Prelude to Trenton: The Strategic Contest for Burlington County

The War Years (1775-1783)

November 16, 2023
by Colin Zimmerman Also by this Author


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Count Carl Emil von Donop was at the pinnacle of his military career as his corps of Hessians marched victoriously south into New Jersey in the fall of 1776. Von Donop’s professional ambition had been to obtain an appointment to the Prussian Army, widely considered the best in Europe, yet his previous service in the Seven Years’ War and experience as the personal adjutant to the Landgraf of Hesse-Kassel did not give him the reputation required for the rank of his ambition. Since only the best officers were considered for appointments in the Prussian service, von Donop felt that he needed to prove himself in an independent command if his professional goals were to be realized. Fortunately for him, the war in North America had escalated to the point where the British government felt it necessary to utilize its common practice of employing Hessian and other ethnic German troops. Seeing this as his opportunity, von Donop through his influence was able to procure the command of a brigade of Hessian Grenadiers and Jaegers which became known as Donop’s Corps. This command, perhaps the most elite of the early Hessian forces to deploy to America, made its battlefield debut in the tiny village of Flat Bush on Long Island in August of 1776.[1]

Von Donop illustrated his military prowess by aggressively taking and holding the small village for several days. Flat Bush, which sat astride low ground, was flanked by wooded ridges which harbored American riflemen. Over the next several days von Donop and his men fortified the village and repelled a number of American sorties, all while under continuous harassing fire form the riflemen. Von Donop at one point showed his dogged nature when requesting to stay in the forward post after his senior officer, Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, had wished him to move his command back to safety. Due to their stellar performance, von Donop and his men were given the honor of leading the major assault on the American lines on August 27, during the battle of Long Island. The battle went amazingly well for them, adding to the persona of the Hessians, and marking von Donop as a rising star.[2] His reputation was recognized outside of his own brigade. Lt. Karl Friedrich Rueffer of the Mirbach Regiment, who was stationed on Staten Island while the Flatbush action was underway, noted in his diary on August 24,

In another skirmish today the worthy Colonel Donop was in danger of being shot by an enemy sharpshooter, or as they are called, rifleman. By the greatest good fortune when the rebel met him, the rebel’s weapon misfired, so the colonel took his weapon and shot him through the head.[3]

Rueffer’s account may be more fancy than truth, but its context is revealing of how officers in the era century rose to prominence and even mythic status amongst the men they commanded. For an officer aspiring to serve in Frederick the Great’s army, von Donop was off to a good start.

The chase of Washington’s army through New Jersey brought Colonel von Donop and his brigade of 3,000 men to Burlington County, the furthest point south of the Crown force’s occupation. In this manner the Count’s previous experience, particularly with his determined and independent occupation of Flat Bush, made him an excellent choice in carrying out the next phase of Gen. William Howe’s operational design in securing a Delaware River crossing for the army to use. The object of Howe’s strategic intent was Philadelphia, the American capital, which needed to be taken to align with the customs of the Ancient Regime protocol of warfare and victory.[4] With the developments of the situation in the fall and early winter of 1776 it appeared that the best method for reaching the city would be an overland route across the Delaware River.[5]

Historians have debated whether or not Howe’s intentions were to cross the river that winter or in the spring of 1777; regardless of the time frame, control of the vital port towns along the Delaware River was necessary to effect any operations across the river toward Philadelphia. Considering the size of the British forces, and the appropriate logistics to sustain the army, more than just the ferries at Trenton were needed. Typically, as is seen in other river crossings throughout the war, one wing of the army crossed to secure a foothold and drive the enemy back; in some cases, they crossed at several points to effect a pincer movement. Other troops were assigned the laborious task of crossing the wagon and baggage trains needed for operational sustainment on campaign. It took the Continental Army nearly eleven hours to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776, and that’s just manpower alone. Crossing supplies could take several days, which any commander would want to get done as quickly as possible. For these reasons, among others, it became essential to secure other crossing sites, with the most logical choice being Burlington. At the time larger than Trenton, Burlington boasted a series of wharves and ferries that could easily manage the size of the British army or any portion of it. Securing this objective became Donop’s primary mission as he moved his corps into the region in early December.[6]

In an effort to sustain his army and gradually build up for the final push on Philadelphia, Howe established a series of fortified outposts across New Jersey, with Burlington designed as the most southerly. The issue in this quarter, though, was the presence of the Pennsylvania Navy. At least four galleys patrolled a ten-mile stretch of river between Bordentown in the north and Burlington toward the south. While not as impressive as the Royal Navy, the tiny Pennsylvania Navy was nimble and played a significant role in the defense of Burlington and keeping it out of Hessian hands.

