Battle of Trenton

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Washington and his troops cross the Delaware River on the way to the Battle of Trenton. Oil painting by Emanuel Leutze

The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776 during the American Revolutionary War . Hessian regiments under Colonel Johann Rall , who were serving as subsidiary troops in British service, were defeated by the American Continental Army under George Washington in Trenton . This victory enabled Washington to stabilize the independence fighters' situation after a series of setbacks.


In the run-up to the battle, the morale of American troops was at a low point. After the lost battle of Long Island , the troops had to leave New York and were in retreat in New Jersey . Even Washington had doubts about the freedom struggle's chances of success. He wrote to his cousin in Virginia : "The game is pretty near up" (German: "The game is almost over"). Trenton was occupied by three regiments of Hessian soldiers who had set up their winter camp there. The commanding officer, Colonel Johann Rall, was responsible for the three regiments of Knyphausen , Lossberg and Rall with approx. 1400 soldiers. General Washington commanded approximately 2,400 men, assisted by Major General Nathanael Greene , Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, and Major General John Sullivan . The American victory was aided by the reconnaissance work of John Honeyman. Washington was informed about the troop strength of the Hesse through Honeyman. He also provided the Hessians with false information about the state of the American troops, which led to the assessment that they were unable to carry out an attack. The bad weather caused the Hessians not to carry out any reconnaissance activities the day before the battle, which increased the element of surprise of the attack.


American attack planning

The American plan of attack under Washington

The American battle plan provided for coordinated attacks from three different directions. General John Cadwalader was to attack the British garrison in Bordentown to prevent reinforcements from being sent from there. General James Ewing was to cross the Delaware River with 700 soldiers on the Trenton Ferry and occupy the bridge at Assunpink Creek to block the escape route for the enemy troops. The main thrust was to be across the river nine miles north of Trenton with 2,400 soldiers and then split into two groups. Generals Greene and Sullivan were to lead the main assault with these two groups just before dawn.

Depending on the success of the operation, the cities of Princeton and New Brunswick would then be attacked. Already in the week before Christmas Hessian patrols, guards and courier riders were successfully attacked, so that the Hessian commander finally had to deploy 100 soldiers and an artillery department to safely deliver a letter to the British headquarters in Princeton.

Hessian activities

The city of Trenton had two main streets at the time, King (now Warren) Street and Queen (now Broad) Street. Colonel Rall was instructed by his superior officer, Count Karl Emil von Donop , to build a jump at the head of both streets. At this point there is a monument to commemorate the battle. Donop's brigade was stationed in Bordentown and marched south on December 22nd towards Mount Holly, where they had to fight the battle of Iron Works Hill with the New Jersey Militia the following day .

Colonel Johann Rall was a 50-year-old professional soldier with extensive experience in practical warfare. His request for reinforcements was rejected by the British General James Grant. Grant despised the American "rebels" and assessed their military capabilities as low. The officers subordinate to Colonel Rall assessed the situation correctly and feared an American attack. Rall himself didn't believe it. He argued with the military superiority of the Hessians and mentioned that a bayonet attack would send the attacking Americans to flight.

Rall felt so safe that he did not allow any further excavation work to be carried out in Trenton. In addition, the day before the attack, no patrols were sent out to reconnaissance because the weather was very bad and a blizzard obstructed the view. The Hessian regiments also celebrated Christmas and the consumption of alcoholic beverages had restricted the troops' operational capability.

The march to Trenton

Before the American troops left General Washington was visited by Benjamin Rush , who wanted to encourage him. At this meeting Rush discovered the note written by Washington "Victory or Death" (German: "Sieg oder Tod"). These words became the password for the upcoming surprise attack.

The poor weather conditions delayed the landing in New Jersey, which was supposed to be completed by midnight, to 3:00 a.m., and Washington learned that an attack could not take place before dawn. Another setback for the American side was the fact that Generals Cadwalader and Ewing and their troops could no longer take part in the attack because of the bad weather. For the next four and a half hours, American troops marched into Trenton. The soldiers were poorly equipped, many had no boots and had to make do with rags wrapped around their feet. Many soldiers' bloody feet turned the snow dark red. Two men froze to death during the march, making them the only casualties on the American side.

Course of the fight

The American attack

The situation at the beginning of the battle

The Hessians had set up a small sentry at Pennington about nine miles north of Trenton and east of the American Marsh Route. When the guard saw the American marching formation, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Wiederhold, ordered the retreat to Trenton. Other guards followed, clearing the River Road, through which American units, led by General John Sullivan, could enter Trenton unhindered. Sullivan occupied the crossing to Assunpink Creek, the only southern escape route for the Hessians from Trenton.

