The battles in and around New York City in the summer and fall of 1776 had gone badly for the American revolutionaries. The British had taken the city and established posts across from New York in New Jersey and up the Hudson River. Meanwhile, General George Washington knew that the enlistments of many of his few remaining troops would end on December 31, 1776. He needed a victory both to support the patriot cause and to maintain his army.
At this nadir in revolutionary fortunes, Washington devised a brilliant plan. He wanted to take advantage of one of the exposed posts that the British had set up to control New Jersey before going into winter quarters. He intended to send forces back across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey; one unit would serve as a picket line north of Trenton; another would perform the same task south of the city. Meanwhile, his main force would divide into two and attack the town from opposite ends on the morning of December 26; he expected that the garrison of about 1,400 Hessian mercenaries under the command of Colonel Johann Rall would be sated from a day of heavy drinking and eating and thus be unable to defend well.
The plan both did and did not work. Neither of the advance units crossed to and stayed on the New Jersey side, but Washington’s main units achieved complete surprise and total victory. In a severe winter storm, delayed somewhat by the difficulty of the river crossing, the Americans attacked around 8:00 a.m., shortly after dawn. Moving faster than the Hessians could form, the Americans gained control of the town, breaking up formations, blocking exits, and securing the advantage—all within ninety minutes. Nearly the entire Hessian force was captured, at minimal cost to Washington’s army.
Later, as Washington returned to Pennsylvania, the delayed units belatedly moved across the Delaware to New Jersey, and Washington decided to recross the river to save them. British general Lord Charles Cornwallis moved with unexpected speed and forced Washington to retreat toward the swollen Delaware. Thereupon the colonial general devised another brilliant strategy. He fooled the British into thinking that he and the bulk of his army had remained in position, while in fact they had sneaked away in the night. Moving along Cornwallis’s line of supply, Washington began attacking several additional British outposts, including Princeton (hence the name of that campaign, the Princeton campaign), before retreating for a long and difficult winter in Morristown, New Jersey. This winter position allowed Washington to watch the British in New York City and be prepared to march either north up the Hudson or south and west toward Philadelphia, depending on what the British decided to do in 1777.
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