The 1776 campaign season had ended badly for General George Washington and the Continental Army as the dejected Patriots struggled through foul weather over primitive New Jersey roads as they marched toward Trenton in early December. To compound matters, Washington was faced with certain termination of the conflict if the situation did not dramatically improve. The only remedy at this bleak hour would be a bold, almost miracle-like, victory to turn his fortunes around.
True to his character Washington, with his army now safe in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the first week of December, urgently set out to save his young nation’s cause. His enterprise, planning, and innovation ultimately resulted in crossing the Delaware River and the subsequent attack on the isolated Trenton outpost. This event, which occurred on the evening of December 25 and carried into the morning of the 26th has gone down as one of the most singular, recognizable, and critical events in the American national story. This decisive moment, however, was only possible because of a series of independent, yet strategically linked incidents, which individually laid the foundation for Washington’s strategic stroke of genius and the rescue of the American cause. Washington understood the necessity of keeping rivercraft out of the hands of the British and securing the ferry systems along the river. There were many key areas along the Delaware River, the most important of which was Burlington, a bustling little town that served as the gateway to Philadelphia.
The small yet commercially prosperous river font town of Burlington, New Jersey, boasted several large ferries, wharves, major road networks, and a military barracks. For British general Sir William Howe’s army, Burlington was the first step to taking the rebel capital of Philadelphia by land in 1776, and, certainly, Washington and other top Continental officers also acknowledged its vital importance for the same reason. On December 8, the day after his army crossed into Pennsylvania, Washington, now roughly twenty miles north of Burlington, seized its critical importance in the larger strategic focus. Col. John Cadwalader, then at Continental Army headquarters at Trenton Ferry, received orders from Washington to “dispatch a party of men from Philadelphia to cut down and destroy the two bridges on the Burlington Road, one on Pensawkin [Pennsauken] and the other on Cooper’s Creek, as he is apprehensive the enemy intend to pass to Philadelphia by that route.” The reference to the Burlington Road implies that its junction at Burlington was of major significance should Howe opt to use Cooper’s Ferry further south in conjunction with the upper ferry.
As the tense situation along the Delaware continued to reveal itself, new strategic initiatives and opportunities forced new decisions to be made. Washington dispatched Virginia Col. Samuel Griffin to organize the Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland County militias and take them into Burlington County to create a “diversion.” While Griffin was gathering his force, other disconnected commands prepared to make their own strikes. The small, undermanned, and ill-equipped Pennsylvania Navy had in the waning days of 1776 performed valuable service. The gunboats and galleys of its fleet had helped cross Washington’s dejected army from Trenton on December 7 and had since vigorously patrolled the river, remaining vigilant for what was coming next. 
The Pennsylvania Navy was the most significant military obstacle that Howe’s forces would have to overcome should the decision be made to cross the Delaware and move on Philadelphia. Commodore Thomas Seymour, in command of the forces in that part of the river, saw fit to dispatch four galleys to protect the area around Burlington. This small squadron had strict orders to cannonade the town should Hessian troops appear within its limits. While the naval forces gathered themselves, the second largest force next to the main Continental Army at Newtown, Pennsylvania was gathering across the river from Burlington in Bristol. This command consisted of five battalions of the Pennsylvania Associators, the Burlington County militia, and a later addition of New England Continentals. This force was responsible for protecting the area ranging from Bordentown down to Dunks Ferry just south of Burlington. Holding Bristol ensured opposition to any attempt by Howe to cross, but it was soon recognized that any Hessian advance from Bordentown toward Burlington would need to be checked or contested by forces in New Jersey in order to deprive the enemy of its vital usage.
The concept for this aggressive defense was probably formulated by officers in the Pennsylvania Navy. Aside from retaining overall command of the operation, with its officers leading the land force, this novice navy had in the days prior patrolled up and down the river, pulling into the various creeks and streams to confiscate boats and other craft from being used by their enemy. They gained firsthand knowledge of the terrain, and the general road networks, and could by the presence of their boats on the river dictate which route the Hessians would have to march to get to Burlington. Contesting them on the inland route was a way to save Burlington from occupation and thwart Howe’s grand strategy.
As would be expected, Philadelphia, the capital of the new United States, was embroiled in panic as the war approached its doorstep. The Council of Safety, eager to provide for the defense of the region, sought Washington’s advice. The general responded on December 10 to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety:
Yours of last Evening reached me at 4 OClock this Morning. I immediately sent Orders to Commodore Seymour to dispatch one of his Gallies down to Dunk’s Ferry, and I shall dispose of the Remainder in such Manner, and at such places as will be most likely, not only to annoy the Enemy in their passage, but to give the earliest Information of any Attempt of that kind. Parties of the Enemy have been reconnoitering both up and down the River, and I imagine it has been one of those parties that have appeared near Burlington, for as they have not found the least Opposition from the people of Jersey, they venture very far from their main Body, which from the best Information still lays.
