The “Ten Crucial Days” winter campaign of 1776-1777 reversed the momentum of the War for Independence at a moment when what George Washington termed the “glorious Cause” of American independence appeared on the verge of final defeat. During the period from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777, beginning with the fabled Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River, the Continental Army under Washington’s command won its first three significant victories—on December 26 and January 2 at Trenton and in the capstone engagement at Princeton on January 3—over Anglo-German forces: British troops and their Hessian auxiliaries, under the overall command of Gen. William Howe and the field command of Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis.
Washington’s offensive realized a spectacular degree of success in a remarkably short span of time: more than 1,700 British and Hessian soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing in action, as compared with fewer than two hundred American casualties; seizure of a substantial quantity of arms and supplies; and expulsion of His Majesty’s forces from most of New Jersey. The campaign would ultimately be judged among the most brilliant in military history. The Continental Army and its supporting militia bested an adversary who boasted superior training, discipline, and experience, and in the process overcame manifold challenges—supply shortages; harsh weather; desertions; expiring enlistments; and the effects of disease, malnutrition, and exhaustion.
The following observations about the events of the Ten Crucial Days—some familiar to aficionados of this subject and others fairly obscure—are taken from individuals on both sides of the conflict and other commentators. They variously include: descriptions of the actions that occurred during this period; assessments of its significance, either as perceived at the time or as viewed in the fullness of history; strategic or tactical intentions; discernment of the circumstances facing the opposing armies; and understanding of the lessons to be learned from the winter campaign of 1776-1777.
Gen. George Washington (1732-1799), Commander-in-Chief, Continental Army, writing on December 27, 1776 to Col. John Cadwalader about the American victory over the Hessian brigade commanded by Col. Johann Rall in the First Battle of Trenton the day before:
The officers & Men who were engaged in the Enterprise behaved with great firmness, perseverance & bravery and such as did them the highest honor. I shall be extremely ready, and it is my most earnest wish, to pursue every means that shall seem probable to destroy the enemy and to promise success on our part.
Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, Continental Army, writing on December 30, 1776 to his wife Catharine from Trenton:
Before this reaches you doubtless you will hear of the Attack upon this place. We crossed the River Delaware at McConkey’s Ferry Eight miles above this place on the 25 of this instant and attacked the Town by Storm in the morning. It rained, hailed, and snowed and was a violent storm. The Storm of nature and the Storm of the Town exhibited a Scene that filled the mind during the action with passions easier conceived than described. The Action lasted about three quarters of an hour. We killed, wounded and took Prisoners of the Enemy between Eleven and twelve hundred. Our Troops behaved with great Spirit. General [John] Sullivan commanded the right Wing of the army and I the left. This is an important period to America, big with great events. God only knows what will be the issue of this Campaign, but everything wears a much better prospect than they have for several weeks past . . . Should we get possession again of the Jerseys perhaps I may get liberty to come and see you.
Sir George Otto Trevelyan (1838-1928), British historian, from his history of the Revolution more than a century afterwards:
The [American] victors arrived at their respective quarters [on December 26, having recrossed the Delaware to Pennsylvania after the First Battle of Trenton] dropping with sleep, having marched and fought continuously for six-and-thirty, forty, and in some cases for fifty, hours. That was a long and a severe ordeal; and yet it may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world . . . Washington, in a General Order of congratulation addressed to his soldiers, observed that he had previously been in many actions, but always had perceived some misbehavior in some individuals. At Trenton, however, he had seen none.
Maj. Gen. William Heath (1737-1814), Continental Army, from his memoirs:
[On January 2, 1777] Gen. Washington being at Trenton, Gen. [Cornwallis] advanced to attack him, a cannonade ensued. Gen. Washington retired to the other side of the [Assunpink] Creek, and as soon as it was dark, ordering a great number of fires to be lighted up, to deceive the enemy, stole a march and at 9 o’clock next morning attacked three regiments of the enemy who were posted at Princeton routed them . . . In this maneuver and action Gen. Washington exhibited the most consummate generalship, and the British were struck with consternation. Ambuscade, surprise and stratagem are said to constitute the sublime part of the art of war, and that he who possesses the greatest resource in these, will eventually pluck the laurel from the brow of his opponent. The stratagems of war are almost minute, but all have the same object, namely, to deceive—to hold up an appearance of something which is not intended, while under this mask some important object is secured and be a General never so brave, if he be unskilled in the arts and stratagems of war, he is really to be pitied, for his bravery will but serve to lead him into those with snares which are laid for him.