Detail from a map of British outposts between Burlington and New Bridge, New Jersey, December 1776, showing Burlington at the left and Princeton at the right, with various Hessian and British troop dispositions listed below. (Library of Congress)

Von Donop had planned to take the town on December 11, but resistance from militia and the Pennsylvania Navy made the task impossible. Re-establishing his headquarters at Bordentown, von Donop made preparations for heavy naval guns to be escorted down from New York so that he could then engage the galleys and sink them without issue and officially secure Burlington. This would take time, and there appeared to be no rush; the guns would arrive, von Donop would employ them, and Burlington would eventually be secured.[7] Even though von Donop made the right choice in this situation, unbeknownst to him it would also mark the beginning of his troubles, and the downward slip in his reputation and career as a military officer. The atmosphere in southern New Jersey was much different than in the central and northern regions through which the Hessians had just marched; here the New Jersey militia began to find itself and operate in connection with Washington and the Continental Army.

Much can be said about the imprint that Continental Army Col. Samuel Griffin of Virginia had on the outcome of the operations in this sector. Then in Philadelphia recovering from a wound, his previous experience fighting in New York and knowledge of enemy tactics made him the ideal choice in leading the New Jersey militia soldiers who had not yet fought in any significant engagement against regular forces.[8] Griffin’s mission was simple: create as much of a distraction as possible, draw von Donop’s force into an extended front away from supporting distance of Trenton, and create an opportunity for General Washington. Washington had issued similar orders to other commanders in the region to effect the same sort of operations, but was keen on the importance of Burlington and how it could benefit not only the British but his own forces as well. With his mind on the defense of Philadelphia in the early weeks of December, Griffin’s mission became one of significance in the grand strategic view. Yet, Griffin was limited with what he could do, particularly with inexperienced men; this notion, therefore, would mean that much the events that unfolded between December 10 and 25 would be guided by the choices and decisions of Count von Donop.[9]

In December 1776, Bordentown, rather than Burlington, became important for not only its place on the river but for its distance from Trenton and its control of the drawbridge that spanned Crosswicks Creek.[10] Bordentown acted as a great anchor for the Trenton garrison’s security, but von Donop’s objective was Burlington, and while waiting for the big cannon to arrive he would dedicate his time and effort to probing the Pennsylvania Navy and keeping the population of Burlington County from rising up.[11] There were logistical and sustainment issues in keeping his forces concentrated at Bordentown—his roughly 3,000 men, made up of three Hessian grenadier battalions, the Hessian Feld Jӓger Crops, and the British 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot simply could not all fit.[12] Feeling the constraints of Bordentown, von Donop was forced to detach part of his command to neighboring villages and towns. He retained a small but strong outpost at Bustleton,[13] the sight of the December 11 battle, to keep eyes on Burlington, and then detached the 42nd Regiment to occupy the village of Blackhorse several miles to the southeast of Bordentown; although he did not know it, the presence of soldiers at Blackhorse would prove to be the axis of von Donop’s troubles in the weeks moving forward. Missing from his command was any sort of significant cavalry force, which severely limited the reconnaissance and intelligence available; therefore, he would have to rely on the few mounted Jӓgers he had and on roving foot patrols.[14]

The issues surrounding Blackhorse were abounding. The village was small, and virtually unsupported if the enemy should attack. More importantly from a tactical perspective, the Southern New Jersey region is generally flat, with little in the way of strong defensive positions. In front of Blackhorse were a series of shallow ridges dissected by narrow creeks, marshes, farm fields, and small woodlots, on which the Highland troops established outposts to watch south towards Mount Holly. The focus of troops in the area of Blackhorse brought the value of Mount Holly into light, which by default now became the most strategically important place in the events that would unfold in the middle of December. Having gathered roughly 800 men, Col. Samuel Giffin moved his small militia army from Haddonfield to Moorestown, where he awaited further developments on von Donop’s general deployment and intentions. Following the spirit of his orders, Griffin saw that the relative isolation of the 42nd Regiment promised to create the level of distraction that Washington was hoping for by drawing von Donop away from supporting distance of Trenton.

