A contemporary report on the Battle of Trenton (1776)

washington battle of trenton
Leutze’s 1851 painting depicts Washington crossing the Delaware at Trenton
The Battle of Trenton was a small but significant battle in the American Revolutionary War, fought in the early hours of December 26th 1776. Trenton, a small town on the New York-Pennsylvania border, was occupied by four regiments of Hessian soldiers commanded by Colonel Johann Rall. The Hessians were experienced, battle-hardened soldiers, while the Continental Army had endured a miserable few months and was at risk of dissolving completely. Facing disaster, George Washington decided to launch a surprise attack on Trenton to restore the morale of his men. He chose December 26th, the day after Christmas, when many of the Hessians were likely to be drunk or hungover. Washington’s plan was aided by the brash and overconfident Rall, who chose not to erect perimeter defences around the town. This report from New Hampshire’s Freeman’s Journal, dated January 21st 1777, gives a contemporary view of the battle:

“General Washington, finding it absolutely necessary to rouse the spirits of the army, which have been sorely depressed by the long series of disasters… for almost the whole month, resolved to attempt surprising a considerable body of Hessians quartered at Trenton, consisting of about 1,900 [men], and a detachment of British light horse. The plan was as spiritedly executed as it was judiciously concerted [and answered] the warmest expectations of its projectors.

Yesterday morning, orders were given for a large part of the army to have three day’s provisions ready cooked, and 40 rounds a man, and to be ready to march by three o’clock in the afternoon. Accordingly, the farthest brigades marched by two o’clock. About 11 o’clock at night it began snowing and continued so until daybreak, when a most violent northeast storm came on, of snow, rain and hail together.

Earlier, the American army, which did not exceed 2,400 men, crossed the Delaware [River] with several companies of artillery and 13 field pieces and formed in two divisions: one commanded by General Greene, the other by General Sullivan and the whole by General Washington. The attack began about seven o’clock [with] the vanguard of Sullivan’s division, who attacked the Hessians’ advanced guard, about a mile from the town. These they soon drove [back and] the whole pushed with the utmost vigour for the town, which they immediately entered. General Greene’s division attacked the town on the other side at the same time.

The Hessians did as much as could be expected from people so surprised, but the impetuosity of our men was irresistible. Fifteen minutes decided the action and the enemy threw down their arms and surrendered [as] prisoners of war. They consisted of three regiments of grenadiers and fusileers and were equal to any troops the Prince of Hesse could boast of. The troop of British dragoons [cavalry soldiers], without waiting to be charged, scampered off with the utmost expedition. [Had] the brigade under Colonel Ewing have landed below the town, as was intended, the light horse must inevitably have been taken, as well as a considerable number of the Hessians who got off. But the violence of the wind… and the quantity of the ice was so great that he found it impossible to cross [the river].

Our success, though not complete, was great. The men behaved with the utmost bravery. Finding that their guns did not generally go off, owing to their having been exposed to the snow and rain for six hours, they charged bayonets and with three cheers, rushed like bloodhounds upon the Hessians who, astonished at their fury, fled or threw down their arms. It was owing to the ardour of the attack that so little blood was shed. The army returned the same day and, notwithstanding a continual pelting for 12 hours of a most violent rain, hail and snowstorm, we had only two men frozen to death. Luckily they found some hogsheads of rum at Trenton, large draughts of which alone preserved the lives of many.

The soldiers behaved exceedingly well with respect to plundering, considering they were animated by revenge for past insults, exasperated by the injuries done their messmates taken at Fort Washington and animated by every incentive that could work upon the license of a successful army. The general [Washington] gave the Hessians all their baggage and they have since gone to the western counties of Pennsylvania with their packs unsearched. They were amazed at the generosity of the general, so opposite to their own conduct, and call him a very good rebel. The enemy who lay at Bordentown soon had the alarm [and] in the evening marched off, leaving us to take possession of Bordentown, Mount Holly and Burlington.”

Their defeat at Hessian called into question the much-feared reputation of the Hessian soldiers serving in America. The American press seized every opportunity to mock and ridicule the lack of fight displayed at Trenton. This short piece of doggerel also appeared in the Freeman’s Journal on February 11th 1777:

“The man who submits without striking a blow
May be said, in a sense, no danger to know
I pray then, what harm, by the humble submission
At Trenton was done to the standard of Hessian?”