defeat of the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton

Washington was one of the first to cross Delaware

Gloomy winter

The fall of 1776 was a nightmare for the Americans who rebelled against British rule. They were not only beaten hard and kicked out of New York, but driven on. To make matters worse, Washington’s army was losing soldiers at a monstrous rate. People were painfully upset by failures and believed that the struggle for independence seemed to have failed. And they fled home – no one wanted to stand trial for treason.

The British acted methodically. Having driven the Americans across the Delaware River and knowing that the enemy was suffering desperately from desertion, they did not force themselves with cold crossings, but quietly dispersed to winter quarters in New York. To wait for spring and calmly, with fresh forces, reach Philadelphia – the informal capital of the rebellious colonies. Disperse the Continental Congress and close the shop.

Washington understood that this could not be allowed. He faced two problems. The need, if not to stop, then at least to slow down this future march of the British, and a bright, albeit tactical, victory here and now. The last one – to cheer up those who still remain and recruit new recruits tomorrow, before his army completely melts.

This could only be done by striking the right place.

Stir up the swamp

Fortunately, the British themselves provided opportunities for such a strike, withdrawing the main forces to New York and giving the initiative to the Americans who were barely alive, as it seemed to them.

Yes, they could not be destroyed. If Washington began to beat the British one at a time, as they would have left their winter quarters, they would connect and put an end to it. The American commander-in-chief understood this. He was not interested in the annihilation of the enemy, but in the warehouses prepared by him. One of them was right on the “English” coast of Delaware, in the town of Trenton. The other is in Princeton (20 km) and the third in New Brunswick (another 26 km).

The targets were quite affordable: it was possible to deliver a sudden blow and a forced march to reach all the warehouses. Having ruined them, it was possible, if not to disrupt, then at least slow down the campaign of 1777 for the enemy. And, most importantly, all this was done with very moderate forces. The warehouses were guarded by relatively small detachments of Hessian mercenaries, who did not seriously expect that the Americans who were beaten in the fall were at all capable of doing anything at all.

In short, the moment was perfect, and Washington did not miss it.

Delaware won’t stop us

Among other things, he chose a good time – while the enemy celebrated Christmas or moved away from this pleasant event. The Americans began to concentrate off the coast of Delaware on Christmas Eve, on the evening of December 24. A total of 2,400 people were collected.

At Trenton, they were opposed by about 1,500 Hessians, a number that gives hope of success. But they still had to get to. It was to cross the river 15 kilometers from Trenton. Today, a bridge has been laid at the site of the crossing, a park with the self-explanatory name “Washington crossing” is laid out nearby, and the “Patriotic tavern” is at the service of tourists following in the footsteps of Washington.

Everything had to be done at night. It all started on the evening of the 25th. At first, everything went briskly, but the artillerymen greatly impeded the matter – their 18 guns were regularly stuck in the attacking deep snow. And ice floes, wind and the Delaware current did not accelerate the process. But by 4 am on the 26th, the Americans completed the crossing.

All that remained was to attack the Hessians.

Sudden blow

For the speed of the march, the Americans had to split into columns and move to Trenton along two roads. And a real small victory for the still inexperienced fighters: both columns were brought to the city almost simultaneously.

And the Hessians, apparently, continued to celebrate Christmas with shock. At the very least, the concentration and crossing of the Americans remained an absolute secret for the mercenaries from Germany. The head of the garrison, Colonel Roll, was serenely snuffling in bed – so when the Americans entered the city, no one prevented them from placing guns on the largest streets. After that, it was naive to think of any intelligible resistance.

The death of Colonel Roll by the battle artist Don Troyani


It was a complete rout. Roll jumped out into the street and even tried to lead something. But soon he fell from an American bullet. After that, the last hopes were lost, and for the Hessians there were three options: to die in battle, to flee from the city in horror, or to surrender. Caught by surprise, the mercenaries were in no hurry to die – only 22 people died. Five hundred managed to escape, and a thousand were captured. The Americans themselves had only two corpses, and even those from frostbite during an unsuccessful crossing.

The raid on Trenton ended in crushing success.

Here and there

But with the development of this success, everything was not so simple. At least not right away.

Washington received intelligence: superior forces of the Hessians were moving towards it. Proceeding from the fact that the army could not be risked, I immediately crossed back through Delaware – fortunately, during the day and near the city, where there were moorings, it was easier.

But the news turned out to be complete misinformation – in fact, there were no large forces, and all the Hessians in the district fled without looking back towards New York.

It would seem that what is done is done – do not wander back across the not the smallest and most quiet river. But the Americans were helped by chance.

Half-tattered Americans pound hard-wearing Hessians


The fact is that in addition to the main strike, Washington planned auxiliary ones, but the detachments assigned to them simply did not master the crossing. And the commander of one of them, burning with shame, now considered it a matter of principle. Therefore, he simply took his people, and, without asking anyone, crossed over and occupied the city of Burlington, where he was supposed to get at the very beginning.

Washington could not ignore this – as well as order the latter to cross back without losing authority. Therefore, he came to the aid of the negligent commander along with the main forces. Just in time to meet the army of British General Cornwallis arriving in time from New York.

And on the run again

Numerically, both groups were approximately equal, but the absolute superiority in quality was, of course, among the British professionals. It was a crazy idea to compete with them in the open field. So it was worth staying in the city.

The British, having decided to forge the iron while it was hot, tried to seize the latter at a swoop, but they failed. Then they decided to spend the night and take up the assault in the morning, already more thoroughly. But it was late – at night the Americans left. Someone, of course, had to be left – so that they burn fires, make noise and give the enemy the false feeling that the city is full of soldiers.

When morning came, Cornwallis realized that he had been fooled, and immediately rushed to New Brunswick to defend his warehouses. For them, however, he could not be afraid – the Americans were already exhausted to do something more serious than trying to get up somewhere in winter quarters.

House in Morristown, where the headquarters of Washington was located


Washington decided not to cross Delaware in view of the large enemy army, but to reach the town of Morristown, some 50 kilometers from New York, where it temporarily settled. Cornwallis did not bother him. After making sure that the warehouses for his army were safe, he returned to New York and began to wait for spring. It seemed to him that the capture of Philadelphia would put an end to all this senseless throwing.

But thirteen colonies were not Europe and it was impossible to win the war by European methods (through the capture of the capital). Only bitter disappointments awaited the British ahead.

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