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Trenton. But his progress was so much delayed first by the floating ice upon the Delaware, and next by storms of snow and hail, that it was full eight o'clock before the two divisions in which he had ranged his troops, marching by different routes, came close upon the little town. Late as was the hour, it proved not too late for Washington's object of surprise. He opened his fire on both sides at once, and drove in the Hessian outposts; and "we "presently," adds Washington, "saw their main body "formed." On first perceiving their danger, the Light Horse and a few more fled by the bridge across the Assanpink, and made their way to Bordentown; but the main body, finding themselves surrounded, and without any means of escape, agreed to a surrender. Some more of their soldiers were afterwards found concealed in the houses, making the whole number of the prisoners little short of one thousand. Their commander, Colonel Rahl, a brave veteran, had been mortally wounded, and some twenty or thirty of their soldiers slain. The loss of the Americans had been slight indeed; only two privates killed, and two others frozen to death.
Thus successful in his enterprise, Washington on the very same day hastened back across the Delaware, in order to secure his prisoners. He expected that, on his withdrawing, the King's troops would at once return to Trenton. But another detachment of his army, with the Adjutant-General, having passed over from Bristol, found that, on the contrary, Count Donop had been seized with panic on learning the disaster of his comrades, that he had called in his scattered parties, had relinquished Bordentown, and was retreating in all haste by the Princeton road. In short, it appeared that the whole line of the British cantonments on the Delaware was broken through and falling back. At such tidings Washington determined to resume the offensive. Again he crossed over the Delaware with such force as he could muster, directed his detachments to join him, and with them, for the second time, took post at Trenton. Just at this critical moment, as the year was closing, the term of service of several regiments expired. At first the men seemed bent on going off in a body to their homes. But by the earnest persuasion of their officers, aided by a bounty of ten dollars to each man, more than half of them consented to remain a few weeks longer.
Lord Cornwallis had already returned to head-quarters at New York. At the first news of Trenton he was forthwith ordered back to the Jerseys. Gathering the scattered parties that had lately lined the Delaware, and bringing forward fresh troops from Brunswick, he advanced in one compact body from Princeton. On the afternoon of the 2nd of January he came in sight of the American army, which at his approach retired from Trenton, and took post on some high ground beyond the Assanpink, guarding the bridge and the fords by their artillery. A battle, and in all likelihood a blow to the Americans, seemed impending for the morrow. But in the evening Washington assembled his officers in a Council of War, and laid before them a scheme which he had formed. From the numbers that Lord Cornwallis showed in front it seemed probable that but few remained in the rear. Might it not be possible by a night-march to surprise and overpower those few, and push onward to Brunswick, there capturing the military chest and stores, and releasing from captivity General Lee? The release of that officer, I may observe in passing, was an object of great interest to the Americans, since the British, on account of his former commission in their service, were disposed at this period to treat him, not as a prisoner of war, but as a deserter. It was not till many months afterwards that, on orders from home, and on vehement threats of retaliation by the Congress, they agreed to his exchange.
The plan thus skilfully formed was no less skilfully carried into execution. All night, to avert the suspicion of the British, the American fires were kept burning, and the guards ordered to remain at the bridge and fords. Meanwhile the baggage was sent off to the rear, in the direction of Burlington, and the army commenced its march with Quaker-like silence along what was called the Quaker road. Thus stealing forward on the east side of the Assanpink, they reached Princeton a little after sunrise.
In that town, as it chanced, three British regiments and three troops of Light Horse had passed the preceding night. Their numbers are not given with precision, but would certainly be underrated were we to take "Washington's account. For, on another occasion, at this period, when desiring rather to depreciate the force opposed to him, he computed that the Hessian regiments, when they came out complete, did not exceed 600, nor the British 250 men each.* One of the regiments at Princeton — the 17th, under Colonel Mawhood — was already on its march to join Lord Cornwallis; of the other two, the 55th was just moving, and the 40th still at its quarters. In the grey of a winter morning the Colonel mistook the first ranks of the advancing enemy for Hessians, but on discovering his error, boldly charged them. Led on by Mawhood, the gallant 17th pressed forward with bayonets fixed, threw the American vanguard into confusion, and though of course unable to contend for any length of time against the growing numbers of the foe, still it cut its way through, and pursued its march to Lord Cornwallis without further hurt or hindrance. The 55th and 40th were not so fortunate. They made a brave resistance, especially the 55th which came up the first; but exposed to so great disparity of numbers, they were overpowered. Finally, they were repulsed, and driven back in disarray along the road to Brunswick, leaving behind one hundred dead, and three hundred prisoners. There were also three brass field-pieces, which for want of horses, the American commander could not secure. On his side, there fell one of his Generals, named Mercer, and four Colonels or Captains, but no more, as he states, than twenty-five or thirty privates. During this action Washington himself, with the utmost intrepidity, appeared in the thickest of the fight, animating his men by his example even to the alarm and dissatisfaction of his otficers.f On the other hand, the British troops evinced so much of steady courage and discipline under every disadvantage, as to warrant their chiefs in the belief that had the 40th come up in time from Princeton, and the three regiments
* To Governor Cooke, April 3. 1777.
