The year 1776 opened with the overall promises of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet seemingly coming to fruition; however, the ensuing months were anything but militarily triumphant for General Washington’s army. Even before the ink was dry on the Declaration of Independence, American forces were on the defensive on all fronts and in a deplorable and miserable state. Paine had bravely enlisted with the Pennsylvania militia serving in New Jersey; as Washington and his troops retreated across the former British province, he correctly summarized the situation in a series of writings collectively entitled The American Crisis with the opening sentences:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot, will in this crisis, shrink man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have the consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Although these magnificent words were meant to raise moral, the American army was short of everything vital to any type of military campaign, especially in soldiers whose enlistments were primarily up as the year quickly came to a close. Even the commander-in-chief concluded to his cousin Lund Washington, “I think the game will be pretty well up;” however, Washington, whose knew his army was the lifeblood of the American Revolution and had a great military axiom of keeping it together, gambled with the 1776 Battle of Trenton. He concluded that without an army, no matter the size, the American Revolution would only be remembered in history as another failed rebellion. Trenton was a famous victory, recognized as such by both friend and foe, which brought an infusion of new blood, spirit and most importantly reenlistments for the cause of America’s War for Independence. Although many historians have interpreted this Christmas day event as a complete triumph for American arms, a number of German troops (accompanied by a handful of British dragoons), decided to follow an adage of the Roman historian Tacitus, “He that fights and runs away, may turn and fight another day; but he that is in battle slain, will never rise to fight again.”
Trenton in 1776 was a key road and communications center that had no natural defenses to fortify it. The town was comprised of approximately one hundred houses, located on both sides of the Assanpink Creek, with the larger portion on the western side near where the waterway flowed into the Delaware River. There was a vital bridge where the roadways headed southward towards the Hessian posts at Bordentown and Burlington. Roads existed on both sides of the creek to Princeton; the one on the western side, which passed through Maidenhead, was the shortest route. Another highway passing out of Trenton travelled in a northwesterly direction to Pennington. Other smaller pathways paralleled northward along the Delaware. Trenton was a confluence of many thoroughfares of various sizes that were crucial to securing the outposts established in New Jersey to pacify the rebellious province. The occupation of Trenton was also had economic advantages as it was an important center for business with prosperous river trade both above and below Trenton Falls. In addition to the road system, Trenton had ferries, small industries, and several nearby mills.
The German commander of Trenton garrison, fifty-year old Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall, a veteran of thirty-six years’ service in the Hessian army, assessed that his command was too isolated from other British and Hessian posts which made it subject to frequent raids along its perimeters. Rall’s overall superior, British Gen. James Grant, was primarily interested in finishing the pacification of New Jersey and employing the military resources he had on hand rather than pleading to Great Britain for more troops (Grant previously boasted that he could “undertake to keep the peace in New Jersey with a corporal’s guard” and that he could secure all of the colonies with 5,000 men). The British generals undoubtedly realized they were running a military risk as they scattered garrisons across the New Jersey countryside. Their overall belief was that the American army had been so defeated and subsequently demoralized that they presented no major offensive threat, especially as the harsh conditions of winter fast approached.
Despite Rall’s pleas to Grant, requests for more troops or closer supporting positions were denied. For his part, Rall did establish outposts around Trenton, yet he did nothing to build protective redoubts and earthworks within the town in spite of the urgings of his immediate commander, Col. Carl Emilius von Donop, garrisoned with his troops to the south around Bordentown and Burlington. The British extended chain of garrisons, stretching from the Delaware River to the Hudson, became hard-pressed to cope with protecting a corridor of nearly three hundred miles. Although this area was less than five percent of New Jersey, and only a tiny fraction of the entire American continent, the resources of the British and their Hessian allies were stretched to the breaking point.