Trenton and Burlington area from a 1778 map. (Library of Congress)

The militiamen could have only hoped for such a situation if they planned to follow through on creating a diversion. The isolation of the 42nd Regiment proved tempting as its outpost was approximately six miles from its support at Bordentown. Griffin, recognizing this potential, moved his command to Mount Holly, where upon their arrival his men fortified Iron Works Hill, a small elevation that sits on the south side of the Rancocas Creek. The establishment of fortifications made clear Griffin’s intent to occupy Mount Holly, a vital road junction, that would derail von Donop’s efforts within Burlington County should the militia be allowed to remain there. The town served as the direct link for all the regional road networks, since they all by and large passed through or connected to larger roads nearby. It was not necessarily the size of Griffin’s force that posed a threat to von Donop and his men, but rather a combination of both its size and its position on Mount Holly. Taking position there forced von Donop’s hand—the Hessian colonel would have to react to their presence, a response which would not be long in coming.[15]

Colonel Griffin moved his men out of Mount Holly and marched a few miles to the north to a small crossroads hamlet known as Slabtown,[16] in which they established a forward outpost. Form here a patrol of militiamen set out on the 21st of December, moved across Petticoat Bridge and attacked an unsuspecting outpost manned by about eight members of the 42nd Regiment. The rapid nature of the attack and the fact the Highland troops were caught off guard made the impact of the attack more significant.[17] In their haste to leave, the Highland troops attempted to catch a glimpse of the militia and accidentally inflated the numbers of their enemy. When a report of close to 2,000 militia reached von Donop’s ears it forced him to make a strategic decision, one which would impact how the rest of the American Revolution would unfold. Von Donop understood that a force that size could not be allowed to operate and retain control of Mount Holly if he was to successfully take neighboring Burlington in the coming days. His command, which he knew was superior, would have to a drive off this large body of militia, making dealing with Griffin his new immediate objective in order to secure his primary objective of Burlington.[18]

The day after the attack on the Highland outpost, von Donop began the process of preparing his troops to move toward Blackhorse. In the meantime, Griffin brought up the rest of his troops and placed them in a defensive line on the south bank of Petticoat Run and awaited the attack he knew would be coming. Griffin understood that his force would not be able to hold this line, and truthfully there was no real advantage to it. However, his only real choice to effect his orders to create a distraction was through Petticoat Bridge. With Mount Holly under their control, an action at Petticoat Bridge, if significant enough, could have the potential to draw Donop’s Corps into Mount Holly or further south, nearly doubling the distance from the Trenton garrison.[19]

December 23 dawned cold and dreary. Von Donop’s troops, having arrived the evening before, now formed up along the modern-day Columbus Road; Petticoat Bridge Road split their formation in half, with the Hessian grenadier battalions moving along the west side of the road, while the Highlanders moved to its eastern portion. As had been the case in previous battles, a sight of a few thousand grenadiers marching in step with polished equipment must have been stunning to the eyes and minds of the untried militia troops. Firing erupted along the length of the line, with several Hessians and Americans dropping, yet, as soon as the action began it appeared to have had ended. The militiamen let loose shots along the banks of the creek and began to fall back, first on Slabtown and then immediately south to Mount Holly. The Hessians remained in pursuit of the Americans, and after commandeering the Quaker Meetinghouse of Slabtown as their field hospital they quickly pursued the American rearguard, fighting the whole length of the road to Mount Holly.[20]

Arriving in Mount Holly, the Americans conceded the mount for which the town was named to the Hessians. Giving up such a dominating piece of terrain in the face of the enemy is a foolish practice in most circumstances, but in this moment it proved to be a helpful strategy. Leaving the mount of Mount Holly open for occupation was an encouraging sign to von Donop and his officers. First, it portrayed the image that the Americans, although numerous, were not coherent or organized enough to manage battlefield terrain or tactics. In another way it suggested that von Donop need not worry about the quality of the militia, since their seemingly rookie mistakes made them appear less threatening.

The real benefit to Griffin of ceding the mount to von Donop was how it impacted subsequent events. Giving up the dominance of Mount Holly would be strategically foolhardy for von Donop. Once on the crest of the hill the Hessians would have been able to see the American defenses several hundred yards south along the Rancocas Creek. The battle of Iron Works Hill which followed was more of a brief skirmish than it was a traditional battle. The engagement primarily consisted of a duel between cannon with some preliminary small arms fire. Realizing that to try and hold the hill would be their destruction, Griffin, deciding his mission accomplished, removed his small army from Iron Works Hill and made his way back towards Moorestown.[21]

With the threat of American rebels vacated, von Donop and his men now had possession of Mount Holly. The town’s location was important due to the road networks that met at its core, giving whoever occupied it a strategic advantage. Captain Johann Ewald remembered,

Because of its position, this town is a very excellent trading place and inhabited by many wealthy people. Since the majority had fled and the dwellings had been abandoned, almost the whole town was plundered; and because large stocks of wine were found there, the entire garrison was drunk by evening.[22]

