December 30, 2009
What I need is a healthy dose of American history
Battle of Trenton: An Eyewitness Account
Posted By Publius
From the American Revolution Website: Here is an eyewitness account of the Battle of Trenton written by an officer on Washington’s Staff
New Town PA, December 22, 1776
Things have been going against us since last August, when we were forced to give up Long Island, losing 3000 men and a great amount of supplies. In October we were forced to evacuate New York and cross the Hudson into New Jersey.
We reached Trenton Dec. 2. It was prudent forethought on the part of General Washington to send General [William] Maxwell ahead to secure all the boats on the Delaware River and have them at Trenton upon our arrival. If it had not been done we should have been in a bad fix with [British Army Lieutenant-General Charles] Cornwallis at our heels. As it was the Hessians under Count [Carl von] Donop and Colonel [Johann] Rall arrived in that village in season to fire a few shots at the last boat.
According to last accounts General [William] Howe [the British Commander-in-Chief] and General Cornwallis have gone to New York leaving General [Sir James] Grant with a few hundred English troops at Princeton, Colonel Rall with 1500 Hessians at Trenton and Count Donop with 2000 at Bordentown, ten miles down the river from Trenton.
Washington’s headquarters are here in this little village of New Town, back from the river northwest of Trenton. General [Nathaniel] Greene and General [John] Sullivan, with their divisions, numbering 2500 men and sixteen cannon, are ten miles up stream at McConkey’s Ferry. A portion of the boats are there. General [James] Ewing, with 2000 men, is on this side of the river a little below Trenton, and General [John] Cadwallader and General [Israel] Putnam are at Bristol, ten miles further down, with as many more.
I rode along the river yesterday morning and could see the Hessians in Trenton. It is a pretty village, containing about 130 houses and a Presbyterian meeting-house. A stone bridge spans the Assunpink creek on the road leading to Bordentown. There are apple orchards and gardens.
Rall has his own regiment and Knyphausen a few dragoons and fifty riflemen. The Hessians call them Yagers. He has six cannon. Knyphausen has two of them, two stand in front of Rall’s headquarters, and two up by the Pennington road. A scout just in says that General Howe has issued a proclamation, offering pardon to everybody in New Jersey who will lay down their arms and take the oath of allegiance. He says that Howe and Cornwallis are well satisfied with what they have accomplished. Cornwallis is going to England to tell the King that the rebellion is about over. Howe is going to have a good time in New York attending dinner parties. For what I see I am quite certain Washington intends to make some movement soon. He keeps his own counsel, but is very much determined.
- Orders have been issued to cook rations for three days. Washington has just given the counter sign, “Victory or Death.” He has written a letter to General Caldwallader at Bristol, which he has entrusted to me to copy. He intends to cross the river, make a ten-mile march to Trenton, and attack Rall just before daybreak. Ewing is to cross and seize the bridge crossing the Assunpink. Putnam and Cadwallader are to cross and make a feint of attacking Donop so that he can not hasten to Rall’s assistance.
– A scout just in says that the Hessians have a picket on the Pennington road half a mile out from Trenton, and another at [Brigadier-General of the New Jersey militia Philemon] Dickenson’s house, on the river road.
– Christmas morning. They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy tomorrow morning. Washington will set the tune for them about daybreak. The rations are cooked. New flints and ammunition have been distributed. Colonel [John] Glover’s fishermen from Marblehead, Mass., are to manage the boats just as they did in the retreat from Long Island.
Christmas, 6 p.m.
– The regiments have had their evening parade, but instead of returning to their quarters are marching toward the ferry. It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow-storm is setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty.
I have just copied the order for marching. Both divisions are to go from the ferry to Bear Tavern, two miles. They will separate there; Washington will accompany Greene’s division with a part of the artillery down the Pennington Road; Sullivan and the rest of the artillery will take the river road.
Dec. 26, 3 a.m.
– I am writing in the ferry house. The troops are all over, and the boats have gone back for the artillery. We are three hours behind the set time. Glover’s men have had a hard time to force the boats through the floating ice with the snow drifting in their faces.