At a council of war on December 23, Washington finalized his plans to strike Trenton and totally eliminate the Hessian garrison. A victory would revitalize the cause he had pledged to lead. He would personally and courageously accompany the main army of approximately 2,500 men and eighteen guns, cross the Delaware at McConkey’s Ferry (located about seven and a half miles above Trenton) and advance on the town from the north and west in two columns. The columns would envelop the enemy’s positions and drive them towards the Assunpink Creek. Simultaneously, Gen. James Ewing and his brigade (consisting of about 1,000 men) would traverse the Delaware at Trenton Ferry and capture the strategic Assunpink Bridge. They would block the enemy’s main escape route also and prevent any reinforcements from the south to relieve Trenton. Gen. John Cadwalader’s brigade, consisting of 1,200 Philadelphia Associators and Col. Daniel Hitchcock’s 600 New England Continentals, were to land at Burlington, twelve miles south of Trenton, and keep von Donop’s three battalions of grenadiers and six field guns at bay.
The outlying Hessian picket posts were prepared and manned on that Christmas Day. On the Pennington Road, the route of Gen. Nathanael Greene’s column accompanied by Washington, was a defensive position in a cooper’s house approximately a half mile outside of Trenton. It was manned by a corporal and twenty-four men under the command of Lt. Andreas von Wiederholdt. Another picket was located halfway between von Wiederholdt’s position and the town. It was under the leadership of Capt. Ernst von Altenbockum who had a company of the Lossberg Regiment. Situated on the river road about a mile from Trenton, the course of Gen. John Sullivan’s division, was a guard of fifty jägers commanded by Lt. Friedrich von Gröthausen, ironically stationed in the fine home (called The Hermitage) of American Gen. Philemon Dickinson. Other strategic military stations were at the Assunpink Bridge, on the road to Maidenhead (now Lawrenceville), and at the Crosswicks drawbridge. The latter key position caused an argument over which command should defend it. It was described as an isolated location deep in the dense New Jersey woods, four miles south of Trenton and two miles north of Bordentown. It was closer to von Donop’s authority, where he possessed an abundance of soldiers, and farther from of Rall, who was critically shorthanded; yet von Donop rejected dedicating any of his men to the bridge’s defense (and thus to keeping communications open between the two Hessian brigades), and ordered Rall to permanently detach a hundred men for it.
As darkness fell at McConkey’s Ferry on Christmas Day, the epic crossing began as the American army battled the worst Mother Nature could throw at them. By 4 a.m., all of the infantrymen and cannon were finally across the icy Delaware. Into their pre-ordered formations, the troops marched in two columns to Trenton in deplorable weather conditions. At approximately at 7:30 a.m., the head of General Greene’s brigade attacked the first of Rall’s outposts under von Wiederholdt on the Pennington Road. Although, the Hessians bravely presented a volley, the outpost’s commander quickly discerned that the American troops far outnumbered him and were virtually ignoring him, fully focused as they were on striking Trenton. Von Weiderholdt gathered his troops and the others from the nearby outpost to quickly thrust into the town to raise the alarm “Der Feind” had arrived.
As the combat in town quickly intensified it became an almost foregone conclusion as to who would be the victor. Washington’s forces had immediately pushed back or simply brushed aside all of the remote picket post troops in the way. The brigades of Sullivan and Greene miraculously managed to coordinate their respective attacks simultaneously as the American troops strove to seize their objective covered by lethally effective artillery fire. As the Hessian regiments attempted to form ranks it appeared to them that they were under fire from all directions, further adding to their confusion. The Americans were undoubtedly the masters of Trenton. Rall and his officers attempted to rally the Rall and Von Lossberg Regiments and were briefly successful with this almost impossible task; however, instead of trying to break out towards Princeton, Rall headed them into Trenton where the Americans were everywhere and nowhere. This never-ending American fire against the almost defenseless Hessians eventually found their leader, Colonel Rall, a prominent target on his charger. He was soon mortally wounded in the hip and shoulder. As he fell from his horse, the Hessians waivered and lost heart in continuing the struggle. Some units had already made their decisions on how to escape Washington’s tightening ring and became determined to save their honor rather than surrender. The others, after observing the disintegration of their command structure, simply submitted to the Americans.