At the northern end of Trenton, 35 Hessian fighters were stationed under the command of Lieutenant Grothausen. When they saw the vanguard of Sullivan's troops, they tried to retreat across the Assunpike Bridge. Only slowly did the three Hessian regiments form to resist. Rall was awakened by his adjutant, Lieutenant Biel, when fighting was already taking place in town. American units had already taken the hill on King and Queen Street and positioned two cannons. With this they controlled all the main exits of the city. For their part, the Hessians tried to get four cannons into position, but this was prevented by sustained enemy fire. The remaining American units surrounded the city to encircle the Hessians who were still fighting.

The Hessian resistance collapses

The situation at the end of the battle

The Knyphausen Regiment was separated from the other two regiments and driven south by John Sullivan's forces. The other two Hessian regiments, Lossberg and Rall, evaded into the open field and attempted a counterattack, which was immediately repulsed. Rall then ordered his soldiers to move southeast to an orchard outside Trenton. From this plantation, Rall attempted another counterattack under enemy fire, which was initially successful. Rall's plan was to retake the city and then escape to Princeton. In the streets of Trenton, however, the Hessian soldiers came under cannon fire and on the American side, civilians were now also taking part in the fighting from the cover of their houses. At this point Colonel Rall was badly wounded. The Hessian soldiers withdrew to the plantation, where they were surrounded by American units and forced to give up.

The remainder of the Knyphausen regiment tried to escape to Bordentown. But since the unit wanted to carry its cannons over swampy ground, its progress slowed down. The escape route was blocked by Sullivan's units, the refugees enclosed and 200 Hessians forced to surrender. Few Hessian soldiers were able to escape, and Sullivan captured the regimental cannons and ammunition. Minutes later, the other Hessian units also surrendered.

George Washington during the action in Trenton

The American side captured a total of 1000 weapons with ammunition, which were urgently needed.


The American armed forces suffered only minor losses. The two dead of the continental army died of hypothermia during the march to Trenton. Only four Americans were wounded, two of them while overcoming the Hessian artillery, so that it could not be used. Both wounded were prominent officers: Captain William Washington , the cousin of the Commander in Chief, and the young Lieutenant James Monroe , who later became President of the United States. Monroe was badly injured in his left shoulder from a bullet. The attending physician, Doctor John Riker, saved Monroe's life with an arterial clamp. The day after the battle, 1,000 American soldiers were reported sick. 25 soldiers fell on the Hessian side, including all four commanding colonels. Colonel Johann Rall died of serious injuries a few hours after the battle at his headquarters. 90 Hessians were wounded and a total of 920 were taken prisoner. The Lossberg regiment was worn out and only a small part of the Knyphausen regiment was able to escape.


The surrender of the Hessian troops

The extraordinary success of the relatively small battle restored the fighting spirit and morale of the American side. For the first time it was possible to overcome regular European units, which had rushed from victory to victory in the months before. In particular, the Hessian units were feared because of their warfare in the battle for New Jersey, the more one was amazed on the American side how easily one could overcome the enemy without significant resistance. The fear of the Hessians was permanently overcome. The only British soldiers on the scene, a small squad of dragoons, fled right at the start of the fighting.

The Hessians prisoners of war near Trenton are led through Philadelphia and then interned

At noon, after the battle, the American forces withdrew back to Pennsylvania via the Delaware . The looted war goods and the prisoners were carried along. The withdrawal turned out to be even more difficult than the approach. The American units had to cross the icy Delaware again and also carry the Hessian prisoners and the spoils of war with them. During the crossing there were new losses on the part of the Americans. Further losses from Hessen are likely, but not recorded. Before they were interned, General Washington led the prisoners of war in triumphal procession through the city of Philadelphia. The Hessian soldiers, who had been feared until then, were to be brought before the population as defeated, not least to overcome fear and to counteract war fatigue . The captured Hessians were brought to Virginia via Philadelphia and Lancaster .

In the following week, the American armed forces also won the Battle of Princeton , leading the Prussian King Frederick the Great to describe Washington’s achievements during this period as the most brilliant in military history.