I never had seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet, and cuts like a knife. The last cannon is being landed, and we are ready to mount our horses.
Dec. 26, Noon
– It was nearly 4 o’clock, when we started. The two divisions divided at Bear Tavern. At Birmingham, three and a half miles south of the tavern, a man came with a message from General Sullivan that the storm was wetting the muskets and rendering them unfit for service.
“Tell General Sullivan,” said Washington, “to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”
It was broad daylight when we came to a house where a man was chopping wood. He was very much surprised when he saw us. “Can you tell me where the Hessian picket is?” Washington asked. The man hesitated, but I said, “You need not be frightened, it is General Washington who asks the question.” His face brightened and he pointed toward the house of Mr. Howell.
It was just 8 o’clock. Looking down the road I saw a Hessian running out from the house. He yelled in Dutch [German] and swung his arms. Three or four others came out with their guns. Two of them fired at us, but the bullets whistled over our heads. Some of General [Adam] Stephen’s men rushed forward and captured two. The other took to their heels, running toward Mr. [Alexander] Calhoun’s house, where the picket guard was stationed, about twenty men under Captain Altenbrockum. They came running out of the house. The Captain flourished his sword and tried to form his men. Some of them fired at us, others ran toward the village. The next moment we heard drums beat and a bugle sound, and then from the west came the boom of a cannon. General Washington’s face lighted up instantly, for he knew that it was one of Sullivan’s guns.
We could see a great commotion down toward the meeting-house, men running here and there, officers swinging their swords, artillerymen harnessing their horses. Captain [Thomas] Forrest unlimbered his guns. Washington gave the order to advance, and rushed on the junction of King and Queen streets. Forrest wheeled six of his cannon into position to sweep both streets.
The riflemen under Colonel [Edward] Hand and [Charles] Scott’s and [Robert] Lawson’s battalions went upon the run through the fields on the left just ready to open fire with two of their cannon when Captain [William] Washington and Lieutenant [James] Monroe with their men rushed forward and captured them. We saw Rall come riding up the street from his headquarters, which were at Stacy Potts’ house. We could hear him shouting in Dutch, “My brave soldiers, advance.”
His men were frightened and confused, for our men were firing upon them from fences and houses and they were falling fast. Instead of advancing they ran into an apple orchard. The officers tried to rally them, but our men kept advancing and picking off the officers. It was not long before Rall tumbled from his horse and his soldiers threw down their guns and gave themselves up as prisoners.
While this was taking place on the Pennington road, Colonel John Stark, from New Hampshire, in the advance on the river road was driving Knyphausen’s men pell mell through the town. Sullivan sent a portion of his troops under [Brigadier-General Arthur] St. Clair to seize the bridge and cut off the retreat of the Hessians toward Bordentown. Sullivan’s men shot the artillery horses and captured two cannon attached to Knyphausen’s regiment.
Dec.26, 3 p.m.
– . . . We have taken nearly 1000 prisoners, six cannon, more than 1000 muskets, twelve drums, and four colors. About forty Hessians were killed or wounded. Our loss is only two killed and three wounded. . . .I have just been with General Washington and Greene to see Rall. He will not live through the night. He asked that his men might be kindly treated. Washington promised that he would see they were well cared for.
Dec. 27. 1776
. — Here we are back in our camp with the prisoners and trophies. Washington is keeping his promise; the soldiers are in the New Town Meeting-house and other buildings. He has just given directions for tomorrow’s dinner. All the captured Hessian officers are to dine with him. He bears the Hessians no malice, but says they have been sold by their Grand Duke to King George and sent to America, when if they could have their own way they would be peaceably living in their own country.
It is a glorious victory. It will rejoice the hearts of our friends everywhere and give new life to our hitherto waning fortunes. Washington has baffled the enemy in his retreat from New York. He has pounced upon the Hessians like an eagle upon a hen and is safe once more on this side of the river. If he does nothing more he will live in history as a great military commander.
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