The need for organized bodies of troops to secure New Jersey was paramount, but with the Continental Army securely on the Pennsylvania side of the river, the largely inexperienced New Jersey militia was hard-pressed to take on the bulk of the Crown Forces alone. The Pennsylvania Committee of Safety also recognized that
whereas, some designing, ill-disposed persons, have spread false reports that the number of troops now in New Jersey is too great; that many are in consequence discharged by the generals; and that there is not any occasion to forward the troops who have not yet been at camp. The Council, therefore, to frustrate the designs of such persons, and to hasten the march of the Associators to the Camp in Jersey. Make known that there is an immediate necessity for the Associators to hasten their march to the said camp with all expedition and pay no regard to any reports which do not come from this Council or other proper authority.
As early as September, the Pennsylvania Navy had been preparing for the war to come to the Philadelphia area, which saw both Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia forces begin preparing the Delaware River for defense. Capt. Thomas Seymour was appointed commodore in September 1776 and was furnished with instructions from his superiors at the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety. The instructions consisted of five necessary guiding principles for the commodore and his fleet. The points elaborated on the need to maintain a disciplined force that remained in constant readiness to meet the enemy. As a final thought, the Committee stressed the need for the fleet to operate as one:
these being the principal matters that have occurred to the Council, they earnestly recommend to you however, that you endeavour to promote the Utmost Harmony between you and the officers of the fleet, and between one another, on which depends so much the success of every undertaking where men are to act in concert, and mutual assistance required.
With Patriot militia concentrating on the Bristol side of the Delaware in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Navy’s vigilant patrolling, it became immediately clear to Col. Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop, the commander of the Hessian and Scottish forces in the Bordentown area, that there would be some level of resistance. Von Donop was an opportunist and was not fighting in the American rebellion because he was ordered to by his landgrave; he had willingly volunteered and pushed for the assignment, as he hoped it would further his career. His professional eye was set on obtaining an appointment in the Prussian service, the best European army at the time. Action in America afforded him the opportunity to establish a sturdy command and combat record that would make him more marketable to Prussia. Von Donop had served with distinction during the Seven Years’ War and afterward as the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel’s personal adjutant prior to coming to America. Von Donop and the Hessians had been in the war since the summer of 1776, and they had already established a fearsome reputation for themselves, fighting fiercely at the battle of Long Island and especially the assault on Fort Washington.
As the last of the Continental troops crossed the Delaware River to safety, Sir William Howe began to reign in his forces. Although he was often criticized by contemporaries and later by scholars, it is fair to point out that putting a temporary halt to operations to regroup was a wholly sound strategic principle, allowing him, in theory, to apply his army’s maximum potential in a final stroke on Philadelphia under favorable conditions. The deployment of the Hessians on the left flank of his line of garrisons across New Jersey, aside from symbolically recognizing their excellent performance, also had a calculated propaganda factor. Hessian soldiers were feared, and their concentrated presence in Southern New Jersey may have served to deter the untried local militia from any significant resistance. For a rebellion that seemed very likely to be over in a matter of days if not weeks, this appeared to be a sound strategy.
Von Donop was the senior ranking officer in Southern New Jersey. This, coupled with his desire to advance his reputation, made taking Burlington, the principal riverfront city needed to capture Philadelphia by a land campaign, a very tempting target. At his disposal and immediate command, he had roughly 2,500 men. These troops consisted of the Hessian grenadier battalions Linsingen, Block, and Minnigerode; Hessian jägers; and the 42nd Regiment of Foot. The brigade was rounded out with six 3-pound cannons served by Hessian artillery and two 6- and 3-pound guns from the Royal Artillery. Additionally, von Donop had command over the Trenton garrison and was expecting heavy cannons capable of contesting the Delaware River fleet. His plan was simple: once in Bordentown he would stage his men, proceed with a detachment down to Burlington to test its limits, and determine if he could immediately occupy the town or wait for the arrival of the heavy cannon then en route from New York.