The first troops to escape Washington’s envelopment were the only British troops present at Trenton, twenty troopers of the 16th Light Dragoons assigned to Rall for reconnaissance and messenger service. As the Americans first attacked the outlying the Hessian outposts, the dragoons quickly mounted their horses, crossed the Assunpink Bridge while it was still in Hessian hands, and galloped at full speed to Princeton. Following on their heels were Lt. Friedrich von Gröthausen’s fifty jägers who were stationed at The Hermitage. The prolific Hessian diarist Capt. Johann Ewald, who had a notable sense of observation and recorded military information in detail, strongly criticized von Gröthausen (who was later promoted to captain ostensibly as a reward for saving his command). Ewald wrote,
Had this officer patrolled diligently as far as Pennington on the morning when Washington crossed the Delaware, the enemy would have been discovered. He could have thrown himself into the house to cover the road to Trenton, which would have detained General Washington until Colonel Rall could support him, for the colonel did not lack resoluteness. Instead of doing this, the jägers abandoned their post as soon as they caught sight of the enemy.
Ewald inferred that the young von Gröthausen lacked the mettle of the “two courageous officers” (von Wiederholdt and von Altenbockum) commanding the other forward picket posts as they “withdrew under steady fire” facing “the entire force of General Washington.
Hessian leadership continued to crumble when more and more of the senior officers were mortally or seriously wounded. The Knyphausen Regiment lost its leader; Maj. Friedrich von Dechow. He was wounded and succumbed to his injuries within two days. In his rapidly failing condition, he turned authority over to his second in command, Capt. Bernard von Biesenrodt, advising him to surrender the regiment to prevent its total destruction as it was in an indefensible positon.
Von Biesenrodt, however, had no intention of capitulating at this point. He advised Staff Capt. Jacob Baum, Captain von Löwenstein, and Lt. Nicholas Vaupell that he, and the fifty or so troops still rallied to them, to evade their way out of Washington’s trap. With the Assunpink Bridge now firmly in American hands, they sought a relatively safe place to cross the waterway, probing along the marshy embankment. Despite the strenuous going in marshy ground, a ford was discovered and the small unit started across the creek. Baum later commented that, “I was unlucky enough to hit a deep spot where the water reached as high as my mouth and I was in danger of drowning.” With assistance from a soldier immediately ahead of him, the sheer frozen creek walls were scaled. Baum had a personal triumph that he managed to retain his exceptional officer’s saber; a personal honor for him, giving a deep sense of self-esteem.
A number of officers admired the courageous example of Baum, who knew how to swim, as he forded the swift and icy current of the Assunpink Creek. Von Löwenstein and Vaupell probed the water’s depth with their spontoons and made a successful determinations for their crossing. Although Vaupell lost his footing several times, he used his spontoon to catch a tree root to provide more stability. He was quickly followed by Barthold Helfrich von Schimmelpfennig, a wounded Lt. Ludwig von Geyso, and Fusileer Conrad Muhling, who came close to drowning and was rescued with tremendous exertion. Three soldiers in this party were carried away by the current and presumably died while others, who could not surmount the water obstacle, turned back to surrender with their regiment.
Other Hessian fusiliers, perhaps also inspired by Baum and their other officers, stripped off their cartridge-boxes and other burdensome equipment to employ their swimming skills. They entered the freezing water only a short distance beyond the control of American artillery; however, many did turn back due to the churning tidal water. Lt. Heinrich Reinhardt Hille, a twenty-two year old from the Lower Saxony town of Rinteln, also traversed the Assunpink. As he and the others fled into the countryside, they observed in the short distance the demeaning surrender of their proud comrades in the Knyphausen Regiment. Altogether, it had only been about an hour and a half since the first American fire struck the Hessian outposts.
