A brutal early morning nor’easter had timed its fury perfectly with the American’s pending attack, making the roads to their destination all the more perilous.
The wind, carrying with it a torrent of snow, ice and hail was blowing about so furiously as to make it nearly impossible to see, even a mere few feet ahead. Several of the men would later remember that the weather was much worse on the march than it had been on the crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River hours before.
A great many of the soldiers marched without shoe’s and were wearing only the shredded remnants of their summer clothes, made threadbare from the rigors of war. The soldiers dairies recounted that one could follow the path of the army by the trails of blood which stained the frigid landscape beneath their feet.
Adding to their misery, in an effort to keep their flint and powder dry, the men had taken off their shirts to wrap around their muskets. They marched on nonetheless.
Despite the weather, and indeed because of it, the beleaguered men moved quickly. A soldier in misery always wants to get where he’s going. He reasons, however much in error, that his fortunes are somehow better at the scene of battle than where he might be suffering at the moment.
The frozen river, the Red Coats, Hessians, and the fierce weather were not the only obstacles in the way of the Americans. Learning that the Hessian Garrison at Trenton only had three cannon at its disposal, Washington determined to bring with him all eighteen in his possession as part of a strategy to overwhelm the German mercenaries in the tiny New Jersey town.
After transporting the two thousand pound field pieces across the foreboding river, the weary men came upon Jacobs Creek which, owing to the severe weather, ran swiftly one hundred feet below at the bottom of a steep and icy slope.
The Commander-in-chief, from atop his war mount, Old Nelson, watched intently as his soldiers, with the aid of ropes and pulleys attached to large trees for mooring, spent precious time lowering the heavy cannon down into the ravine. Day break would soon be upon them.
Washington rode back and forth among his soldiers while the artillery company repeated the process in reverse up the opposite slope. It was much harder this time however, without the aid of gravity.
The nor’easters bitter cold veil of wind still swirled about them and grew more intense as the General continued moving to and fro amongst his men. He had to shout over the din of the howling storm. “Keep with your officers!” For God’s sake, keep with your Officers!”
Suddenly, as the General moved about the icy slope, his faithful horse Nelson lost its footing. The men at both the bottom and the top of the ravine looked in horror at the scene as it unfolded before them. Their gallant General was in peril and there was nothing they could do. Lieutenant Elisha Bostwick would later describe the scene succinctly in his diary…
“While passing a slanting, slippery bank his Excellency’s horse’s hind feet both slipped from under him, and he seized his horse’s mane and the horse recovered.”
In seizing Nelson’s mane, and with sheer will and strength in wrenching the massive horses head up, Washington was able to restore the great animals’ balance, giving him the ability to right his hind legs on the “slanting, slippery bank.”
Washington’s men were awestruck by what they had just witnessed. Their General had gained a reputation as the finest horseman in the colonies and now they knew first hand why it was said. No one but George Washington could have avoided such a calamity in that moment. Old Nelson didn’t shirk in a crisis and Washington loved him for it. They shared a mutual trust which probably saved both their lives.
Had the General been killed, or even severely injured as his great horse and he tumbled upon one another a hundred feet down that icy slope, America’s nascent revolution would likely have ended there.
George Washington, had been critical thus far in keeping the American army in the field, and at countless seminal events following the war. He is rightly considered the only indispensable person in American history.
America’s radical idea of self government would most certainly would have ended before it had begun had Washington and Old Nelson not averted catastrophe at Jacob’s Creek.
As always, Washington’s self control was on full display as he shrugged off the ordeal and went about directing his awestruck men forward to Trenton.
Meanwhile, the winter storm continued to grow in intensity. It still pelted the faces of the men and animals as they marched into the night. Surprising the garrison at Trenton was critical to its success. The American’s were now three hours behind.
Approaching from the west and reaching the predetermined point where the army was to split north and south in an attempt to envelope the town of Trenton, Nathanael Greene’s division broke northward with General Washington leading the way.
As yet undetected – or so he thought, Washington hoped that the element of surprise was still in his arsenal of weapons. Surprise, after all, was the most critical aspect of his daring plan.
Washington was near mad as he spotted a contingent of soldiers up ahead. Many of his subordinates would say that they had never seen him so angry. The absolutely critical part of the attack was now compromised, he thought, as the American division came upon a band of soldiers whom they perceived were the enemy.
It was quickly determined however that they were a group of roughly fifty rogue Continentals who had spirited across the Delaware River the previous night. They had come across to exact revenge on the enemy for having earlier killed one of their own.
The Continental raiding party attacked one of the several Hessian outposts located a mile or so outside the town, killing four of the out-guard’s and wounding eleven more.
They then disappeared into the darkness but did not go back across the river, electing to stay on the enemies side. As such, they were now available to the General-in-Chief.
Washington, not knowing of the unauthorized raid until that moment, summoned the columns commander, Adam Stephen. “You, Sir!” he shouted in an uncharacteristic rage. “You, Sir, may have ruined all my plans by having put them on guard!”
