Trenton was occupied by three regiments of Hessian soldiers commanded by Colonel Johann Rall for a total of about 1,400 men. Washington’s force of about 2,400 attacked in two columns: Major General Nathanael Greene’s division from the north, and Major General John Sullivan’s division from the west. A third division never made it across the river because of the weather but was supposed to attack from the south.
The American victory was aided by John Honeyman, a spy enlisted by Washington, who gathered intelligence in Trenton and misled the Hessian defenders. He was responsible for estimating the strength of the Hessian defenders and for convincing them that the Americans were confused and in no condition to attack. Also, the weather made crossing of the Delaware next to impossible, further enhancing the element of surprise. The Hessians sent out a patrol every night to check for nearby enemy forces, but they were not sent out that night because of the storm.
On December 22, Gen. George Washington had 4,707 troops fit for duty. At the end of the year, more enlistments would run out and reduce his force to under 1,500 men. Winter was coming fast and the British would be able to continue their pursuit once the Delaware River froze over. Knowing this, Washington decided to attack the British forces who had entered winter quarters. He hoped to salvage a victory at the end of a disappointing campaign. He first wanted to attack the Hessians at Bordentown, but the local militia in that area was too weak to offer support. He then chose Col. Johann Hall’s isolated Hessian garrison at Trenton. They were in an exposed position, and it was known that they would heartily celebrate Christmas on the night of December 25. Washington decided on a predawn attack on December 26, while the Heissan troops and officers would be drunk and tired, and hopefully suffering hangovers.
Washington’s plan of attack would be carried out by 3 columns. In personal command of the main effort, some 2,400 veteran troops and 18 cannon, the troops of Maj. Gens. John Sullivan and Nathanael Greene , Washington would cross the Delaware River at McKonkey’s Ferry, some 9 miles above Trenton, and surprise the Hessians from the north.
On December 25, during the morning, a small American patrol had probed toward Trenton when they had a brief but vigorous firefight with the Hessians. Washington ordered the river crossing to begin right after dark, around 11:00 P.M. Brig. Gen. James Ewing was to lead 1,000 militia at the Trenton Ferry and block a retreat to the south. Col. John Cadwalader would lead 2,000 men, mostly militia, across the river at Bordentown and attack the garrison there as a diversion. However, with the storm, Ewing was unable to make it across, while Cadwalader was unable to bring his artillery and too late to be of any assistance.
At 11:00 P.M., Washington started his troops across the river. He wanted the crossing to be completed by 12:00 A.M., leaving 5 hours to reach Trenton before daybreak. Unfortunately, a storm began as soon as the crossings started. The southern crossings were to prevent the escape of the Hessians and to prevent Von Donop from supporting Trenton. Fortunately, Von Donop was at Burlington, having moved south in response to the group of New Jersey militiamen raiding towards him a few days earlier, and was out of position to support Rall.
On December 26, at 3:00 A.M. the crossing was complete but the column was not ready to march until 4:00 A.M., well behind schedule. Even with intelligence from Loyalists and American deserters, having told him the day and hour of the attack, Rall did not know how large the American attacking force would be. He figured that it would be nothing more than small hit-and-run patrol actions to which he had become accustomed and indifferent.
At 4:00 A.M., about 4 miles from their crossing at Birmingham, Washington’s force split into two columns. Greene, along with Washington, led one column onto the Pennington Road to attack the Hessian garrison from the north. Sullivan led the second column continued on the river road so it could attack the Hessian garrison from the west. By 6:00 A.M., the troops were miserable. Sullivan sent word that the men’s muskets would not fire due to being exposed to the storm all night. Washington sent word back for the men to use their bayonets instead.
At the Hessian garrison, Rall had passed out and was sound asleep along with most of his 1,200 man force, which was divided into 3 regiments: under himself, Col. Thaddeus Knyphausen, and ?? Lossberg. Because of the severe snowstorm, Maj. ?? Dechow decided not to send out the normal predawn patrol to sweep the area for signs of the Americans. Though the storm cause extreme misery for the troops, it allowed them to approach undetected.