Artistic interpretations

The hours before the battle served as the artistic inspiration for the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze . Washington stands majestically in the bow of a boat during the crossing of the Delaware, and the later President and then Lieutenant Monroe holds up an American flag next to him. The message of the picture is more symbolic than historically correct. Thick ice floes were floating on the Delaware and the crossing was difficult, it is to be expected that almost all passengers were in the boat, but in a different type of boat than shown. The winter river landscape shown shows the Lower Rhine near Düsseldorf, where the historical picture was made in 1851 in the context of the Düsseldorf School of Painting . In addition, the flag shown was not introduced until 6 months after the battle. Despite all the inaccuracies, the painting became an icon of American history.

The Trenton Battle Monument , erected at the "Five Points" in Trenton, commemorates the important American victory in the War of Independence.

The composer James Hewitt (1770-1827) composed his symphonic poem The Battle of Trenton on the occasion .

The fate of the Hessian soldiers and the battle of Trenton served the writer Sandra Paretti as a template for her novel "The winter that was a summer". This novel was filmed in a three-part television series of the same name in 1976 .

The historical novelist Howard Fast processed the battle in his book The Crossing , which was published in 1971 and made into a television film in 2000 under the title The Crossing , with Jeff Daniels as George Washington in the lead role.


  • Victor Brooks, Robert Hohwald: How America Fought Its Wars. 1999.
  • George William Douglas, Jane M. Hatch: The American Book of Days. 1978.
  • Henry William Elson: History of the United States of America. 1905.
  • John Ferling: Almost a Miracle. Oxford University Press USA, 2007, 679 pages. ISBN 0-19-518121-2 .
  • David Hackett Fischer: Washington's Crossing. Oxford University Press USA, 2004, ISBN 0-19-517034-2 .
  • Chautauqua Institution: The Chautauquan. 1892.
  • Levi Carroll Judson: The Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution: In Two Parts. 1852.
  • Richard Ketchum: The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton. Owl Books, 1999, ISBN 0-8050-6098-7
  • Craig Mitchell: George Washington's New Jersey. 2003.
  • Alexander Querengässer: Washington's winter campaign 1776/77. In: Pallasch. Journal of Military History, pp. 45–59.
  • Lucy D. Rosenfeld: History Walks in New Jersey: Exploring the Heritage of the Garden State. 2006, ISBN 0-8135-3969-2 .
  • George F. Scheer: Rebels and Redcoats. 1987.
  • Phillip Henry Stanhope: History of England: From the Peace of Utrecht to the Peace of Versailles. 1853.
  • William S. Stryker: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, 1898, 2001 Edition: Old Barracks Association, Trenton, NJ (609) pp. 396-1776.

Individual evidence

  1. a b c Victory or Death . Strike the root. December 30, 2002. Archived from the original on December 28, 2009. Retrieved on July 7, 2008.
  2. ^ A b c Stanhope: History of England: From the Peace of Utrecht to the Peace of Versailles. 1853, p. 129.
  3. ^ Fischer: Washington's Crossing. 2004, p. 538.
  4. ^ A b Douglas, Hatch: The American Book of Days. 1978, p. 1152.
  5. ^ A b c Brooks, Hohwald: How America Fought Its Wars. 1999, p. 55.
  6. ^ Rosenfeld: History Walks in New Jersey: Exploring the Heritage of the Garden State. 2006, p. 177.
  7. a b c d e f g Patriot: Battle of Trenton . Patriot Resource. Archived from the original on July 19, 2008. Retrieved July 7, 2008.
  8. ^ Scheer: Rebels and Redcoats. 1987, p. 215.
  9. ^ A b GV: The Battle of Trenton . New Jersey during the Revolution. Retrieved July 7, 2008.
  10. Andreas Wiederholdt (edited by MD Learned and C. Grosse): Diary of Capt. Widerholdt From October 7th to December 7th, 1780 ; The MacMillan Co, New York, ~ 1862; reprinted by the University of Michigan Library, Aug. 17, 2015
  11. Mitchell: George Washington's New Jersey. 2003, p. 43.
  12. ^ Fischer: Washington's Crossing. 2004, p. 247.
  13. Chautauqua Institution, p. 262.
  14. ^ Battle of Trenton . Chalfont Web Design. Retrieved July 7, 2008.
  15. ^ Fischer: Washington's Crossing. 2004, p. 379.
  16. ^ Elson: History of the United States of America. 1905, p. 64.
  17. David Hanauer: Washington's Crossing . Retrieved July 7, 2008.

Web links

Coordinates: 40 ° 13 ′ 4.8 ″  N , 74 ° 45 ′ 18 ″  W.