“When a man chooses a calling, he must do everything that can be done in that calling so that he can never suffer reproach for having done only half of his duty. On this account, I keep among the mottoes in my portfolio, to serve at times as a reminder, the following from Boileau: ‘Honor is like an island, Steep and without shore: They who once leave Can never return.’”—Johann von Ewald
After the First Battle of Trenton, a court of inquiry judged Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall, commander of the garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, and his deputy, Maj. Friedrich von Dechow, commander of the Knyphausen Regiment, to be responsible for the loss of the post. History has judged Colonel Rall guilty of tactical and personal negligence. Did the effects of alcohol and vice diminish his character, or was it arrogance and contempt for the capabilities of the Americans that caused his failure of preparation and situational awareness? Historians have repeatedly mistreated Colonel Rall and his men at the Battle of Trenton, describing them as inebriated, ill-prepared, and otherwise distracted by the holiday season. None of this was true. Rall’s story is tainted by tradition and lore that obscure the historical information.
General William Howe, the British Commander in Chief, recognized Colonel Rall for his skill and courage at the Battles of White Plains and Fort Washington and rewarded him with the command at Trenton for his actions. Trenton was indeed a failure and a turning point in the war, but not for the reasons commonly accepted. Distrust between the British and Germans, contempt for the Americans, and a misjudgment of the relative safety of their winter quarters all contributed to this turning point of the American Revolution.
Johann Gottlieb Rall was born sometime around 1726 in Hesse-Cassel, a German-speaking polity of the Holy Roman Empire. He was destined for military service, as many young men of his time were in this part of the world. He first became a cadet in his father’s regiment and was promoted to warrant officer in July 1741. His rise through the ranks was steady, and he saw service throughout the continent. He saw action in the War of Austrian Succession, where he lead troops in Bavaria, the Rhine, and the Netherlands. He continued to build on his combat experience during the Seven Year’s War on the continent of Europe. In April 1771 he assumed command of an infantry regiment. From September 1771 through August 1772, he fought in the service of Catherine the Great’s army in the Russo-Turkish War. When Frederick II of Hesse-Cassel signed a treaty with King George III to provide troops for service in the American colonies, fifty-year-old Rall had thirty-six years of military service as a professional soldier. Howe gave Rall command of a brigade.
On December 13, 1776, Gen. William Howe informed Col. Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop that he was placing him in command of two Hessian brigades, his own and that of Colonel Rall. In addition to the two brigades, three battalions of grenadiers, a company of Jägers under Capt. Johann Ewald, artillery, and an engineer officer would all be under Colonel von Donop’s orders. Von Donop assigned the engineer officer, Capt. Georg Heinrich Pauli, to Rall at Trenton to supervise the construction of prescribed defensive redoubts. Von Donop then marched onto Bordentown, where he went into winter quarters.
By late November 1776, Washington’s army had crossed New Jersey and established itself on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, denuding the river of any boats on the New Jersey side for seventy miles and burning bridges along the way. General Howe was not one to pursue retreating enemies in the winter. He was intent on setting up winter quarters, and his order to Maj. Gen. James Grant was to have Colonel von Donop hold the line from Trenton to Burlington, establishing posts and pickets along the way. Howe believed, and Grant concurred, that the posts were close enough to support each other in the event one was attacked. So confident was the British command that Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, General Howe’s immediate and very worthy subordinate, prepared to return to England for a visit with his family. Howe terminated the 1776 campaign and returned to New York. He issued this order on December 14:
The campaign having closed with the pursuit of the enemies army near ninety miles by Lieutenant General Cornwallis’s Corps, much to the honor of his Lordship and the officers and soldiers under his command, the approach of winter putting a stop to any further progress, the troops will immediately march into quarters and hold themselves in readiness to assemble on the shortest notice.
When Colonel von Donop ordered Colonel Rall into winter quarters at Trenton on December 14, 1776, he did so with express orders to garrison the town and protect the two bridges over adjacent creeks. The Hessian command intended that the protection of those bridges would ensure that the lines of communication with Bordertown and Princeton were kept open. Von Donop provided these orders in a letter dated that same day. Those orders required Rall to report formally every fourteen days, and informed Rall that von Donop would inspect his preparations in the coming days. Two days later, von Donop reported to Gen. Alexander Leslie by endorsement that he was in winter quarters, including Trenton, Bordertown, and Burlington, and a described the composition of the defending units. Von Donop also placed a garrison at Princeton. On that same day, he reported to General Grant that he had reviewed Rall’s plan, approved it, and would commence inspecting Rall’s defenses on the 17th.
Rall’s plan was to avoid building redoubts or any other defensive fortifications because the enemy surrounded him at the time. Instead, he favored maneuverability on the battlefield. He expressed this to von Donop again in a letter dated December 21 and requested reinforcements. Later, von Donop and Rall’s subordinates would report that Rall ignored or refused orders from von Donop to build the redoubts, but Rall’s letters refute those accusations.