Von Donop’s decision to remain in Mount Holly is a classic military case of acting on the appropriate strategic principles, yet hindsight proves that it was in fact the wrong decision. While von Donop was clearly aware that the rebels were continuing to launch isolated raids and attacks, there was no indication in his quarter that an operation on the scale of the Delaware River crossing and attack on Trenton was in the works. Von Donop’s first objective was securing Burlington, for which his command was still waiting on six 18-pound guns still en-route from New York. Unable to fulfill his primary objective, von Donop likely saw opportunity in holding Mount Holly. He went as far as to establish outposts on the approaches to town and even sent an expedition under Captain Ewald to Burlington to ascertain the status of the Pennsylvania Navy.

The occupation of Mount Holly could only have been a temporary measure and would have, with the exception of a small garrison, ended upon the arrival of the 18-pound guns. While history shows that von Donop’s occupation of the town proved to be a major strategic blunder because it prevented him from supporting the Trenton garrison, that was not known until the morning of December 26. In fact, a Hessian approach on Burlington from Mount Holly offered more tactical advantages to von Donop. Advancing from Mount Holly would have placed the Hessians consistently on the high ground, as the terrain from Burlington to the base of Mount Holly continually grades upwards. The Count would not have the opportunity to find out, though; upon hearing the news of von Donop’s whereabouts and seeming intent, Gen. George Washington now felt that, with the Hessian corps out of supporting range of Trenton, an immediate strike could to turn the tide of the war. If the battle of Trenton is considered one of the great turning points of the war, then von Donop’s story in Burlington County is the immediate prelude that determined the outcome of the operation.[23]

Besides waiting for his heavy cannons, and the possible geographic benefit for advancing on Burlington, there may have been another reason why von Donop chose to remain in Mount Holly. Captain Ewald wrote in his diary on the morning of December 26, at the same time the battle of Trenton was commencing,

Captain Lorey and I roamed over different roads in the country to collect horses and slaughter cattle; for the colonel, who was extremely devoted to the fair sex, had found in his quarters the exceedingly beautiful young widow of a doctor. He wanted to set up his rest quarters in Mount Holly, which, to the misfortune of Colonel Rall, he was permitted to do. However, our control of this area came to an end today.[24]

The issue of who exactly the “Mysterious Widow” was, and Donop’s instant fascination upon meeting her in Mount Holly, has plagued historians; regardless of her identity, the fact remains that her enticement of the count had far deeper consequences on the course of the Revolution than anyone could have known in the immediate days before Christmas. This affair, merged with waiting for the heavy cannon, made the idea of staying in Mount Holly for several days seem harmless in the big strategic picture.[25] But it did not take long for Donop to fully realize the consequences of his seemingly innocent folly. Ewald recounted,

The colonel notified us that General Washington had suddenly attacked the three regiments under Colonel Rall at Trenton, and he was awaiting our report at minute. At the same moment, the second messenger of doom arrived, confirming the report and adding that all had been taken prisoner. Since it was to be assumed now that Washington would occupy the Crosswicks pass in the rear of the Donop Corps, which had always been neglected, and cut it off from Princetown, the colonel set out with his entire corps for Crosswicks with the firm resolved to cut his way through at all costs.[26]

Ewald’s comments reflect the frustration experienced by the realization of the strategic blunder made by von Donop. The isolation and destruction of the Trenton garrison was the worst possible consequence of keeping the majority of the corps in Mount Holly, albeit an unforeseen one. Simply put, had von Donop returned to Bordentown promptly after chasing off Griffin, then either the attack on Trenton would have never happened, or it if it did, von Donop’s ability to send immediate aid would have likely have reduced its strategic impact.

Unfortunately for Count von Donop, his reputation would never fully recover from what was seen by General Howe as an egregious error in judgement. Von Donop’s quest for redemption ultimately led to his death several months later at the Fort Mercer in October 1777.

The events that preluded the attack on Trenton are critical in understanding the context of the campaign and personalities, choices, and events that directly or indirectly influenced it. The story of Colonel von Donop, his objectives, and his command choices, perhaps more than any other, helped facilitate what has been recognized as one of the greatest American military reversals in history.


[1]Wilhelm Gottlieb Levin von Donop, Des Obermarschalls und Drosten Wilhelm Gottlieb Levin von Donop zu Lüdershofen, Maspe Nachricht von dem Geschlecht der von Donop (Paderborn, Germany: Herman Leopold Bittneven, 1796), 21; “Letters from a Hessian Mercenary,”Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 62 (1938), 488-501.

