This Day in History: George Washington's Second Battle at Trenton
On this day in 1777, the “second battle of Trenton” occurs. Americans had won an astounding victory only one week earlier. Now, the British were back, trying to recover the ground they’d lost.
Much had happened in one short week. On December 25, Washington’s men made a difficult trip across the Delaware River. On the 26th, they launched a surprise attack on Trenton and won, against all odds. After their victory, the Americans had returned back across the Delaware, taking their prisoners with them. Word spread about Washington’s victory. He was extolled as a hero.
Well, okay, so he was extolled by all but British General William Howe, of course. Howe was then in New York City, and he took immediate action: He ordered Charles Cornwallis back to New Jersey with a force of 8,000 men.
In the meantime, Washington had decided to go back across the Delaware River. (This second crossing was at least as difficult as the first one, although you never hear anything about it.) By December 30, Washington was back at Trenton, near Assunpink Creek. But he still had a problem. Many of his troops were free to leave at the end of the year. Washington decided to make a personal appeal to his men.
He offered a bounty to any man who would stay another 6 months. After this first appeal, none stepped forward. But one soldier remembered what Washington said next: “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you probably never can do under any other circumstance.”
Men began to step forward. Not everyone stayed, but many did. Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman describes the scene: “A few stepped boldly out; others followed, and more and more; soon only those who were too feeble to fight or too nearly naked to face the wind remained in the original line.” And, importantly, new men joined. They were inspired to fight by the December 26 victory at Trenton.
On January 1, Cornwallis reached Princeton, New Jersey. The very next day, he left part of his force at Princeton, but proceeded with the rest toward Trenton. A confrontation with Washington’s troops was all but inevitable.
Washington had sent troops toward the British, in an attempt to delay and harass them. These men, led by Colonel Edward Hand, were successful in their delaying tactics—and it was enough. The British reached Trenton, but not until the end of the day. Americans were forced to retreat back toward the bridge over the Assunpink. The British (along with some Hessians) attacked the bridge, not once, but three times. Each time, the Americans responded and drove back the British forces. One American later observed: “The bridge looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and their red coats.” The Americans took losses, too.
It was at this point that Hand’s delaying tactics became important. After three attacks on the bridge, it was becoming late. Should the British launch another attack or wait until morning? Cornwallis decided to wait. Nighttime attacks were dangerous, and he thought that Washington was trapped. Interestingly, he was warned that Washington might flee (as he had before), but Cornwallis allegedly remarked that he had “the Old Fox safe” and would “bag him” in the morning.
So, did Cornwallis bag the fox? I am so sorry, but you have to wait until Tuesday’s history post to find out what happens next.
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David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
Richard M. Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (1999)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)
William S. Stryker, The battles of Trenton and Princeton (1898)