John Adams (1735-1826), Member of Congress, writing to his wife Abigail from Hartford, Connecticut, in January 1777:
It is now generally believed here that G. Washington has killed and taken at least two Thousands of Mr. Howe’s Army since Christmas. Indeed the Evidence of it is from the General’s own Letters. You know I ever thought Mr. Howe’s march through the Jerseys a rash Step. It has proved so—but how much more so would it have been thought if the Americans could all have viewed it in that light and exerted themselves as they might and ought. The whole Flock would infallibly have been taken in the Net.
Brig. Gen. Henry Knox (1750-1806), Continental Army, writing to his wife Lucy from Morristown, New Jersey, in January 1777:
If we could have secured one thousand fresh men at Princeton [on January 3] to have pushed for Brunswick, we should have struck one of the most brilliant strokes in all history. However, the advantages are very great: already [the enemy] have collected the whole force, and drawn themselves to one point [in New Jersey], to wit, Brunswick. The enemy were within nineteen miles of Philadelphia, they are now sixty miles. We have driven them from almost the whole of West Jersey. The panic is still kept up. . . .‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to victory.’ For my part, my Lucy, I look up to heaven and most devoutly thank the great Governor of the Universe for producing this turn in our affairs.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809), author and pamphleteer, in The American Crisis:
The conquest of the Hessians at Trenton by the remains of a retreating army . . . is an instance of heroic perseverance very seldom to be met with. And the victory over the British troops at Princeton, by a harrassed and wearied party, who had been engaged the day before and marched all night without refreshment, is attended with such a scene of circumstances and superiority of Generalship, as will ever give it a place on the first line in the history of great actions.
Robert Morris (1734-1806), financier and signer of the Declaration of Independence, writing from Philadelphia in January 1777 to John Jay, Member of the New York Provincial Congress:
I do not pretend to give you any acct of Military operations as I suppose you get them from day to day. What a glorious change in our prospects Pray Heaven Continue our Success and grant me an opportunity of Congratulating you on regaining the City of New York.
Maj. James Wilkinson (1757-1825), Continental Army, from his memoirs:
The joy diffused throughout the union by the successful attack against Trenton, reanimated the timid friends of the revolution, and invigorated the confidence of the resolute. Perils and sufferings still in prospect, were considered the price of independence, and every faithful citizen was willing to make the sacrifice. Success had triumphed over despondency, and the heedless, headlong enthusiasm, which led the colonists to arms, had settled down into a sober sense of their condition, and a deliberate resolution to maintain the contest at every hazard, and under every privation.
John Cadwalader (1742-1786), colonel of the Philadelphia Associators (militia), writing to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety from Morristown in January 1777:
The militia of the City of Philadelphia and of the State of Pennsylvania have enabled General Washington to strike a blow which has greatly changed the face of our Affairs, and if they can be induced to continue a few Weeks longer there is the strongest possibility that the enemy will be compelled to quit New Jersey entirely.
Caesar Rodney (1728-1784), Delaware State lawmaker and signer of the Declaration of Independence, writing in January 1777 to William Killen, a mutual friend of Rodney and Col. John Haslet of the Delaware Continental Regiment who was killed in the Battle of Princeton:
While Washington Survives the great American Cause Cannot Die, his Abilities Seem to be fully Equal to the public Spirit That Called him forth—History does not furnish you with a greater Piece of Generalship Than he Exhibited on The day poor Haslet fell—He fought, he Conquered—And if we Continue to Improve the Advantages then gained, We Shall Soon put an End to the Dreadful Controversy that Agitates and Distracts Us—And in Return have Peace, Liberty and Safety. Heaven! What a Glorious Figure in the Eyes of Men and Angels will This Vast American World Exhibit, in its Free Independent State.