As it turned out Stephen’s action was not ruinous at all. It was a blessing.
Contrary to the popular lore of reveling soldiers lost in a bacchanalian stupor, a falsehood which has been propagated now for two centuries, the Hessians were not taken entirely by surprise at Trenton, nor were they drunk.
Boston fifer John Greenwood, who after the fighting ended was charged with guarding the Hessian prisoners. He would later write in his memoirs, “I am willing to go upon oath, that I did not see even one solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy – and you will find, as I shall show, that I had an opportunity to be as good a judge as any person there.”
The Hessians were professional, well drilled, conscripted soldiers. They were so named because a great percentage of them came from the Hesse-Cassel region of Germany.
Colonel Johann Rall, the gristly, veteran commander of the mostly Hessian mercenaries who were garrisoned at Trenton, had earlier received credible intelligence from numerous sources that the Americans were planning a surprise attack. The professional and capable commander had taken prudent and thorough steps to prevent it.
Colonel Rall had for months employed a concentric ring of outposts around the town, with sentries making constant rounds in the gaps in between. After Adam Stephen and his Virginian’s staged their deadly raid on one of the outposts, Rall doubled the guard.
Ironically, Adam Stephen’s “pay back” raid may well have aided Washington in his desire for surprise. For even though Colonel Rall had increased the patrols, he might well have believed that the raid by Stephen was the surprise attack which had been rumored for days. After a night of playing cards he lay in his night shirt, asleep as the Americans drew near.
Greene’s Division with Washington at the head approached from the north while Sullivan’s Division traveled down the River Road, came toward the town from the West.
Washington and his army were now two miles from Trenton. The time was 7:30 a.m. The the sun had risen ten minutes earlier. It was still dark however as the nor’easter, which had been present at the crossing, was still raging and with ever greater fury. Snow, sleet and hail continued to fall.
Somehow, General Washington, as he had many times before, was able to conscript the weather into his army. Though three hours behind schedule, thick clouds mercifully blanketed the early morning sun. Equally important, the wind was now at his back but would instead be pelting the eyes and faces of the Hessians as they tried to defend themselves from the onslaught.
Washington halted his men behind the cover of a forest about 800 yards from the Hessian outpost on Pennington Road, which stood about a mile from the town center.
The General then formed his men into three columns with himself in the lead and they began their “long trot,” as he would describe it, across the fields.
Colonel Rall’s, when he had ordered the guard doubled at the outposts, made the confined spaces of the small buildings somewhat intolerable for any extended period of time. Despite the blistering storm, a Hessian officer, Lt. Wiederholdt, stepped out of the warm outpost, no doubt looking for fresh air.
His first vision after exiting and closing the door behind him was of a large group of men approaching from the northwest.
Initially, he thought them to be his own. But as the force grew in size, he realized it was too large a group to be his own Hessian sentries. His thoughts were abruptly confirmed when an American, seeing the German lieutenant, fired the first shot.
In one of the first recorded war accounts of such an action, Washington had required that the commanders all synchronize their watches to his before the march. General Sullivan’s artillery began bombarding the town in perfect timing with the American advance. The General had gotten his wish – the Hessians were surprised.
Der Feind! Der Feind! The Enemy! The Enemy!
Washington’s soldiers unleashed a fury of musket fire on the stammering Germans. Lt. Wiederholdt and his Hessians “fought with them until we were almost surrounded by several battalions. I therefore retreated under constant fire.”
Washington quickly ordered his left column to secure the Princeton Road. The outpost on the Princeton Road fell in the same manner as Wiederholdt’s and retreated in like-manner with him.
The Two Hessian groups drew back further and took position at the North end of town at the head of King and Queen Streets but the American’s soon overwhelmed them.
Washington, out in front as usual, admired the Hessians skill in retreating, remarking after the battle that the out-guard’s “behaved very well, keeping up a constant retreating fire from behind houses.”
As the Hessians fled back into the town, American artillery rained on them from the Pennsylvania side of the river. The nor’easter all-the-while continued to pound the all the combatants.
Meanwhile, Hessian Lieutenant Jakob Piel raced to informed Colonel Rall, still dressed in his night shirt. Der Fiend! Heraus! The Enemy! Turn Out! Piel shouted.
Rall shouted back, “Was ist los?” What’s the matter? The Lieutenant answered, “Do you not hear the firing?” Colonel Rall now awakened to the threat, hurriedly dressed and mounted his horse.
By now Lieutenant Wiederholdt and his men had retreated to the center of town where Colonel Rall was assembling his regiment. Rall asked him for a report.
The next few moments would decide the fate of America in innumerable ways. Lt. Wiederholdt erred when he told the colonel that Americans had surrounded them on three sides.
Perhaps it was the raging storm or the confusion of battle, but whatever the reason, Lt. Wiederholdt was mistaken. Even though the Americans would eventually envelope the town from three sides, at that point they had not, managing thus far only to occupy two.
The decision Rall made next would seal his fate and that of the fledgling nation.