The three Hessian Grenadier battalions and the Jäger detachment occupied posts in the immediate vicinity of Bordentown. One important detachment occupied the middle ground between Bordentown and Trenton along Crosswicks Creek and acted as the lifeline for communication between the two larger garrisons. Immediately south of Bordentown, Capt. Johann Ewald and his detachment of Jägers occupied an advanced post at the Lewis family mill situated along Black Creek, a small tributary that emptied into the Delaware River. Although the Lewis family were patriots, Captain Ewald recalled the warm hospitality offered by the family, from which a friendship grew. Ewald’s men were ideal for this sort of outpost duty and were the logical choice to act as the vanguard when von Donop chose to make his move on Burlington. The last command associated with the larger Trenton-Bordentown force was comparatively its most unique; the 42nd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Highland Regiment or Black Watch, would hold an isolated outpost in Black Horse several miles east of Bordentown and just north of Mount Holly.
Through one channel or another, word of von Donop’s plan was made known to the Patriot forces within the sector. Gathering an appreciation of the lethality of von Donop’s command, local commanders understood that the mostly-untried militia forces would likely have a hard time contesting the full might of their enemy in open traditional combat. The decision was made to dispatch the 5th Battalion of the Philadelphia Associators, which was designated a rifle battalion. These men in their rudimentary hunting shirts and rifles could in theory obstruct and haunt any movement southward towards Burlington and add a morale boost to the Burlington militia with their presence.
Pennsylvania Navy officers, Capt. Wingate Newman, Capt.-Lt. William Baxter, Lt. John Sober, and 2nd Lt. Nathaniel Wallace had been given temporary army commissions on December 7, and were the officers most likely placed in charge of the coming land portion of the operation. These men, sometime between the 7th and 10th of December, met with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia officers to hatch out the details of the plan. This ad-hoc force totaling about 100 men would rendezvous in the early morning hours of December 11 somewhere near modern-day Fieldsboro. From here they would strike the marching Hessians with hit-and-run tactics, and destroy the many small bridges along the way to Burlington.
Almost all of these men had no previous combat experience, and the prospect of facing soldiers rumored to have no respect for Americans must have unnerved them slightly. Nevertheless, the 5th Battalion was in theory suited for the type of fighting they were about to engage in. These riflemen were feared amongst their enemies, and this coupled with the general terrain in the region favored defensive military actions suited for their skillset. There were only several roads that a large military force such as von Donop’s could travel on, with the most direct route to Burlington covered by the prowling eyes of the Pennsylvania galleys. Along the inland roads to Burlington, the countryside was generally flat, with small knolls, fence lines, and scattered woodlots interspersed throughout the neatly kept farms and plantations. There were several small bridges along the route, but the bodies of water they spanned were insignificant obstacles for a determined aggressor.
From von Donop’s perspective the weather considerations on December 11 were ideal for a movement; there had been no rain since December 5, and the temperature had consistently remained above freezing with mostly overcast and fog dominating the river in the early hours of the day. It was protocol before making a general advance on an objective to reconnoiter it. Whatever rumors on the strength of the Patriot forces filtered into von Donop’s headquarters would need to be verified. Three hundred grenadiers along with Ewald’s Jägers were selected for the assignment. The only direct road to Burlington protected from the galleys was the York Road (modern Old York Road). With the temperature in the mid-thirties, the Hessian column of 300 grenadiers, jägers, two field pieces, and amusettes, began its reconnaissance in the early morning hours of December 11.
It remains unclear when Americans opened fire on the Hessian column. As Captain Ewald noted, the fire was sporadic and intensified closer to the small hamlet of Bustleton, roughly halfway to Burlington. Although no existing sources describe the detail of the fighting that occurred between Bustleton and Burlington, accounts of other similar actions may allow for the most likely scenario of how this fight unfolded. As previously noted, the terrain was generally flat with many intersecting fence lines and walls made of field stone. The roads were all dirt, with only several being large enough to accommodate a marching column of infantry and their field guns. Well to the front and fanned out across either side of the road, the Jägers would have led the advance, constantly looking for an enemy on the horizon. The American riflemen and militia likely formed in small clusters in woodlots, behind fences, and at choke points along York Road. The actions would have been fast and chaotic. Typically, the militia discharged their weapons once and removed to the rear to escape the accuracy of Jaeger rifles. Ewald and his men, although fewer in number than their opponents, were veterans and disciplined, and thrived in this sort of combat. They would have moved in concert with their commanding officers’ orders, taking careful aim, all the while moving on the flanks and driving their foe back to the next position.
