylvania with the Continentals on December 7 and 8. Militiaman Ben Titus remembered that after leaving the army, “I then went home to my grandfather’s who lived on the road from N. York to Philada.  I moved my mother & younger brothers out of the way of the British as I thought, to Stoney brook.  The British were spreading over the country & as soon as I got my clothes & myself cleaned I shouldered my knapsack and repaired to Yardley’s ferry in Buck’s County Pennsylvania, in Capt John Mott’s Company, to which I belonged prior to joining” the five-month levies.  “I volunteered till we could get the British checked.”[7] Fifer Henry Mershon who had been serving alternate months with the Flying-Camp was at home but turned out on December 8 and joined with Captain Phil Phillips’s makeshift company.[8] Colonel Isaac Smith of the First Hunterdon was from Trenton and crossed with the army, but the lieutenant colonel, Abraham Hunt, remained in Trenton during the British occupation and is renowned for having entertained Hessian Colonel Rall the night of the crossing.[9]

General Dickinson sent a letter to Washington on December 25th stating that he had sent a captain and 25 men to General Adam Stephen’s quarters, as requested by General Greene. The bearer of the message, Captain John Mott of the First Hunterdon, was to go next to General Stirling’s headquarters to provide him with information about local roads. Dickinson reassured Washington that Captain Mott “is a man that may be relied upon in every respect.”[10] Captain Mott has been confused routinely by historians with the officer of the same name in the Continental Line.  In his 1898 classic, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William Stryker wrote that Captain Mott was “formerly” of the Hunterdon militia, but was then recruiting for the New Jersey Continentals being raised for the next campaign. However, there is ample evidence, including Ben Titus’ statement above, that grist mill owner John Mott, who lived in Trenton Township just up the road from General Dickinson, was serving in December as a captain in the First Hunterdon and served as such throughout the war. Captain John Mott of the Continentals lived in a different part of the state and was never part of the First Hunterdon.[11]

The picture that emerges of the crossing preparations Christmas night includes at least two makeshift companies, under Captains Phil Phillips and John Mott, ordered to march from Yardley up to McConkey’s Ferry where at least two men were assigned as guides to each Continental brigade. Benjamin Morrell reported that several weeks after crossing to Pennsylvania “a few men were taken from our Regiment to act as guides for Washington when he attacked the British at Trenton.” Militiaman George Muirheid more specifically reported that Washington “selected David Laning, John Guild & John Muirheid … to ride in plain dress some distance before the army. With instructions to inform him of anything they might discover along the road of importance.” Lanning, a cooper at Captain Mott’s grist mills, had been captured in Trenton several days before the crossing, possibly on a reconnaissance mission. He took advantage of a distraction to his guards, made his escape to the house of a friend, escaped Trenton the next morning disguised as an elderly wood cutter, and got back across the river.[12]

John Phillips enrolled in the militia in 1775, heard the Declaration of Independence read to the troops at Perth Amboy, and fought in several engagements on Staten Island during Flying-Camp tours. He crossed the Delaware with the retreating army, attached himself to a makeshift company, and over the next few weeks “did duty as a sergeant and frequently crossed the Delaware on scouting parties to harass and alarm the enemy’s pickets at Trenton.” On December 25th Colonel Smith ordered the nineteen year old to go to General Mercer’s headquarters and await his orders. That evening Phillips crossed the Delaware with General Mercer.[13]

After guides had been selected there were extra First Hunterdon men who, instead of returning to Yardley, crossed with the Continentals and marched to Trenton. Ben Titus said he went up to McConkey’s Ferry where several companies rendezvoused and, “When we got to the ferry we found plenty of boats ready to take us over the river. There was ice running. On Christmas night we were all taken over, and Gen. Washington marched us right on towards Trenton.” Several of the men, such as William R. Green, were experienced ferry operators and assisted Colonel Glover’s Marblehead regiment in crossing the army.[14]

Historians have identified eighteen officers and privates representing all three First Hunterdon townships as reputed guides.[15] Once across the Delaware the guides directed the army as it marched nearly a mile and a half up the road to Bear Tavern where the army turned right and marched almost four miles to the crossroads village of Birmingham. Along the way the guides undoubtedly warned Washington about difficult conditions, such as the steep ravine encountered at Jacob’s Creek. At Birmingham the army split and some guides went with General Sullivan’s Division on River Road while the rest went with General Greene’s Division, which Washington accompanied, cutting over to the Scotch Road.


Joab Mershon stated in his pension deposition that he acted as a guide to General “Stevens” on the Scotch Road to Trenton; he must have been one of the 25 men sent to General Adam Stephens by General Dickinson.[16] Ben Titus stated, “We went down the river road till we got near the town. We were then taken across the plantations to the Scotch road leading from Penny town to Trenton & which intersected the main road from Trenton to Princeton a little above the town.” John Stevens said he also crossed at McConkey’s and “marched with the Division that came down the Pennington Road.” John Phillips said he “piloted” General Mercer’s troops “to the head of the street in Trenton.”[17]

The guides got both divisions of the army to Trenton at nearly the same time and when the leading elements of Greene’s Division encountered Hessian Lieutenant Weiderhold’s outpost at Trenton it may well have been guide David Lanning who was challenged and declared himself a friend of Washington to announce the attack.[18]

Several of the militiamen said they became involved in the battle. General Mercer’s guide, John Phillips, said he “took part in the action on the morning of the 26th.” Joab Mershon with General Stephen found himself in the thick of things with the advance brigade that was ordered to penetrate the town, prevent the enemy from forming in the streets, and set on fire any houses containing enemy troops who fired at them. William R. Green, who had helped with the crossing, accompanied the army to Trenton where he too fought in the battle. John Stevens said he was engaged “from the commencement to the close of the action at Trenton, and without boasting or claiming mention, I will say engaged in the battle part of that action.” In contrast, John Anderson said he crossed the Delaware and marched to Trenton where he was assigned to guard the baggage and ammunition wagons. While the guides did not fight as a unified company or regiment, they played important roles as experienced militiamen assisting in the crossing, scouting in advance, and guiding the brigades so that, as Ben Titus would say, Washington got “the British checked.”[19]

