The Crossing and the Capture

“For heaven’s sake, keep this to yourself,” George Washington wrote to Colonel Joseph Reed, laying out his plan to capture Trenton. “Christmas day at night, one hour before day, is the time fixed upon for our attempt on Trenton.”[1] The first year of the Revolution would soon come to an end, and the future of the struggle depended on the army’s success at Trenton. The Continental Army was forced to act—the British seemed primed to capture Philadelphia, and they were already in possession of New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. A victory before the end of the year would also help secure the reenlistments the army so desperately needed, as well as reviving morale in the general population, who had begun to lose confidence in the Revolutionary cause. However, every engagement carried risk; the crossing of the Delaware would be a delicate operation, and defeat would be catastrophic.

Trenton was occupied by about 1,000 Hessian troops under the command of Colonel Johann Rall. The few surviving Marylanders had seen these troops before: Rall’s men had been a part of the overwhelming force that had surrounded the American army at the Battle of Brooklyn.[2]  It was during this brutal engagement that the Maryland 400 had distinguished themselves, and the First Maryland Regiment had, at great cost, become one of the most respected divisions in the country.


Washington Crossing the Delaware, painting by Emmanuel Leutze (1851). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On Christmas morning the Continental Army began readying for a dramatic push across the river. The mission depended on secrecy, and none of the men were told exactly what they were preparing for. The women of the army cooked three days rations, which the men would carry along with blankets, weapons, packs, and as much ammunition as they could bring along. Washington’s plan had the men begin crossing the frigid Delaware River soon after sunset.

That afternoon the weather began to turn for the worst. By nightfall the men had to contend with frozen rain, sleet, and snow, and the precipitation bloated the dangerous river, which was littered with perilous chunks of ice. Out of three contingents that were supposed to make the crossing, only one, the group under General Washington, would successfully reassemble on the New Jersey shore.


Plan of the operations of General Washington against the King’s troops in New Jersey, 1777, Image from Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

With only one third of the attackers that Washington had planned on, and hours behind schedule, the march to Trenton began at around four o’clock in the morning. When they were halfway to Trenton, the force was divided into two. Generals Greene, Sullivan, and Washington synchronized their watches, and Sullivan broke off from the rest of the army to lead his men on a southern approach to the town.[3]

It was eight o’clock in the morning when Washington began the assault on Trenton. Despite the delays of the night before, the Americans managed to take the Hessians by surprise. The occupiers of Trenton were surprised, but contrary to legend, they were not sleeping off hangovers from Christmas celebrations the day before. The Hessians had been kept constantly on alert by American raids, and they were not completely unprepared for such an attack. However, the Americans were organized, attacked from several positions simultaneously, and the heavy snowfall made the defenders’ weapons malfunction.

The Hessians mounted a fierce defense, but the rebels penetrated the town and had their own as well as captured artillery at their disposal. Colonel Rall was shot from his horse and would die from his wounds that night; his removal from the battlefield dealt a heavy blow to the morale of his battalion. Finally, the retreating Hessians were surrounded in an orchard to the east of Trenton, and the American German Regiment, made up of men from Maryland and Pennsylvania, called out to the defeated troops in German to surrender.[4] By the end of the fighting, the Hessians had lost 918 men as prisoners and casualties.[5] Twenty two of those had died in battle and eighty three were gravely wounded.

The news of the victory at Trenton traveled quickly, and it had a rejuvenating effect on the Revolution. An observer would write of the recapture of Trenton, that “this affair has given such amazing spirit to our people, that you might do any thing or go any where with them. We have vast numbers of fine Militia coming in momently.”[6] The fight for independence had survived its first perilous year, and although hopes had been revived  by the capture of Trenton, the years to come would test the Americans’ resolve.

[2] David Hackett Fisher, Washington’s Crossing, (Oxford University Press, 2004), 98.

[3] Hackett Fisher, 230.

[4] Hackett Fisher, 251.

[5] Hackett Fisher, 254.

[6] “Captain Nicholson to Samuel Purviance,” December 27, 1776, series 5, vol. 3, p. 1440, American Archives Online.


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