Revolution, 1753-1783

Author: William E. H. Lecky  | Date: 1777

The Battles of Trenton and Princeton

Nothing, indeed, could now have saved the American cause but the extraordinary skill and determination of its great leader, combined with the amazing incapacity of his opponents. There is no reason to doubt that Sir William Howe possest in a fair measure the knowledge of the military profession which books could furnish, but not one gleam of energy or originality at this time broke the monotony of his career, and to the blunders of the Jersey campaign the loyalists mainly ascribed the ultimate success of the revolution. The same want of vigilance and enterprise that had allowed them when totally defeated to escape from Long Island, still continued.

When Washington was flying rapidly from an overwhelming force under Lord Cornwallis, Howe ordered the troops to stop at Brunswick, where they remained inactive for nearly a week. In the that delay the destruction of the army of Washington was inevitable. The Americans were enabled to cross the Delaware safely because, owing to a long delay of the British general, the van of the British army only arrived at its bank just as the very last American boat was launched. Even then, had the British accelerated their passage, Philadelphia, the seat and center of the Revolutionary Government, would have certainly fallen. The army of Washington was utterly inadequate to defend it. A great portion of its citizens were thoroughly loyal. The Congress itself, when flying from Philadelphia, declared the impossibility of protecting it, and altho Washington had burnt or removed all the boats for many miles along the Delaware, there were fords higher up which might easily have been forced, and in Trenton itself, which was occupied by the English, there were ample supplies of timber to have constructed rafts for the army.

But Howe preferred to wait till the river was frozen, and in the meantime, tho his army was incomparably superior to that of Washington in numbers, arms, discipline, and experience, he allowed himself to undergo a humiliating defeat. His army was scattered over several widely separated posts, and Trenton, which was one of the most important on the Delaware, was left in the care of a large force of Hessians, whose discipline had been greatly relaxed. Washington perceived that unless he struck some brilliant blow before the close of the year, his cause was hopeless. The whole province was going over to the English. As soon as the river was frozen he expected them to cross in overwhelming numbers, and in a few dayshe was likely to be almost without an army. At the end of the year the engagement of the greater part of his troops would expire, and on December 24 he wrote to the President of the Congress, "I have not the most distant prospect of retaining them a moment longer than the last of this month, notwithstanding the most pressing solicitations and the obvious necessity for it." Under these desperate circumstances he planned the surprize of Trenton. "Necessity," he wrote, "dire necessity, will, nay, must justify an attack." It was designed with admirable skill and executed with admirable courage. On the night of Christmas, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware, surprized the German troops in the midst of their Christmas revelries, and with a loss of only two officers and two privates wounded, he succeeded in capturing 1,000 prisoners and in recrossing the river in safety.

The effect of this brilliant enterprise upon the spirits of the American army and upon the desponding, wavering, and hostile sentiments of the population was immediate. Philadelphia for the present was saved, and the Congress speedily returned to it. Immediately after the victory a large force of militia from Pennsylvania joined the camp of Washington, and at the end of December the disbandment of the continental troops, which a week before he had thought inevitable, had been in a great measure averted. "After much persuasion," he wrote, "and the exertions of their officers, half, or a greater proportion of those [the troops] from the eastward have consented to stay six weeks on a bounty of ten dollars. I feel the inconvenience of this advance, and I know the consequences which will result from it, but what could be done? Pennsylvania had allowed the same to her militia; the troops felt their importance and would have their price. Indeed, as their aid is so essential and not to be dispensed with, it is to be wondered at, that they had not estimated it at a higher rate." "This I know is a most extravagant price when compared with the time of service, but . . . I thought it no time to stand upon trifles when a body of firm troops inured to danger was absolutely necessary to lead on the more raw and undisciplined."

No money was ever better employed. Recrossing the Delaware, Washington again occupied Trenton, and then, evading an overwhelming British force which was sent against him, he fell unexpectedly on Princeton and totally defeated three regiments that were posted there to defend it. The English fell back upon Brunswick, and the greater part of New Jersey was thus recovered by the Americans. A sudden revulsion of sentiments took place in New Jersey. The militia of the province were at last encouraged to take arms for Washington. Recruits began to come in. The manifest superiority of the American generalship and the disgraceful spectacle of a powerful army of European veterans abandoning a large tract of country before a ragged band of raw recruits much less numerous than itself, changed the calculations of the doubters, while a deep and legitimate indignation was created by the shameful outrages that were perpetrated by the British and German troops.

Unfortunately these outrages were no new thing. An ardent American loyalist of New Yorkcomplains that one of the first acts of the soldiers of General Howe when they entered that city was to break open and plunder the College library, the Subscription library, and the Corporation library, and to sell or destroy the books and philosophical apparatus; and he adds, with much bitterness, that during all the months that the rebels were in possession of New York no such outrage was perpetrated, that during a great part of that time the regular law courts had been open, and that they had frequently convicted American soldiers of petty larcenies, and punished them with the full approbation of their officers. In New Jersey the conduct of the English was at least as bad as at New York. A public library was burnt at Trenton. A college and a library were destroyed at Princeton, together with an orrery made by the illustrious Rittenhouse, and believed to be the finest in the world. Whigs and Tories were indiscriminately plundered. Written protections attesting the loyalty of the bearer were utterly disregarded, and men who had exposed themselves for the sake of England to complete ruin at the hands of their own countrymen, found themselves plundered by the troops of the very Power for which they had risked and sacrificed so much. Nor was this all.

A British army had fallen back before an army which was manifestly incomparably inferior to it, and had left the loyalists over a vast district at the mercy of their most implacable enemies. Numbers who had actively assisted the British were obliged to fly to New York, leaving their families and property behind them. Already loyalist risings had been supprest in Maryland, in Dela-ware, and in Carolina, and had been left unsupported by the British army. The abandonment of New Jersey completed the lesson. A fatal damp was thrown upon the cause of the loyalists in America from which it never wholly recovered.


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Chicago: William E. H. Lecky, "The Battles of Trenton and Princeton," Revolution, 1753-1783 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.3, Pp.149-154 Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: Lecky, William E. H. "The Battles of Trenton and Princeton." Revolution, 1753-1783, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.3, Pp.149-154, Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: Lecky, WE, 'The Battles of Trenton and Princeton' in Revolution, 1753-1783. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.3, Pp.149-154. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from