Col. John Chester (1749-1809), Continental Army, writing to Col. Samuel Webb in January 1777:
We all Congratulate you on the honor you have lately shared in the victories over our Common Enemy, and pray for a continuation of successes, till they may be obliged to quit the Land or kneel to Great George the American. You Cannot conceive the Joy & Raptures the people were universally in as we passed the road. ‘Tis good to be the messenger of Glad Tidings.
Brigade Chaplain David Avery, Continental Army (1746-1817), in a sermon delivered at Greenwich, Connecticut, in December 1777:
The tidings flew upon the wings of the wind—and at once revived the hopes of the fearful, which had almost fled! How sudden the transition from darkness to light, from grief to joy.
Samuel DeForest (1758-1837), Connecticut militiaman, from his military pension narrative:
The events of two weeks appears to have rolled on a pivot which has sealed and gave a stamp to the destiny of America.
Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), American poet, dramatist, and historian, from her history of the Revolution published in 1805:
Perhaps there are no people on earth, in whom a spirit of enthusiastic zeal is so readily enkindled, and burns so remarkably conspicuous, as among the Americans. . . . The energetic operation of this sanguine temper, was never more remarkably exhibited, than in the change instantaneously wrought in the minds of men, by the capture of Trenton at so unexpected a moment. From a state of mind bordering on despair, courage was invigorated, every countenance brightened, and the nervous arm was outstretched, as if by one general impulse, all were determined to drive the hostile invaders, that had plundered their villages, and dipped the remorseless sword in the bosom of the innocent victims of their fury, from off the American shores.
Maj. Gen. William Howe (1729-1814), commander of the British army in America from 1775 to 1778, writing in January 1777 to Lord George Germain, British Secretary of State for North America and principal architect of his government’s strategy for defeating the American rebellion:
It is with much concern, that I am to inform your Lordship, the unfortunate and untimely defeat at Trenton, has thrown us further back than was at first apprehended, from the great encouragement it has given to the rebels. I do not now see a prospect of terminating the war, but by a general action, and I am aware of the difficulties in our way to obtain it, as the enemy moves with so much more celerity than we possibly can.
Lord George Germain (1716-1785), speaking to Parliament in May 1779:
If the General [William Howe], in the tide of success which run so strongly in his favor, had followed his advantages properly up, by crossing the Delaware [in December 1776], and had possessed himself of the province of Pennsylvania, which at that time would have been the consequence of the possession of Philadelphia . . . we had a fair prospect of a successful campaign, and of the happy termination of the war in the course of it. But all our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton.
Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis (1738-1805), reportedly responding to a toast at a dinner for British, French, and American officers hosted by George Washington after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Virginia—the last major military engagement of the Revolutionary War—in October 1781:
When the illustrious part that your excellency has borne in this long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels rather from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake.
Capt. Johann Ewald (1744-1813), Hessian Jäger company, writing in his diary:
Thus had the times changed! The Americans had constantly run before us. Four weeks ago we expected to end the war with the capture of Philadelphia, and now we had to render Washington the honor of thinking about our defense. Due to this affair at Trenton, such a fright came over the army that if Washington had used this opportunity we would have flown to our ships and let him have all of America. Since we had thus far underestimated our enemy, from this unhappy day onward we saw everything through the magnifying glass.
Lt. Col. Allan Maclean (c.1725-1798), writing to Alexander Cummings from New York in February 1777:
Poor devils as the Rebel generals are, they out-generaled us more than once, even since I have been here, which is only six weeks, and it is no less certain that with a tolerable degree of common sense, and some ability in our commanders, the rebellion would now be near ended . . . After what I said it would be unjust not to say that General Howe is a very honest man, and I believe a very disinterested one. Brave he certainly is and would make a very good executive officer under another’s command, but he is not by any means equal to a C. in C. I do not know any employment that requires so many great qualifications either natural or acquired as the Commander in Chief of an Army. He has, moreover, got none but very silly fellows about him—a great parcel of old women—most of them improper for American service. I could be very ludicrous on this occasion, but it is truly too serious a matter that brave men’s lives should be sacrificed to be commanded by such generals . . . Lord Cornwallis is, I believe a brave man, but he allowed himself to be fairly outgeneraled by Washington, the 4th Jan. last at Trenton, and missed a glorious opportunity when he let Washington slip away in the night.