Rall and his Hessians could retreat over the Assunpink Bridge to the south which offered high defensive ground and was, at that moment, still open to retreat. Once across the bridge, he could await massive and readily available reinforcement which could be used to defeat, if not destroy, Washington’s army.
Instead, the pugnacious German chose to fight. He no doubt thought his reasons sound. He had seen the Americans fight at New York and had little respect for the ragtag army, especially against his professional Germans.
He knew them to be poorly fed and ill-equipped. Indeed, as he observed, many of them were barely clothed and even shoeless in the battle they were in. But he had not considered American love of liberty and grit.
Washington held the high ground at the head of King and Queen Streets which paralleled one another and were more or less perpendicular to the the point at which the Delaware River and the Assunpink creek met to the South.
From this elevated vantage Washington could see every part of the battle. Sullivan’s column, which earlier had split to the south, positioned his troops at the foot of King and Queen Streets. Rall’s Hessian’s stood in the middle of the two.
Rall drew up his Hessians in the customary formation and bringing forth the regimental colors, counterattacked with his accustomed zeal.
The American’s meanwhile had occupied the houses in the town. This shielded their flint and powder from the violent wet weather, allowing them to fire at will. They were blasting at the Hessians from every direction.
The Hessian’s, exposed to merciless fire and unable to fire themselves due to the heavy downpour of snow and sleet were forced to retreat eastward through the churchyard and then into an apple orchard outside of town.
Captain William Washington, a distant cousin of the general, and his men had capture Rall’s regimental cannons and were now training them back on the Hessians.
The loss of those cannons was an affront to the honor of Rall’s regiment. As his men were also keenly aware of the disgrace which accompanied losing them, they did not bristle at their colonel’s command to recapture them.
Rall’s men would make a second attempt to form in the town.“Alle was meine Grenatir seyn, vor werds! All who are my grenadier’s, forward!
The soldiers dutifully charged toward the two big guns and quickly recaptured them. But now, the American’s were at risk of losing their own honor, having captured the two cannons only to have them taken back by the Hessians.
American artillery officer Colonel Henry Knox, on horseback, rode up to Sergeant Joseph White, who moments ago had fired his cannon so audaciously that its undercarriage had broken and fallen away. The big, burly Knox looked to the Hessian artillery and shouted, “My brave lads, go up and take those pieces sword in hand. There is a party going and you must join them.”
The “party going” was led by Captain Washington and his nineteen year-old lieutenant, James Monroe, future president of the United States.
The blinding storm and the violent battle, together were yet swirling around them when the captain and lieutenant burst toward the cannon.
“Captain Washington rushed forward, attacked and put the troops around the cannon to flight and took possession of them.”
During the assault, Captain Washington was badly wounded, first in one hand, and then the other. Unable to continue, he fell. The young James Monroe then took the lead “at the head of the corps” and fought his way forward in the tempest.
Suddenly a musket ball ripped into his chest and exited through his shoulder, severing a main artery. He was bleeding profusely and was carried from the field. A huge volume of blood pooled around him.
Earlier, on the march to Trenton, Lieutenant Monroe had come upon an ornery man who berated him, and, along with his barking dogs, threatened to give up Washington’s precious element of surprise.
It wasn’t until the man realized he was quarreling with fellow American’s that he quieted his mouth and those of his dogs.
He said he was a surgeon, Dr. John Riker was his name. He then insisted that Lieutenant Monroe conscript him into the army, because, “I’m a doctor. I may be of help to some poor fellow.”
Monroe was bleeding to death when he was spotted by Dr. Riker who recognized instantly the mortal danger the young man was in. He opened the wound and expertly clamped the hemorrhaging artery, saving the “poor fellow’s’ life.
Not long after James Monroe’s company retook the cannon, the Hessians under Rall would retreat again to the outside of town and soon surrender. Rall would be mortally wounded in the final exchange and was carried to bed by his men. After the battle, the victorious General Washington would pay the colonel a visit before he passed.
The incredible victory at Trenton happened just five days before his soldiers’ enlistments were set to expire. That triumph, followed by the one at Princeton eight days later, would renew the spirit of not only his men, but also the entire country as word rapidly spread across the colonies.
Though the Revolutionary war was to last another seven years, Washington’s bold move marked the beginning of the end for the British in America.
Even with the victory over the British in the war, America’s future was uncertain without Washington.
Only George Washington could have guided America through all three of the early trials in our history. He won the War of Independence. He presided over the Constitutional Convention where the seemingly impossible and lofty American ideal was codified into law. And as its first president, he deftly shepherded his nation through the early years of the republic.
George Washington was able to summon an almost other-worldly type of physical and mental capability that no other leader in the colonies possessed. With that indomitable will and enormous strength, Washington was able to forge a nation unlike any the world has known. Even the laws of physics on a “slanting, slippery bank” at Trenton yielded to him.
“Light Horse” Harry Lee, an officer who served under George Washington during the war, eulogized the great man after his death, stating that he was…
“First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.”
May it forever be.