Also on the 17th, Rall informed von Donop that he had dispatched patrols as far as Bordertown and Maidenhead. He also reported enemy probing crossings from the Pennsylvania side of the river. Meanwhile, Rall concerned himself with moving oxen from Trenton to Bordentown, preparation for sending his quartermaster to New York to arrange provisions, and receipt of twenty fresh horses for his Dragoons. These activities suggest an engaged and alert commander.
On the 18th, Americans probed the same crossing as the day before, and like in previous engagements, Rall’s force suffered casualties. On the 20th he lost three men, captured on the road to Maidenhead, indicating that the Americans were moving about the countryside on the east side of the Delaware River in New Jersey. In his report to von Donop, Rall complained that General Leslie had again ignored his requests to reinforce his right flank at Princeton and that he was particularly vulnerable at Maidenhead. He also apprised von Donop of the location of American Gen. William Stirling’s troops on the Pennsylvania side of the river, again indicating that he was aware and engaged. Meanwhile, General Grant wrote to von Donop providing administrative instructions on routine matters, and mentioned that Rall had written three letters to him. His only comment was that Rall needed to apply fewer resources to such dispatches. And that Rall made too much of the rebels.
Rall wrote twice to von Donop on the 21st. In his first letter, he informed von Donop of interactions with the enemy that had resulted in additional casualties and reminded him of his appeal to Leslie for more troops to reinforce Maidenhead. A reinforcement would allow Rall to train the entirety of his resources on the Delaware river where he believed an attack would occur. Rall refused several requests from von Donop for additional patrols and security, stating that he could not spare a battalion when exposed at his front, rear, and right flank. On this same day, von Donop wrote to General Grant summarizing Rall’s concerns, relaying the report of casualties and conditions, and reminding Leslie of his requests for reinforcement at Princeton and his exposure points, particularly to the south and flank.
While von Donop was writing to Grant, Grant responded directly to Rall. He admonished Rall to direct his requests to von Donop, reduce the number of troops attending to lines of communication, and explained Howe’s disapproval of deploying troops to Maidenhead. He indicated he had instructed Brigadier General Leslie to provide patrols to extend the lines of communication from Princeton to Trenton but only at the direct request of von Donop. However, others were aware of the threat. Rall received letters from one of his captains about stationing troops at the bridge at Crosswicks and another from General Leslie contradicting Grant and informing Rall of reinforcements from Princeton to Trenton and Maidenhead. Grant and the other generals knew how stretched they were across the New Jersey frontier. But Grant concluded that the American army was defeated and that the winter conditions were such that the Americans posed no serious threat.
While it is not in dispute that von Donop instructed Rall to build redoubts and other defensive structures, Rall’s reason for not doing so was not disobedience but a belief that doing so was futile for defending a town. Rall also understood that such work might only serve to weaken his already exhausted troops. He clearly informed von Donop of this, and von Donop approved of his plans. Still, Rall prepared pickets in several places. Beginning on the 21st he ordered all men to sleep under arms, and each morning, he personally led patrols with detachments, including artillery, along the river banks. He had expressed that he would not attempt to defend Trenton but would meet the Americans in the open fields of battle.
On the eve of the battle, hearing shots fired, Rall led a patrol to investigate what was a probing action by Gen. James Ewing’s men. Meanwhile, the weather was turning bad with heavy snow and wind. Rall returned to town. Lt. Andreas Wiederhold had his troops take shelter at their picket, and other pickets under Capt. Ernst von Altenbockum and Lt. Friedrich von Gröthausen did their best to seek shelter. Maj. Friedrich von Dechow, the duty officer, canceled the next morning’s patrol. Meanwhile, Washington had already commenced the crossing of the Delaware.
Rall was not personally negligent. His men were on duty, prepared, and under arms. They were present at their posts or in their barracks, sleeping but dressed and ready at a moment’s notice. Rall had led a patrol that evening and was present on the battlefield the morning of the battle, leading from the front. Mortally wounded, he continued to consider the welfare of his officers and men in his final appeal directly to Washington.
His most ardent detractor, Lt. Andreas Wiederhold, in his diary was overly critical of Rall and provided an analysis criticizing Rall’s pleasure with aesthetics, such as his preoccupation with his hautboists, parading of the troops, and the ceremonial pomp of moving the artillery at set intervals of the day. Wiederhold outlined four primary elements of Rall’s failure. First was his failure of intelligence by not knowing the proximity of the enemy. Second, after the pickets were attacked, he failed to dispatch patrols. Rall failed to keep the entire garrison under arms through the night and, finally, a failed to retreat the garrison to save them. While Wiederhold and von Dechow’s protests and suggestions are documented in the diary, they are not fully contextualized without the benefit of Rall’s letters to Grant and von Donop. Wiederhold’s vanity and ego are present in his writing. No doubt Rall was surprised by Washington’s attack. However, by his own account and only by chance, Wiederhold escaped the same fate as Rall, von Dechow, and Gröthausen.
