I have always loved the story of the Battle of Trenton, the background of the battle, and just how pivotal it was to our eventual Independence from Great Britain. It’s an ultimate military triumph. A true underdog story. And one of the greatest gambles by one of the most brilliant minds in military history in General George Washington. He went riverboat gambler and came up big! But in order to understand how critical the victory at Trenton was, let me set the scene for you.
Dying Patriot Cause
On July 9th, 1776, when he had the Declaration of Independence read aloud to his troops, George Washington commanded 23,000 men. This was a good chunk of the overall larger force of the whole Continental Army throughout the Thirteen Colonies, which had swelled to nearly 90,000 men in the summer of 1776. Patriot pride and morale was soaring. They had just declared their independence from Great Britain and King George III, and were ready to fight for their freedom!
Unfortunately, the New York and New Jersey campaigns went horribly wrong. I love George Washington, but I’m not going to pull any punches or mince words here: From July-December 1776, everything that could go wrong went wrong. Washington and his men lost seemingly every battle. He got his ass kicked time and time again. The Battle of Long Island, New York (August 1776), several skirmishes near Manhattan, and the Battle of White Plains, New York (October 1776) were all defeats for the Patriots. The Redcoats were also pushing to capture Philadelphia, the capital of the Thirteen Colonies at the time, and the home of the Continental Congress. They were going for the jugular.
As the chill of the winter months crept into the Continental Army camp, doubt also crept into the minds of many of Washington’s men as well. Hundreds of men had deserted and gone home, and others who had the opportunity to reenlist chose not to do so. They saw the war as a lost cause by that point.
Washington’s once stout army, which had numbered around 23,000 at peak strength, had withered to under a quarter of that size by December 1776. The Patriot cause was on life support. One more devastating loss, and dreams of American Independence would be snuffed out forever. The upstart United States would become merely another failed rebellion against the Crown. And several of its most prominent leaders, from Ben Franklin, to John Adams, John Hancock, and George Washington himself, would be executed as traitors. The fight for Independence had reached the end of the line. The infant United States was on its deathbed. But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral…
Washington was running out of time. And he knew it. American morale was dangerously low, and the enlistment terms of his army were up on December 31st, 1776. Less then a week away at that time. The Hessians, German mercenaries fighting alongside the British, seemed to think that morale was so low, that the Americans wouldn’t even try to attack. But Washington desperately needed a victory of any kind.
Inspired by The American Crisis, a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine, one of the leading voices of the Revolution, Washington and the Patriots began to get a second wind. Paine’s fiery writing urged everyone to band together and dig deep. An inspiring line from The American Crisis reads:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country. But he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
On the evening of December 25th, 1776, General Washington, Brigadier General John Glover, chief of artillery Henry Knox, and 2,400 men prepared to cross the icy Delaware River. The original plan was to cross the river, march to Trenton, and attack the Hessian garrison there, numbering about 1,500 men, before dawn. However, the crossing took longer than expected, as Washington had to make sure everyone crossed safely before the nine mile march to Trenton began. He also had to account for pieces of artillery as well. But the march began at around 4 AM on December 26th, 1776.
The Battle of Trenton
After the march to Trenton, Washington had ordered the main attack force to be split into two columns, one headed by himself and General Nathanael Greene, and the other by General John Sullivan. At around 8 AM, both columns surrounded Trenton. One attacked from the north, and the other from the south.
In the grand scheme of things, the Battle of Trenton was small in terms of numbers. But by all accounts, it was a brutal and fierce battle. Several legends tied to the battle persist to this day. One was that the Hessians were indeed caught by surprise, drunk and hungover from a night of heavy drinking on Christmas. Another fascinating legend was that Hessian leader, Colonel Johann Rall had received a note from a spy informing him of Washington’s movements toward Trenton…but Rall had neglected to ever read the note while playing cards with his troops on Christmas. It was supposedly found in his coat pocket after his death from being shot during the battle.
Nevertheless, Washington’s force of 2,400 men overpowered and defeated Colonel Rall’s 1,500 men, and captured many of them in a decisive victory. In addition to that, Washington captured much-needed supplies in terms of muskets, ammunition and artillery. But he had also done more than that: He had reignited the fire of enthusiasm for Independence with his victory! Instead of seeing his army dissipate and fade away into nothingness after enlistment ended, the victory at Trenton bolstered his ranks. Many stayed on, while several new recruits joined up as well!
Commentary on the Battle of Trenton
In my eyes, the Battle of Trenton truly saved the Revolution. There are several key moments during the war that seem like divine intervention. This was one of them. If the attack on Trenton had never occurred or failed, The American Revolution would have only lasted from April 1775-December 1776. General Charles Cornwallis, General William Howe, and other British leaders would’ve likely been hailed as heroes by King George III and Parliament. And every leader of the Revolution would’ve been swinging at the end of a rope for treason!
It took courage and fortitude on not only Washington’s part to plan and execute a successful attack on Trenton, it took the same courage and fortitude of so many people to win our freedom during the course of the entire war. Many of these people are known and celebrated. Many are unknown and obscure, lost to history. But without all of them, we are not the most free nation on Earth.
God bless George Washington and his men. God bless all who struggled for Independence. And God bless the United States of America!