A little more than a week after his stunning surprise victory at Trenton in New Jersey, Commander-in-Chief of the American Continental Army George Washington pressed his advantage and scored another decisive victory over the British at nearby Princeton.
The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776, after Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware at night to surprise a Hessian garrison which had been holding Trenton for the British. The Battle of Princeton took place on January 3, 1777.
Both Trenton and Princeton have been viewed as relatively minor victories for the Americans, but in terms of building morale and fueling enthusiasm in the badly demoralized Continental Army, the importance of both these American victories cannot be overestimated.
Washington’s Promise to Pay
Interestingly, the Battle of Princeton almost never happened. That’s because most of Washington’s troop enlistments were up at the end of 1776. Also, despite their thrashing of the Hessians at Trenton, they were cold, hungry, and had enough of the rigors of war to say the least. Washington had to muster all of his persuasive powers to get his men to stay in the army and keep fighting. He ended up promising “a bounty of $10” if they stayed on for just another six weeks. Most of them agreed.
The issue of enlistment settled, Washington pulled his troops from the Trenton area and endeavored to circle the forces of British General Charles Cornwallis. The British had established a garrison at Princeton, which was little more than a hamlet at the time. Washington was determined to attack and take this garrison. In the meantime, General Cornwallis had dispatched 8,000 troops to take on directly Washington’s contingent of 6,000 men.
Intelligence reports advised Washington of Cornwallis’ moves. Washington attempted to slow the advance of the British force by sending militia units to harass them while Washington firmed up his battle strategy. The stalling tactic was successful. The Americans beat back three attempts by the British to cross the Assunpink River, forcing Cornwallis to delay from attacking for an additional day.
The war was on the next day, however. Cornwallis attacked, but the clever George Washington outmaneuvered him with an ingenious ruse. Washington left 500 troops in the position Cornwallis was advancing upon, making Cornwallis believe he was advancing on Washington’s primary force. Washington instead had marched his troops – with immense difficulty in brutal winter conditions – by another route toward the British garrison at Princeton.
General Hugh Mercer, a close friend of Washington, led a contingent of 300 men toward the British position in the first part of the Battle of Princeton. Mercer’s men unexpectedly encountered a superior force of British light infantry in an orchard and were forced to start shooting. In the end, Mercer’s outnumbered group was overrun and surrounded by the British. Mercer himself was captured – the British mistakenly thought they had captured George Washington himself. They brutally executed him with a jab of a bayonet and smashing his head with a musket. Mercer’s second-in-command Colonel John Haslet was also shot in the head and killed.
Knowing that Mercer had been overrun, Washington sent another of his generals, John Cadwalader with 1,100 men to help them out. Cadwalader came upon the fleeing remains of Mercer’s troops and attempted to engage the British who were chasing them. Unfortunately, Cadwalader’s men were so impossibly inept and ill-trained that he was unable to get them into proper battle formation – and when these untrained troops saw British regulars charging toward them, they ran.
Fortunately, Washington arrived with a group of riflemen and some Virginia Continentals who opened fire on the advancing British, holding them back. At this point in the battle, Washington himself showed an amazing display of uncanny bravery along with an astounding ability to rally frightened and demoralized troops.
Cadwaldader’s incompetent men were still in full retreat, but Washington bolted his horse over to them and shouted at them to “be brave!” and to “gather around me!” promising to lead them to a victorious attack over the British. Cadwaldader’s men fell in line, and along with Washington’s other troops, they charged the advancing British with Washington riding out front, musket balls whizzing past his body.
Washington told his men not to fire until he gave the command. When the American’s were within 30 yards of the main British force, Washington stopped, turned his back to the British and faced his own troops. He ordered them to fire. The British did the same. A thunderous volley of musket balls hurled back and forth between the British and American’s with Washington right in the midst of them.
When the smoke had cleared, everyone expected Washington to be dead – but he was untouched. His actions made it clear to an entire army that Washington was more than some posh, aristocratic general content to direct battles from the rear while sending common foot soldiers into the meat grind of war.
The battled raged forward and eventually the British lines began to break and fall back. Then they ran. The Americans pursued them, chasing them well beyond the realm of Princeton, and also hounding them well into the night. Washington finally called the day a victory and ordered his troops back to Princeton. The battle had been a decisive victory.
The result of the Battle of Princeton was that the British were forced to abandon most of their positions in New Jersey. Cornwallis was forced to relocate his troops to New Brunswick.
Although accounts vary, the British are generally believed to have suffered 100 soldiers killed with 300 taken prisoner. The Americans lost 25 to 30 men, about 7 of which were high-ranking officers. These are not large numbers for either side compared to some of the major battles, but again, it was the psychological aspect of the victories of Trenton and Princeton which played a gigantic role in the outcome of the American Revolutionary War.
Remember that just a few months earlier, especially after the defeat of the Americans in the Battle of White Plains, both the Americans and the British felt that the war was all-but over, with the Americans defeated, demoralized and practically without a single victory in the previous 6 months.
After the Battle of Princeton, the Americans began to believe they could win.