December 25th, 1776 through January 3rd, 1777: ten pivotal, and glorious, days in American History.
The second half of 1776 very nearly saw the British and their Hessian allies crush the newly independent United States. Some of the American troops on Long Island learned of the Declaration of Independence while they were within sight of the British fleet anchored in New York Harbor. A few weeks later the British would overwhelm the American defenses on Long Island, triggering the first in a series of retreats that would see Washington’s Army nearly melt away; when the remnants finally crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Washington had immediately available only about 10% of the force he had in August. But “The Old Fox” did not give up. He set to work reconstituting his army, calling in detachments, seeing to it the sick and wounded were nursed back to health, persuading troops to stay with the colors, calling upon Congress and the states for reinforcements, and restoring morale: he ordered Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis read to the troops.
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
Washington knew that having an army was not enough: in the dark times at the end of 1776, he had to DO something with that army to give his countrymen hope. He knew he could not confront the enemy on even terms, but he also knew that the British and their Hessian allies had grown complacent in victory. He looked for a weakness, and found it across the River: in Trenton, New Jersey.
The Hessian brigade stationed in Trenton was alert, disciplined, and well trained, but it was increasingly isolated. On the night of December 25th, 1776, in a blinding snowstorm, Washington personally led his most reliable units across the ice-choked Delaware and on toward Trenton. None of the supporting attacking columns managed to cross the river, but Washington drove the main force on, and just after dawn on December 26th his men surged around Trenton. After a short, sharp fight most of the garrison surrendered. Only a few Hessian jaegers and British dragoons escaped, because they fled at the first alarm. Now isolated himself, but having won a precious victory, Washington withdrew back across the Delaware before the British could counterattack.
The enemy response bordered on panic. The British command pulled in their far-flung garrisons across New Jersey and assumed a defensive posture, giving Washington total freedom of movement. Seeing another opportunity, Washington crossed the Delaware again and took up defensive positions along Assunpink Creek, just south of Trenton. When her learned that British General Charles Cornwallis was on the march toward Trenton, Washington deployed a screening force to the north to find and delay Cornwallis: this force included the First Continental Regiment, commanded by Colonel Edward Hand. Once the enemy appeared just south of Princeton Hand took command of the screening force; falling back from covered position to covered position his men slowed the British to crawl and inflicted galling casualties, buying time for the main force to improve the defenses on Assunpink Creek. As night fell Hand’s force fell back through Trenton and scrambled across the only bridge. The British attempted to seize the bridge, but the attackers were swept away by a storm of musket and cannon fire. Cornwallis’ force settled in for the night, prepared to renew the attack in the morning.
Washington had learned a great deal since Long Island. He knew Cornwallis would attempt to outflank him in the morning, and he knew that maneuver would probably succeed. So, he left a small force to keep the watch fires lit, make noise, and fire the occasional cannon; with the rest of his army Washington quietly marched away in the dead of a pitch black night, slipped around Cornwallis’ flank, and marched northwards toward Princeton.
Cornwallis had been so confident he had summoned most of the Princeton garrison, under Colonel Charles Mahwood, to march to Trenton. Part of Washington’s force, under Hugh Mercer, ran into Mahwood’s men, and a fierce fight ensued. Mercer was killed, his brigade broken, and Mahwood nearly broke the American line, but Washington rallied his men, and the line held long enough for another force, including Hand’s riflemen, to fall upon the British left flank. Mahwood’s units broke and ran, and while some of Washington’s force hunted them down, the rest moved into Princeton to capture the rest of the garrison. When Cornwallis finally arrived at Princeton, Washington’s force was on the road to the relative safety of the rugged terrain around Morristown with prisoners, captured guns, and loot in tow.
In ten days what seemed to be a defeated force had turned the tables, knocking two brigades out of the enemy order of battle, but more importantly breathing new life into the American cause and sowing fear in the hearts of their enemies. The New Jersey militia came out in swarms, and the British soldier had to endure a long, bitter winter marked by cold, hunger, and constant danger. In order to feed themselves, the British and Hessians would have to venture out into the Jersey countryside, where they knew their enemies were waiting in ambush. There would be many more battles to come.
To see the Ten Glorious Days from the perspective of one of the participants, check out Times That Try Men’s Souls!
Artwork by Ben Kloeppersmith
Washington Crossing State Park: https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/delaware/was.htm
The Old Barracks Museum, Trenton: http://www.barracks.org/
Princeton Battlefield Society: http://www.theprincetonbattlefieldsociety.com/