Bustleton, the largest hamlet along York Road, also was a road junction. While the York Road continued, another smaller road forked off to the west, running down to the north side of the Assiscunk Creek. The Assiscunk, in a strange twist of geography, nearly quadrupled in size after it crossed the York Road. Taking the westerly road at the fork would have brought the command to the widest part of the Assiscunk where it conjoins with the Delaware River and is in direct line of sight of the Pennsylvania galleys. If von Donop had been banking on rebel ships not playing a role in protecting Burlington, he was sorely mistaken. In the stretch of the Delaware that flows south then east of Burlington Island, four galleys from the Pennsylvania Navy, Hancock, Bull Dog, Dickinson, and Effingham, were cruising in anticipation of engaging the Hessians, and were to bombard Burlington should any enemy troops appear in it. While this might appear harsh, it shows just how valuable Burlington was to the American cause at that moment; the idea that the naval forces would have rather laid waste to the city than let it fall into enemy hands cannot be taken lightly.
Perhaps the man with the most difficult job that day was Burlington’s mayor, John Lawrence. His reputation has been linked to his very borderline views on the war, which eventually got him branded a Loyalist and expelled to Canada. On this day, he was faced with being bombarded by Pennsylvanians or occupied by nearly 2,000 German-speaking soldiers. His only immediate option was to try to mediate some sort of solution. Riding to the corner of modern-day High and Federal Streets, Mayor Lawrence caught a glimpse of the retreating militia making their way to the safety of the Hancock, then the only galley at Burlington, and understood that he would now have to act. Spurring his horse, Lawrence and a small escort galloped up Federal Street and out onto Jacksonville Road, crossing a small bridge known locally as Yorkshire Bridge, where they met von Donop and his men somewhere between the bridge and the road’s intersection with York Road. Here Lawrence sought reason from the Hessian officer, which to his satisfaction he found. Von Donop was a professional, and a man who, like many other military officers of the era, lived by a strict moral code; there was certainly no favor seeing the town destroyed. The Hessian colonel, upon hearing Lawrence’s plea to keep the soldiers out of town due to the threat of the navy opening fire, immediately understood that his intended occupation of Burlington was suspended until the large cannon arrived to drive off the rival ships.
Grasping the delicate nature of affairs, and likely wanting a closer look at the town, von Donop, with a small escort, including Captain Ewald, accompanied Mayor Lawrence into Burlington to negotiate with Captain Moore of the Hancock who had placed himself on shore to serve as a liaison between the town and Commodore Seymour. Not having the authority to cut terms with von Donop and knowing that Seymour’s orders to cannonade the town were firm and from General Washington, Moore, at the insistent urging of a delegation of townspeople, some of whom accompanied him, agreed to go and confer with Commodore Seymour to find an alternate solution to this imminent problem; both parties agreed to a two-hour ceasefire.
With this temporary agreement, the entire situation in Burlington became docile for the moment. Mayor Lawrence invited von Donop and his escort to his residence for a midday meal. By all accounts the company was enjoyable. Lawrence and von Donop treated each other accordingly and came to find through the course of their conversations, through a Dr. Odell who was able to speak French to Colonel von Donop, that they very much respected each other. Just as the agreed upon two hours was nearing its end, a jäger who had been on guard ran to Lawrence’s house to inform them of galleys approaching from the south. Lawrence, accompanied by two other men, made haste down to the riverfront to deliver the arranged signal, the waving of his hat.
As fate would have it, Commodore Seymour, before Captain Moore could reach him, had dispatched the Effingham, Dickinson, and Bulldog to fire on the town upon hearing it was occupied. Captain Moore on board the Hancock attempted to inform the approaching squadron about the cease-fire agreement but a dominating wind stole his verbal warnings; the galleys sailed past unaware and arrived at Burlington ready to engage Hessians. Spotting Mayor Lawrence and the other men waving their hats, one of the approaching galleys opened fire on the small group with a swivel gun. Shocked, Lawrence made a second attempt at the signal, only to be answered this time with an 18-pound cannon blast. Similarly, sailors had climbed atop the masts of the galleys, and with small arms began to pepper the small detachment of Hessians within the town. Insulted, von Donop and his officers sprang up from the table and dodged fire as they rode out of town back to the Yorkshire Bridge.