f One officer writes from Morristown a few days afterwards: "Our "army love their General very much, but they have one thing "against him, which is the little care he takes of himself in any "action." Note by Mr. Sparks to Washington's Writings, vol. iv. p. 262.
formed in line together, they might have stood firm against all the efforts of the not large nor well-appointed American army, and enabled Lord Cornwallis to take it in the rear.
Washington did not find it possible to fulfil his first intentions, and push onward to Brunswick. His men were exhausted with fatigue, having been eighteen hours without food, and thirty-six without rest; most of them were ill-clad, and many barefoot. Moreover Lord Cornwallis, seeing at day-break that the American army was no longer before him, and hearing the guns in his rear, was hastening back with all speed to Princeton and to Brunswick, there to secure his reserve and magazines. The American General therefore desisted from pursuit of the two defeated regiments, and turned aside towards Pluckemin; first, however, destroying the bridge over Stoney Brook, and thus retarding any pursuit of himself. Two days afterwards he moved to Morristown, a position among the hills, not easy of access yet well provided with supplies. From thence sending out detachments he overran and reduced nearly the whole of the Jerseys. General Howe, not willing to be roused from his winter quarters at New York, seemed content to lose the province so lately gained, and satisfied with merely retaining posts at Brunswick and Amboy.
At this time one of Washington's detachments, under General Heath, was pushed forward, even beyond the Hudson, in the direction of Kingsbridge. There the British held a fort, which, though in their possession, retained the name which the Americans had given it— Fort Independence. To this fort General Heath sent a summons to surrender, couched in the most peremptory terms. "Twenty minutes only can be allowed for the "garrison to give their answer; and should it be in the "negative, they must abide the consequences." The garrison returned no answer, but found no consequences follow, since the fort was not attacked, and General Heath quietly withdrew. For this ridiculous affair he was properly rebuked by Washington.*
* "Your summons, as you did not attempt to fulfil your threats, "was not only idle but farcical, and will not fail of turning the
Thus concluded the campaign of this year. The surprise at Trenton, and the skirmish at Princeton — both of which the Americans have dignified with the name of battles—are not to be estimated solely by their rank as feats of arms. Their results, moral as well as military, were of very high importance. In the first place they had saved Philadelphia, and arrested the conquering progress of the British troops. Next, as we have seen, they replaced the Jerseys beneath the sway of Congress. No greater act of impolicy can well be imagined than that the British General should tamely acquiesce in the reduction of a province which had so recently and so warmly espoused his cause, thus exposing the loyalists within it to every kind of persecution and ill-treatment, and discouraging most effectually the loyalists elsewhere.
Hardly less impolitic, hardly less injurious, had been the license allowed the troops, and above all, the foreign mercenaries, while this province still continued in their hands. Acts of plunder, or of insult, not promptly repressed, nor duly punished, led of course to alienation and resentment. The details of any such outrages, sometimes taken on oath, but more frequently magnified by rumours and surmises, were published in the American newspapers, as incentives against the King and people of Great Britain. There is then no cause for wonder, if by such deplorable excesses in the men, and remissness in the chiefs, the temper of the Jerseys, of late so favourable, was wholly changed. As the American troops advanced they observed, at least in some districts, that almost every house on the road had a red rag nailed upon the door, as a token of attachment to the Crown; but all such tokens the inhabitants were now busy pulling down.*
The moral effects of Washington's successes were felt throughout the United States. In the strong words of one of their own historians, it seemed like a resurrection from the dead.f Washington himself, indeed, had never
"laugh exceedingly upon us." To Major General Heath, February 3. 1777. See also Heath's Memoirs, pp. 107. 113., as cited by Mr. Sparks.
* Life and Correspondence of Reed, vol . i. p. 280. f Ramsay vol. i. p. 326.