Col. William Harcourt (1743-1830), 3rd Earl Harcourt, commander of the British 16th Light Dragoons, writing to his father from Brunswick, New Jersey, in March 1777:
You may depend upon it, as a fact, that we have not yet met with ten, I believe I have said two, disinterested friends to the supremacy of Great Britain; that from the want of intelligence we frequently, nay generally, lose the favourable opportunity for striking a decisive stroke, that in general we ought to avoid attacking any considerable body of them (suppose two or three hundred), unless we can pursue our advantage, or at least take post; for though we may carry our point, nevertheless, whenever we attempt to return to our quarters we may be assured of their harassing us upon our retreat; that detached corps should never march without artillery, of which the rebels are extremely apprehensive; lastly, that, though they seem to be ignorant of the precision and order, and even of the principles, by which large bodies are moved, yet they possess some of the requisites for making good troops, such as extreme cunning, great industry in moving ground and felling of wood, activity and a spirit of enterprise upon any advantage . . . Though it was once the fashion of this army to treat them in the most contemptible light, they are now become a formidable enemy.
Archibald Robertson (c.1745-c.1813), officer in the Royal Corps of Engineers, writing in his diary in January 1777:
Throughout this whole Expedition [the advance of Cornwallis’s force from Princeton to Trenton and the Battle of Assunpink Creek or Second Battle of Trenton on January 2] we certainly always erred in imprudently separating our Small Army of 6,000 men by far too much and must hope it will serve as a lesson in future never to despise any Enemy too much.
Nicholas Cresswell (1750-1804), English diarist who journeyed throughout the American colonies from 1774 to 1777, writing in January 1777:
The minds of the people are much altered. A few days ago they had given up the cause for lost. Their late successes have turned the scale and now they are all liberty mad again.
Frederick II or “Frederick the Great” (1712-1786), King of Prussia:
The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots between the 25th of December and the 4th of January, a space of ten days, were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements.
George Washington’s Address to Congress, June 16, 1775, in This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters, ed. Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 4.
David Price, The Road to Assunpink Creek: Liberty’s Desperate Hour and the Ten Crucial Days of the American Revolution (Lawrenceville, NJ: Knox Press, 2019), 166.
David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004), 367.
David Price, Rescuing the Revolution: Unsung Patriot Heroes and the Ten Crucial Days of America’s War for Independence (Lawrenceville, NJ: Knox Press, 2016), 10.
George Washington to John Cadwalader, December 27, 1776, in “Selections from the Military Papers of General John Cadwalader,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 32:1 (1908): 155.
Nathanael Greene to Catharine Greene, December 30, 1776, in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K. Showman. vol. 1 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1976), 377.
George Trevelyan, The American Revolution (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1903), part 2, 2:122-124.
William Heath, Memoirs of Major-General William Heath, ed. William Abbatt (New York: William Abbatt, 1901. Reprint: Sagwan Press, 2015), 96.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, January 14, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0102.
Henry Knox to Lucy Flucker Knox, January 7, 1777, in William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1898), 451-452.
Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis,” Number V, March 21, 1778, in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, ed. Eric Foner (New York: The Library of America, 1955), 157-158.
Robert Morris to John Jay, January 12, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jay/01-01-02-0202.
James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times (Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1816. Reprint: Sagwan Press), 132.
John Cadwalader to the Council of Safety, January 15, 1777, in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 32:1 (1908): 159.
Caesar Rodney to William Killen, January 27, 1777, in Caesar Rodney, Letters to and from Caesar Rodney, 1756-1784, ed. George Herbert Ryden (Philadelphia, Historical Society of Delaware, 1933), 172.
John Chester to Samuel Webb, January 19, 1777, in Henry P. Johnston, Yale and Her Honor-Roll in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888), 61-62.
