At the end of 1776 the fortunes of the Continental Army and its commander, George Washington, were at a low ebb. Despite the great optimism inspired by the publication of Paine’s Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence, its initial military engagements had been disastrous. The first real test had come at the Battle of Bunker Hill which, despite more than 1000 casualties, resulted in a British victory. The defence of New York City had failed decisively with defeat at the Battle of Long Island, where many of the continentals had fled in fear, causing Washington to lose his temper in frustration. The American army was proving to be disorganised, undisciplined and, when confronted with large numbers of British regulars, frightened for their lives. The Continental Army was short of skilled and experienced officers so Washington had found it almost impossible to convey and implement orders. There were also shortages of men, horses, wagons, uniforms, food, weapons and munitions – and no certainty of whether these things would arrive at all. Washington was also painfully aware that the enlistment term of many soldiers was due to expire; if they chose not to re-enlist and new recruits did not join, this would decimate his army. Some in the Congress were even beginning to doubt their choice of commander.
The Continental Army spent the last months of 1776 in retreat, engaging in the British only in small skirmishes and avoiding a pitched battle. By late December, they had retreated as far west as Pennsylvania, setting up camp on the western side of the Delaware River. Across the water lay Trenton, New Jersey, where a brigade of Hessian soldiers (German mercenaries hired by the British) had settled down to celebrate Christmas. Although the weather was severe and his men were tired from constant retreating, Washington realised he needed to seize the initiative. He designed plans to launch a surprise attack on Trenton, using intelligence obtained from a spy working with the Hessians. The Americans were also aided by the overconfidence of Hessian commanders: they considered the Americans too disorganised to attack and the Delaware River too dangerous to cross. Popular myth suggests that they had also been drinking to celebrate Christmas, though this was not true of most soldiers. In the dead of night, Washington ordered his forces to divide into three and cross the half-frozen Delaware River, ferrying across men, horses and small artillery in boats. Despite the adverse conditions they accomplished this with few problems, attacking Trenton at around eight o’clock on Boxing Day morning.
Theodore P. Savas, historian
The ambush on Trenton was successful for the Americans: all four Hessian colonels were killed, almost a thousand soldiers were taken prisoner and valuable supplies were captured. There were only two American deaths, both from the freezing cold en route to Trenton. Though not an important victory in terms of either size or strategy, Trenton was something of a confidence booster for the revolutionaries. The Continental Army had thoroughly defeated a group of regulars (the Hessians had been greatly feared by the Americans because of their professionalism and determination in battle). Washington, having abandoned his strong belief in gentlemanly conduct and the rules of war, earned new respect for his daring and initiative. And the glow of victory helped secure the Continental Army new enlistments, as well as encouraging many Trenton veterans to continue their service. Though not a sign that the Continental Army would become dominant over the British, it would at least remain intact. The Battle of Trenton has been immortalised in art, particularly in Washington crossing the Delaware, painted by Leutze in 1851; an image that glorifies the leadership of Washington but is redolent with historical inaccuracies.