In the ongoing debate over the effectiveness and contributions of militia in the war of independence we should not forget that a number of individual militiamen took their duty seriously and performed well. How might the battle of Trenton have turned out if these men had not answered the militia call out and successfully guided the army to battle? What if major units of the army had wandered off the frozen dirt roads that weren’t much different from the many farm lanes and the army had not only arrived late, but also piecemeal? These men of the First Hunterdon Militia Regiment who comprised the “two good guides” furnished to each brigade deserve a more accurate designation as militiamen and greater recognition for the essential roles they played in this pivotal series of events.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: The Passage of the Delaware (1819) by Thomas Sully. Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

[1] For example see: William M. Dwyer, The Day Is Ours! November 1776-January 1777: An Inside View of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton (New York: The Viking Press, 1983); David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); and William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1898).

[2] General Orders, December 25, 1776, in Dorothy Twohig and Philander D. Chase, eds., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997+), VII: 434.

[3] For examples see: Dwyer, The Day Is Ours!, 239, 246; Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 225 and footnote; and Stryker, Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 138, 147.

[4] The full militia call out is mentioned in Livingston’s letters of November 25, 1776 to Matthias Williamson and November 27, 1776 to George Washington found in William Livingston, The Papers of William Livingston, Carl E. Prince, Editor (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1979-1988), I:188-189.

[5] For details on the structure and experiences of the men from the First Hunterdon in the Five-Month Levies in the 1776 New York campaign see: Larry Kidder, A People Harassed an Exhausted: The Story of a New Jersey Militia Regiment in the American Revolution (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 91-96, 102-108, 133-138, 140-147, 156-159, 162-164, 176-178.

[6] For the law establishing the creation and structure of the New Jersey contingent for the Flying Camp see: Minutes of the Provincial Council and Council of Safety of the State of New Jersey (Trenton: Naar, Day & Naar, 1879), 563-566. For details on the First Hunterdon participation in the Flying Camp see: Kidder, A People Harassed an Exhausted, 98, 111-118, 124-133, 147-150, 152-156, 162.

[7] Benjamin Titus Pension File W6287. For this and all pension files noted see NARA M804, Revolutionary War pension and bounty-land-warrant application files [microform] (Washington: National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1974).

[8] Henry Mershon Pension File S1058.

[9] Examples of references to Abraham Hunt entertaining Col. Rall are found in Dwyer, The Day Is Ours!. 222; Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 205; Stryker, Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 122-123.

[10] Philemon Dickinson to George Washington, December 25, 1776, in Twohig and Chase, eds., Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, VII: 434-438.

[11] Stryker, Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 138. John Mott is mentioned as a militia captain throughout the war by a number of men in their pension files. For example, at least ten militiamen, including Ben Titus (Pension File W6287), say they served under him at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. The announcement of a militia court martial in the New Jersey Gazette on February 21, 1781, page 4, lists him as a member of the court along with other officers of the First Hunterdon.

[12] Benjamin Morrell Pension File S2871; deposition of George Muirheid in David Lanning Pension File W3830; Stryker, Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 138-139.

[13] John Phillips Pension File W575.

[14] Benjamin Titus Pension File W6287; William R. Green Pension File W7560.

[15] See the footnote in Stryker, Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 137-138 for the commonly cited list. Stryker makes a large number of mistakes in identifying these men and those mistakes have been corrected in Kidder, A People Harassed and Exhausted, 210-213.

[16] Joab Mershon Pension File S13914.

[17] Benjamin Titus Pension File W6287; John Stevens Pension File W1092.

[18] Stryker, Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 147.

[19] John Phillips Pension File W575; Henry Mershon Pension File S1058; William R. Green Pension File W7560; John Anderson Pension File S798.

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  • Mr. Kidder, thank you for a most interesting and well researched article. Your greater point about the role and value of local militia is well taken. Often it is forgotten that the revolution was not a European-style war but an insurgency where local, non-Continental Army, forces that could scout and monitor British activities as well as harass them served a valuable tactical role. The militia is usually criticized for failing to stand up to British set piece attacks. History does not provide many examples of any local irregular force doing so on a regular basis. Their role is much more effective in using their local knowledge in denying the enemy free range of a countryside. I need not mention recent historical examples where American troops have discovered this to their determent.

  • Ken, thank you so much for your comments. I especially appreciate your comments concerning the value of the militia in many ways other than on the formal battlefield. When I began the research that resulted in this article, and my book on the First Hunterdon regiment, I had been studying the Revolution since childhood but had never really understood, or thought much about, the militia and its role. The research began in order to get some background information for a weekend Rev War program at a local living history farm. The family who owned the farm in the 1770’s was involved in the militia and we wanted to interpret that. The research opened my eyes to a series of stories that had not been told so I decided to write the book. My hope in writing this article is that it will encourage research into other instances where militiamen made contributions that have gone unrecognized. Thank you, again.

  • Hello Larry,
    I am reading your book on the First Hunterdon Militia and am fascinated with the seemingly intricate time schedules undertaken by these men. No wonder that after so many demanding call outs on various major marching and fighting campaigns, they and their loved ones would feel so hard put upon. Undoubtedly, without the services of the local militia, be they in New England, Metropolitan and Upstate New York as well as in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Southern states, the Revolutionary War could not have been sustained. This is one of the best and most unusual books on the Rev. War I have encountered in a while!
    Thank you!

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