At 8:00 A.M., Washington’s party asked a man that was chopping wood where the Hessian sentries were, just outside of Trenton. He pointed to a nearby house. A 20-man outpost of Lt. ?? Wiederhold saw the Americans emerge from the woods about 1/2 mile from the northern end of Trenton, on the Pennington Road. The outpost waited until the Americans were within range, then fired an ineffective volley at them. They quickly dropped back onto their main company position, some 400 yards closer to the town. About 3 minutes after this engagement, Sullivan’s advance guard flushed and routed a 50-man Hessian outpost stationed on the river road, about 1/2 mile from Trenton. Moving quickly and driving in the pickets, both columns move in on Trenton.
The Hessians were caught completely by surprise and were unprepared. They turned out quickly and formed up, but their attempts to attack to the north were hampered by the flanking fire from Washington’s western column and artillery. The Americans positioned 2 cannon, commanded by Capts. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Forrest, on a rise that guarded the two main routes out of town, King Street and Queen Street. The Hessians tried to bring 4 guns into action, but the American fire kept them silent. Hamilton’s men charged down the streets after the British guns.
Knyphausen’s regiment was separated from the other 2 regiments and driven back through the southern end of Trenton by Sullivan’s column. Many of the Hessians were able to escape to the south across Assumpink Creek, where Ewing’s troops were supposed to have been located. Rall and Von Lossberg’s regiments were forced out of town and formed in an apple orchard at the southeast corner of town. Rall ordered a counterattack back into town, trying to force a hole to the road to Princeton. A few seconds later, Rall was hit and mortally wounded while on his horse and fell off. The Hessians had wet guns from the storm, and had a hard time firing them. When the Hessians arrived back into Trenton’s streets, the American troops, joined by some civilians from the town, fired at them from buildings and from behind trees and fences, causing confusion. At the same time, the American cannons broke up any formations and the Hessian resistance faltered. They retreated back to the apple orchard and tried to escape across the Assumpink Creek. There, they found the bridge blocked and the fords upstream covered by the Americans. They were soon surrounded by the fast moving Americans and left them with no choice but to surrender.
The remnants of the Knyphausen Regiment were making for Bordentown, but they were slowed down when they tried to haul their cannon through boggy ground. They soon found themselves surrounded by Sullivan’s men and they also were forced to surrender.
At 9:30 A.M., the fighting finally died down. The battle had been an overwhelming victory for Washington, lasting only 90 minutes and fought through the 100 houses of Trenton. The Americans captured 1,000 arms, several cannon and ammunition, and some much needed supplies. About 600 Hessians, most of which had been stationed on the south side of the Creek, managed to escape. This made Washington’s plan to continue towards Princeton and Brunswick out of the question. With a large body of prisoners to evacuate, British reinforcementsa nearby, his own troops exhausted, and no adequate supply from across the river, Washington had no choice but to withdraw.
By noon, Washington’s force had moved to recross the Delaware back into Pennsylvania, taking their prisoners and captured supplies with them. This battle gave the Continental Congress a new confidence because it proved American forces could defeat regulars. It also increased the re-enlistments in the Continental Army forces. The Americans had now proved themselves against a disciplined European army and the fear the Hessians inspired earlier that year in New York was broken. As Captain Johann Ewald [of the Jägers], who was with von Donop in Mt Holly at the time of the attack, said of the Americans later, “We must now give them the honor of fortifications”.
Only two Americans were wounded, both during the Americans’ rush to capture Hessian artillery before they could be used in the battle. These wounded were officers: Captain William Washington (the General’s cousin), who was badly wounded in both hands, and young Lieutenant James Monroe, the future President of the United States. Monroe was carried from the field bleeding badly after he was struck in the left shoulder by a musket ball, which severed an artery. Doctor John Riker clamped the artery, keeping him from bleeding to death.
Washington had turned the tide, chasing the British forces from the Delaware River and putting them on the defensive, if only for a few days.
When the Continental Congress heard of Washington’s victory at Trenton, they had renewed confidence in their Commander-in-Chief and it bolstered enlistments and reenlistments for 1777.
The hours before the battle served as the inspiration for the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. The image in the painting, in which Washington stands majestic in his boat as it is crossing the Delaware River, is more symbolic than historically accurate, since the waters of the river were icy and treacherous, and the flag Monroe holds was not created until six months after the battle. The crossing also occurred before dawn. Many have doubted that Washington stood, but many scholars believe they all stood, albeit in a different type of boat. Nonetheless, the image has become an icon of American history