December 27, 1776: Washington Reports on Trenton

 

Washington crossing the Delaware is ingrained in the American psyche, and well it should be.  Without Washington’s brilliant attack at Trenton against the Hessian garrison stationed there on December 26, 1776, his subsequent maneuver around the reacting British force under General Cornwallis, and his victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777, it is likely that the American Revolution would have died during the winter of 1776-1777, Washington’s army dissolving in the gloom and pessimism brought on by the string of American defeats of 1776.  Instead, Washington’s victories brought out fresh levies of patriot militia from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, strengthening Washington’s army and causing the British to retreat from New Jersey.  In the span of a week, Washington and his men altered the likely outcome of the American Revolution, and all subsequent history.  Here is Washington’s report to the Continental Congress on the victory at Trenton:

 

Sir: I have the pleasure of Congratulating you upon the success of an enterprize which I had formed against a Detachment of the Enemy lying in Trenton, and which was executed yesterday Morning. The Evening of the 25th I ordered the Troops intended for this Service [which were about 2400] to parade back of McKonkey’s Ferry, that they might begin to pass as soon as it grew dark, imagining we should be able to throw them all over, with the necessary Artillery, by 12 O’Clock, and that we might easily arrive at Trenton by five in the Morning, the distance being about nine Miles. But the Quantity of Ice, made that Night, impeded the passage of the Boats so much, that it was three O’Clock before the Artillery could all get over, and near four, before the Troops took up their line of march.

This made me despair of surprising the Town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke, but as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events. I form’d my detachments into two divisions one to March by the lower or River Road, the other by the upper or Pennington Road. As the Divisions had nearly the same distance to March, I ordered each of them, immediately upon forcing the out Guards, to push directly into the Town, that they might charge the Enemy before they had time to form. The upper Division arrived at the Enemys advanced post, exactly at Eight O’Clock, and in three Minutes after, I found, from the fire on the lower Road that, that Division had also got up. The out Guards made but small Opposition, tho’ for their Numbers, they behaved very well, keeping up a constant retreating fire from behind Houses. We presently saw their main Body formed, but from their Motions, they seemed undetermined how to act. Being hard pressed by our Troops, who had already got possession of part of their Artillery, they attempted to file off by a road on their right leading to Princetown, but perceiving their Intention, I threw a body of Troops in their Way which immediately checked them. Finding from our disposition that they were surrounded, and that they must inevitably be cut to pieces if they made any further Resistance, they agreed to lay down their Arms. The Number, that submitted in this manner, was 23 Officers and 886 Men. Col Rall. the commanding Officer with seven others were found wounded in the Town. I dont exactly know how many they had killed, but I fancy not above twenty or thirty, as they never made any regular Stand. Our loss is very trifling indeed, only two Officers and one or two privates wounded. I find, that the Detachment of the Enemy consisted of the three Hessian Regiments of Lanspatch, Kniphausen and Rohl amounting to about 1500 Men, and a Troop of British Light Horse, but immediately upon the begining of the Attack, all those who were, not killed or taken, pushed directly down the Road towards Bordentown. These would likewise have fallen into our hands, could my plan have been compleatly carried into Execution. Genl. Ewing was to have crossed before day at Trenton Ferry, and taken possession of the Bridge leading out of Town, but the Quantity of Ice was so great, that tho’ he did every thing in his power to effect it, he could not get over.

This difficulty also hindered General Cadwallader from crossing, with the Pennsylvania Militia, from Bristol, he got part of his Foot over, but finding it impossible to embark his Artillery, he was obliged to desist. I am fully confident, that could the Troops under Generals Ewing and Cadwallader have passed the River, I should have been able, with their Assistance, to have driven the Enemy from all their posts below Trenton. But the Numbers I had with me, being inferior to theirs below me, and a strong Battalion of Light Infantry at Princetown above me, I thought it most prudent to return the same Evening, with my prisoners and the Artillery we had taken. We found no Stores of any Consequence in the Town. In justice to the Officers and Men, I must add, that their Behaviour upon this Occasion, reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the River in a very severe Night, and their march thro’ a violent Storm of Snow and Hail, did not in the least abate their Ardour. But when they came to the Charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward, and were I to give a preference to any particular Corps, I should do great injustice to the others. Colonel Baylor, my first Aid de Camp, will have the honor of delivering this to you, and from him you may be made acquainted with many other particulars; his spirited Behaviour upon every Occasion, requires me to recommend him to your particular Notice. I have the honor &ca.

 

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Published in: on December 27, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. “… but as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events…”

    I have recently been reflecting on a couple of events where the protagonists lacked this nerve. 1745: the legitimate heir of England and Scotland is at Derby with a small but fearsome army of Scots. He has been disappointed in the hope of thousands of Jacobite recruits – so far, at least; but there is no armed force of any size between him and London, the main enemy forces being on the continent fighitng the War of Austrian Succession, or in Scotland chasing hares. London lies open before him. He loses his nerve, goes back, and leads his men to Culloden and national catastrophe.

    September-October 1860: Garibaldi has taken Naples and is preparing for the last clash with Francis II of Bourbon, He has 20,000 men, Francis rather more – theoretically 50,000, more immediately 26,000. Cavour, who does not trust Garibaldi, resolves on a terrible gamble. He sends 40,000 men of the Sardinian Army crashing through the Pope’s neutral kingdom in order to enter the Neapolitan territories by land and have enough forces to master whoever came on top. (It was Garibaldi, who, in spite of Cavour’s suspicion, had always intended to turn the country over to Victor Emmanuel.) But this exposes Sardinia to mortal danger. One year before, she had driven Austria from most of Italy, but the Austrian peace conditions – keeping Venetia and the feared fortresses of the Quadrilateral, “the home of the Austrian Army” – showed that Austria has not given up on Italy at all. The wanton invasion of the Papal States, whether or not desired by their population, is pure unwarranted aggression and would make a fine excuse for Austria to intervene; and if Austria intervened, her huge army would have made short work of both Sardinians and Garibaldi volunteers. But Austria does nothing, and within two months the fragile construct of northern Italy and Tuscany, set up only one year since and vulnerable to Austrian invasion everywhere, has turned into a land mass covering virtually all of Italy, whose conquest would be unimaginable even for the mighty Austrians. Austrian policy in Italy is destroyed without even starting, and six years later the Austrians are forced to abandon Venetia, “the jewel of the empire.”

    Moral of the fable: if you began something, finish it. That is the difference between being Washington and being Prince Charles Edward.

    • As Napoleon supposedly said, “If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna!”


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