David Avery, The Lord Is to Be Praised for the Triumphs of His Power. A Sermon, Preached at Greenwich, in Connecticut, on the 18th of December 1777. Being a General Thanksgiving Through the United American States (Norwich, CT, 1778), 24.
Samuel DeForest, military pension application narrative, in The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence, ed. John C. Dann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 47.
Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1805), 1:358-359.
William Howe to George Germain, January 20, 1777, in Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 482.
Remarks by George Germain, May 3, 1779, in The Parliamentary Register: Or History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons during the Fifth Session of the Fourteenth Parliament of Great Britain (London: John Stockdale, 1802), 11:392.
Trevelyan, The American Revolution, part 2, 2:155.
Johann Ewald, December 30, 1776, in Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, ed. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 44.
Allan Maclean to Alexander Cummings, February 19, 1777, in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, eds. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), 523.
William Harcourt to Earl Harcourt, March 17, 1777, in ibid., 524.
Archibald Robertson, Archibald Robertson: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780, ed. Harry Miller Lydenberg (New York: The New York Public Library, 1930. Reprint: The New York Times and Arno Press, Inc., 1971), 120.
Nicholas Cresswell, Journal, January 5-17, 1777, in The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence, 1775-1783, ed. John Rhodehamel (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 264.
North Callahan, Henry Knox: General Washington’s General (New York: Reinhart, 1958), 98.
Great idea to compile this list, Mr. Price. I have never read Trevelyan, but can’t help but compare his quote to that of William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (1898): “Nowhere in the annals of warfare can be found a counterpart of the winter campaign of Washington and his army in 1776-1777-that army which left the vicinity of New York a ragged, starved, defeated, demoralized band, which passed through the Jerseys and over the river, then dashed up the Hessian advance, punished the flank of the British line, doubled on its own bloody tracks through the village of Princeton, and at last marched into quarters an army of victors.”
Thank you for that, Jeff. I think Stryker’s observation, while not as memorable as Trevelyan’s, is a better synopsis of the “Ten Crucial Days” in that he references the entire period whereas Trevelyan was referring only to the first Battle of Trenton. Both are certainly noteworthy.
“Christmas, 1776, was a Christmas memorable alike for its hardships and its heroism which may be known as the turning point of the American Revolution to the outcome of which we of today owe the peace, security and national independence which we so unthinkingly enjoy. As the darkest hour is just before the dawn so on the night of Christmas of the year of 1776 the torn and disheartened patriots of the American Armies saw the first gleam of hope after a long and wear night of disaster and defeat. When like another star of Bethlehem arose from the gathering gloom the Day Star of Hope. With the year 1776 we are apt to associate but one great event – the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is perhaps not too much to say however, that but for the happy issue of the fight on the morning of the 26th of the following December the ringing utterances of that noble document might have remained inoperative, a mournful monument to a lost and lamented cause.” – James Craft, a Burlington resident, in January 1780.
Thank you for sharing that, Adam. I am wondering, however, about the timing of Mr. Craft’s comments since in the first sentence, he refers to the “peace, security and national independence which we so unthinkingly enjoy.” I wouldn’t say we enjoyed any of that in 1780, so it would seem his observation would have been made later, i.e., sometime after 1783. But it’s a neat quote.
I agree, and checked my source before submitting. It’s possible it was incorrectly annotated. I know versions of his diary exist elsewhere, but the war time entries can be found within the Henry C. Shinn Papers at the Burlington County Lyceum of History and Natural Sciences in Mount Holly, NJ.
This week I was reviewing Muster, Payrolls and List of Effectives for Capt Gross Scruggs company of the Fifth Virginia. What struck me is the summary of the June 1777 Muster Roll. Before this date I only found payrolls. June showed an initial strength of 84 Officers, enlisted and privates. By June only 21 of 37 enlisted were fit for duty. 31 had died either by disease or combat. Almost all the dead were in Oct, Dec, Jan and Feb. 8 had deserted. What is clearly illustrated is the sacrifice of the continental line during the 10 crucial days.