Von Donop was understandably irritated; he after all was a professional officer and a gentleman of his word. Opening fire on an enemy while under a temporary truce was a bad move for the Americans. Although the Hessian colonel had no way of knowing about the apparent miscommunication, the damage was done and he would seek his revenge. In a letter days later to his superior, von Donop expressed his desire to make a move on Burlington when he wrote, “I am waiting with impatience the arrival of the Grenadier Battalion Koehler which will bring with them six eighteen pounders, after which I will take possession of Burlington.” In another letter he confidently stated that once the guns arrived, “It will soon appear what resistance these marauders will make when the six pieces of artillery are discharged at them, for they will destroy all before them.” To ensure this success, von Donop instructed the 42nd Regiment to construct eight hundred fascines so that a battery could be constructed overnight and surprise the Pennsylvania Navy by day. Irritating the Hessian officer even further was the reported influx of militia forces operating from behind the haven of the Rancocas Creek from which they pushed patrols towards Mount Holly and Burlington to the north, which had the potential to alter his designs—and would do so in the coming weeks. 
The issue surrounding Burlington, its intended occupation and potential use as a springboard to march on Philadelphia, was eclipsed with General Washington’s bold strike on Trenton and the follow-up victory at Princeton only a few weeks later. Understandably, the rapid reversal of events generated a strategic situation that aptly took Burlington off the table as the center of the conflict moved back into northern New Jersey. Colonel von Donop’s reputation fell under a cloud as a result of the events that transpired over the course of that December. He would fall leading his men in battle the following year at Fort Mercer, never earning the opportunity to clear his name. As the war continued Mayor Lawrence’s fate was also sour. Suspected of being a Loyalist, Lawrence found himself jailed, only to be released later. His standing ruined, Lawrence emigrated to Canada after the war for a short time. As for many of the military elements involved, with the exception of Captain Ewald’s men and the 42nd, none of the units would rise to fame in the war and collectively faded into memory.
In all fairness, the fighting around Burlington on December 11 was almost insignificant in terms of scale and tactics. However, historians and public memory alike should not downplay its importance on the grand operational scale. Had George Washington not seized the opportunity to strike when he did, one can wholly assume that von Donop would have carried out his plans for taking Burlington, creating an entirely new set of strategic circumstances that favored the Crown Forces, which in turn may have created the needed circumstances to officially end the American Rebellion in favor of the British.
John Cadwalader to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, December 8, 1776, Charles Roberts Autograph Collection, 724, Box 1, HCL.; George Washington to John Hancock, December 9, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0222; Washington to Hancock, December 8, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0213.
Joseph Reed to Washington, December 22, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0324; In Council of Safety, December 5, 1776, Minutes of the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, Colonial Records of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Jo. Severns & Co. 1852), 11:4.
Washington to John Hancock, December 10, 1776,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0225; General Orders, December 12, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0239.
Washington to Thomas Wharton, Jr., December 10, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0229.
“Instructions to the Commodore of the Fleet, the Council of Safety, September 26, 1776,” Colonial Records of Pennsylvania, 10:730, 731-32; Pennsylvania Council of Safety to Washington, December 9, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0224.
Wilhelm Gottlieb Levin von Donop: The Obermarschall and Drosten Wilhelm Gottlieb Levin von Donop zu Lüdershofen, Maspe Nachricht von dem Geschlecht der von Donop (Paderborn: Herman Leopald Bittneven, 1796), 21.
Sir Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion: The British Commander -in- Chief’s Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775-1782 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 55-56; Margaret Morris,Margaret Morris: Her Journal with Biographical Sketch and Notes, ed. John W. Jackson (Philadelphia: George S. McManus Company, 1949), 6; Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, ed. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 30.
Ewald, Diary of the American War, 30-31; William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton(Trenton: Old Barracks Association, 2001), 46; William Howe to Wilhelm von Donop, December 13, 1776, Correspondence and Papers as Commander-in-Chief in the American Colonies, PRO 30/35, the National Archives, UK.
Digitized Aug 4, 2011. 53;Morris, Margaret Morris: Her Journal, 6.
Minutes of the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, December 5, 1776, Colonial Records of Pennsylvania, 11:39, 52; Plan of road from Colonel Shreve’s to Black Horse, John Black Dept. Surveyors 1774, Mansfield Historical Society; John W. Jackson, The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775-1781: The Defense of the Delaware (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1974), 76-77.
Morris, Margaret Morris: Her Journal, 6; Richard L. Thompson, Burlington Biographies: A History of Burlington, New Jersey, Told Through the Lives and Times of Its People (Galloway, NJ: South Jersey Culture & History Center, 2016), 121-126; Ewald, Diary of the American War, 31; George Morgan Hills, History of the church in Burlington, New Jersey; comprising the facts and incidents of nearly two hundred years, from original, contemporaneous sources(Trenton, N.J., W. S. Sharp, 1876), 315.
von Donop to William Leslie, December 16, 1776, William Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 318-319; von Donop to James Grant, December 16, 1776, ibid., 320; Hills, History of the church in Burlington, 315.