[2]Hessian Description of the Battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776, in The Hessians,ed. Edward J. Lowell, Harper & Brothers, 1884. 43-47; Jabez Fitch, Diary of Captain Jabez Fitch, University of Pennsylvania Archives.

[3]Lieutenant Karl Friedrich Rueffer, Journal of Lieutenant Karl Friedrich Rueffer of Melsungen, August 24, 1776, translated by Bruce E. Burgoyne (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2008), 52.

[4]The term Ancien Regime is a notion associated with the standard and accepted military doctrine with Europe during this era. The notion of this mode of warfare is that of a gentlemanly match, in which if the capital of the enemy was taken, the conflict would effectually cease and negations for settlement discussed; Cliff J. Rogers, ed., The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2018), 95-97, 149.

[5]William Howe, The Narrative of Lieutenant-General Sir William Howe in a Committee of the House of Commons on the 29th of April 1779 (London: H. Baldwin, 1780).

[6]David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004), 173-174; William Howe to Carl von Donop, December 13, 1776, Donop Papers, Marburg Hessian Transcripts, Library of Congress.

[7]Howe, Narrative; Howe to von Donop, December 13, 1776, Donop Papers, Marburg Hessian Transcripts, Library of Congress; Howe to George Germain, December 20, 1776, Co5/94, The National Archives, Kew, UK; Journal of Count von Donop, 1776, New Jersey State Archives. For further information on the battle of Bustleton, see Colin Zimmerman, “Burlington 1776: The Forgotten Opportunity,” Journal of the American Revolution, March 30, 2023,

[8]William and Mary Quarterly Volume 7 (1899), 61; “Griffin, Samuel,”

[9]George Washington to Arthur Erwin, December 9, 1776,; Washington to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, December 9, 1776,; Washington to John Hancock, December 9, 1776,”; John Cadwalader to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, December 8, 1776, Charles Roberts Autograph Collection, 724, Box 1, Haverford College Special Collections; Washington to Hancock, December 8, 1776,

[10]Crosswicks Creek is the only significant body of water that separated Trenton from Bordentown. It therefore became essential to control the drawbridge so that the two garrisons could communicate and support each other.

[11]Report of Captain Lorey to Colonel Donop, December 21, 1776, Journal of Count von Donop, 1776; correspondence between Colonel Rall, New Jersey State Archives.

[12]Commanding their respective grenadier battalions were Lt. Col. Justus von Bloch, Lt. Col. Friedrich von Minnegerode, and Lt. Col. Otto von Linsing. In command of the Feld Jӓger Corps was Colonel Von Donop himself, and Lt. Col. Thomas Stirling led the 42nd Regiment of foot. Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, Appendix G.

[13]Bustleton is a small unincorporated village in Florence Township.

[14]von Donop to Alexander Leslie, December 16, 1776, Donop Papers, Marburg Hessian Transcripts, Library of Congress; von Donop to James Grant. Bordentown, December 16, 1776. Donop Papers, Marburg Hessian Transcripts, Library of Congress; Report of Capt. Carl August von Wrede to von Donop, December 23, 1776, Journal of Count von Donop, 1776; correspondence between Rall, New Jersey State Archives; York Road Property Survey 1775, Mansfield Historical Society.

[15]Thomas Stirling to von Donop, December 21, 1776. Donop Papers, Marburg Hessian Transcripts, Library of Congress; Report of Barzella Haines to von Donop, December 21, 1776,Donop Papers, Marburg Hessian Transcripts, Library of Congress; “Intelligence by Capt. Loshiniere who left Bristol the 22nd Dec. 1776,” William Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1898).

[16]Slab-town is an unincorporated village now known as Jacksonville in Springfield Township.

[17]Pension Application of James Giberson,

[18]Joseph Reed to George Washington, December 22, 1776,; Margaret Morris, Margaret Morris: Her Journal with Biographical Sketch and Notes, ed. John W. Jackson (Philadelphia: George S. McManus Company, 1949), 6.

[19]Stirling to von Donop, December 21, 1776, Donop Papers, Marburg Hessian Transcripts, Library of Congress.

[20]Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, ed. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 35-38; Pension Application of Stephen Ford,

[21]Salvatore D. Gabriele, “The Battle of Iron Works Hill,” SoJourn: A journal devoted to the history, culture, and geography of South Jersey4.1 (Summer 2018), 17-30.

[22]Ewald, Diary of the American War, 39.

[23]Washington to Joseph Reed, December 23, 1776,

[24]Ewald, Diary of the American War, 42.

[25]Morris,Margaret Morris: Her Journal, 6.

[26]Ewald, Diary of the American War, 42-43.

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