Finally, there is the matter of the Landgraf, Friedrich Wilhelm II of Hesse-Cassel. He was undoubtedly embarrassed by the first significant defeat of his troops and the understanding that this, combined with the subsequent loss at Princeton, had not only turned the tide of the war but reflected poorly on his contributions to the British. He was angry at the result and looked to place blame. He ordered a court-martial, but command changes and other reliefs stalled the production by several years. Friedrich believed this loss would never have occurred if Rall had not relaxed discipline. For discipline to have eroded to the point where senior commanders find fault in an officer, the court of inquiry must demonstrate dereliction of duty or negligence. If history is to weigh the merits of such a charge, an understanding of the definition must first be established and accepted. For Rall to have been guilty of negligence, the presiding officer over the inquiry would have to establish that Rall failed to behave with a level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances. This proof must extend beyond action to that of omissions of action where a duty to act existed.
Friedrich expected this inquisition to extend to all officers. Eventually, Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen conducted the court-martial, but completed it only in 1782. The court cleared all the officers, including those deceased, except for Colonel Rall and Major von Dechow. Rall’s long history of exemplary service was laid aside in favor of this brief two-week period of misfortune that ended with his death.
With little benefit for anyone to defend his honor, historians and academics have accepted the false claims of personal and professional negligence. The facts demonstrate the singular failures of a professional officer encumbered with a false sense of comfort in his abilities, an unhealthy disrespect for his enemy, and a lack of support from his superiors. No one questioned Rall’s courage. His closest officers never accused him of anything more than appreciating life. Lt. Jakob Piel described him as meriting the highest respect, caring for his subordinates, and being born to be a soldier. He called Rall courageous enough but lacking in presence of mind.
Wiederhold’s initial reaction on December 26 was how this loss would find him terminally as a lieutenant and stilt his professional growth. Indeed, Wiederhold levied routine criticism of Rall’s performance throughout his journal, primarily in the level of attenuation he prescribed to the defense and the overreaction to minor skirmishes as they occurred. Before the court judgment, Wiederhold absolved himself from any responsibility. A close study of his journal fails to uncover any self-reflection or doubt in his own performance. Here it is fair to scrutinize Wiederhold’s sense of honor, particularly since Rall had since expired.
Quartermaster Heusser of the von Lossberg regiment wrote in his journal of Rall’s character, describing him as too proud to retreat a step. Instead, he dared to attempt the most daring acts but needed a more calm presence of mind for the day’s events. Capt. Johann Ewald blamed Colonel von Donop for failing to reply and react to Rall’s routine requests for assistance, and recognized that Rall would forever bear the blame because he lost his life during the battle.
In New York on January 11, 1782, the court of inquiry issued a unanimous verdict. It recommended to Friedrich Wilhelm II that the regiments von Lossberg, von Knyphausen, and Rall could not bear the blame for lacking courage or insubordination. They recommended the acquittal of all surviving officers. The inquiry concluded that Colonel Rall and Major von Dechow were culpable and laid the foundations for the ill fate of the brigade. The court absolved all the surviving officers from penalty.
The story might end there. Maj. Carl Leopold von Bauermeister, adjutant general to all three Hessian commanders in chief during the war and aid-de-camp to Sir Henry Clinton from 1779 to 1782, wrote in his journal, “Why the surprise was so sudden and so disastrous for the brigade I cannot explain in detail, but this much is certain; the day before, Colonel Rall wrote to Colonel von Donop that his brigade was extremely fatigued because of the miserable weather and continuous service and was in no condition to defend the post without relief and reinforcements.” Baurmeister’s observation, considering the totality of his observations in the conduct of the war, best summarizes an official position on the loss of the garrison at Trenton. It should mitigate all attempts to place sole responsibility on Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall. While the loss was significant, it should dispel any notion that Rall was personally negligent in his duty to protect his portion of the pickets and properly proportions responsibilities between the local commanders and upwards to the top generals in the colonies at the time, including Gen. William Howe.
Andrew A. Zellers-Frederick, “The Hessians Who Escaped Washington’s Trap at Trenton,” Journal of the American Revolution (April 18, 2018), allthingsliberty.com/2018/04/the-hessians-who-escaped-washingtons-trap-at-trenton/.
Bruce E. Burgoyne, Defeat, Disaster, and Dedication: The Diaries of the Hessian Officers Jakob Piel and Andreas Wiederhold (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2008). Also, Andreas Wiederhold, “Colonel Rall at Trenton,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Bibliography, Vol. 22, No. 4. (1898), 467.
Carl Leopold Bauermeister, Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals 1776-1784 of Adjutant General Major Bauermeister of the Hessian Forces, trans., ed. Bernhard A. Uhlendorf (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957), 78.