After reaching relative security, Baum wrote in his report, “I would have tried to rejoin my regiment even under a hundred times greater danger to my life if I hadn’t seen to my painful mortification that our regiment had been captured.” He and the fifty or so Hessian soldiers of various ranks, soaked from their crossing in horrendous weather conditions, hurriedly ran through the unfamiliar fields towards Princeton by way of the drawbridge at Crosswicks Creek. They feared the Americans were chasing them, especially after hearing the jägers, somewhere distantly ahead, firing their weapons to properly check that they were in working order in case they were needed. After an arduous journey, Baum and his men safely arrived ten hours later to relate their rather unbelievable story to British Gen. Alexander Leslie in Princeton. Due to the harsh weather and iced river, Gens. Ewing and Cadwalader were not able to complete their assignments to spring the trap and block the escaping Hessians and British.
Eminent Trenton battle researchers and authors William S. Stryker, H. Borton Butcher and Samuel Steele Smith estimated the number of escaped troops totaled from 412 to 633. These estimates include the surviving artillerymen under Lieutenants Johann Engelhardt and Friedrich Fischer; the British dragoons; Sgt. Johannes Müller’s eighteen Assunpink Bridge guards (who defended this position for over an hour against overwhelming odds); and the various troops from the outlying outposts. Due to Müller’s men fortitude, many Hessian noncombatants escaped over the bridge including their surgeons, some musicians and drummers of the Knyphausen regiment, and the various regiments’ women and children. In addition, these totals include the one hundred troops stationed at the Crosswicks drawbridge. Of the rank and file of the three regular regiments of the Trenton garrison, Müller indicated that “not a single man came over” the bridge.
Given this information, historian David Hackett Fischer compiled a list of those Hessian and British troops who managed to successfully flee to fight another day:
British 16th Light Dragoons 20
Engerhardt’s Artillery 12
Gröthausen’s Jägers 50
Musicians and drummers 20
Guard at the Assunpink Bridge 18
Troops at Trent House 30
Guard at South Ferry 15
Crosswick’s Outpost 150
Von Biesenrodt’s Knyphausen Regimental survivors 53
Fischer’s total number is 368 or close to twenty-five percent of the Colonel Rall’s Trenton garrison. It is obvious that if Ewing and Cadwalader had succeeded with their assignments as ordered by Washington, the number of Hessian and British troops who fled would have been considerably lower and the prisoner figures significantly higher. “I am fully confident” wrote Washington to the President of Congress, John Hancock, “that could the Troops under Generals Ewing and Cadwallader have passed the River, I should have been able, with their Assistance, to have driven the Enemy from their all posts below Trenton.” Robert Morris felt Colonel Cadwalader had done his best to fulfill his mission and “got over 1000 men near Burlington, but cou’d not land his artillery on Acct of the Ice & this day being such extream bad Weather.”
When news of this defeat reached Europe, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, Friedrich II, was infuriated with the performance of his soldiers. He criticized that such a loss would have been unfeasible had the normal strict Hessian discipline not been relaxed. He demanded a full inquest of the escapees and the imprisoned officers (whom he expected would be exchanged) with a threat that all of those found guilty of misconduct would be held to the highest level of military justice. He proclaimed that he would never restore their regimental colors, a source of great pride for any military unit, until his soldiers has seized an equal number from the enemy, thus wiping out this stain on German honor and pride. Although the Landgrave was arbitrary with his wrath, a court-martial was eventually called by the new ranking German commander in America, Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen, which was not completed until 1782. The three Hessian regiments were eventually exonerated. The one considered the major offender of this affair was Colonel Rall, who paid the ultimate price for his lack of military defensive precautions and was made the scapegoat for the entire affair.
George Washington to Lund Washington, December 10-17, 1776, in Dorothy Twohig and Philander D. Chase, et al, eds., The Papers of George Washington-Revolutionary War Series, October 1776-January 1777, 24 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985-1997), 7:289.
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), 268-269; Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 188.
Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 188-190; H. Borton Butcher, The Battle of Trenton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934), 36; Samuel Steel Smith, The Battle of Trenton (Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1965), 31.