Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The American Revolution was marked by moments of great triumph for the Patriot cause but probably more often by long periods of gloom and misery. Victories were followed by spectacular defeats. David Hackett Fischer takes us to that time in the autumn and winter of late 1776 early 1777.
For background, while Philadelphia was the seat of government of the Continental Congress, and the most populous city among the thirteen colonies, New York City was a preferred location for the British as an invasion point due to its easier approach from the sea. (Philadelphia was some distance up the Delaware River, making a naval invasion difficult.) With hundreds of ships and 30,000 men, the overall commander of the British Army in America, Sir William Howe (a British viscount) landed on Staten Island with the largest invasion force ever seen in world history. From Staten Island, Howe and his force crossed to Long Island the Brooklyn area in the vicinity of what is today the Varrazano Narrows Bridge) and severely defeated Washington's army at the bloody Battle of Long Island, causing the main body to fall back to the East River, where it looked like they would soon be destroyed. A combination of weather (fog) and wonderful planning permitted the army of George Washington to escape across the river (not far from today's Brooklyn Bridge) to the island of Manhattan, a triumph in saving his encircled army from destruction.
The Patriot Army also experienced defeat at Westchester, New York; a small victory at Haarlem Heights; defeat at Fort Lee, New Jersey; and a huge catastrophe when Washington lost a major part of his army at Fort Washington, New Jersey (just across the Hudson River from New York City), when 3,000 Americans were forced to surrender to the British. (Most would die on prison barges, from starvation and disease.) During these battles, a major component of the British Army were the German mercenaries fighting as paid hires for King George III. Most came from Hesse-Kassel, an independent German state, their monarch "renting" his troops to King George for cash (and a bonus for each one killed or wounded). These German troops were mostly forced into service, and they took out their resentment on the Americans captured, often killing those that surrendered. This was a bitter time when the rules of war were often ignored by the British. Americans were a people in rebellion, and thus, the British felt they were not always deserving of civil treatment.
It was with this background in mind that the American Army had to flee for their lives across New Jersey and back to Pennsylvania, a broken and defeated army at a great low point. It was at this time that Thomas Paine wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls." The British strategy was to send out detachments from New York to occupy key locations. One such location was Trenton, New Jersey. A force of 1,500 Hessians under Colonel Johann Rall (sometimes spelled Rahl) were posted to Trenton to act as a distant force (New York City was about sixty miles from Trenton) at the New Jersey–Pennsylvania border.
It was at this point in the American Revolution— December of 1776—that the Americans came the closest to breaking and defeat. Washington was outnumbered, and his defeats were sometimes due to failures in his strategy. At Brandywine, for instance, Washington let his army be outflanked. Many in the cause thought the end was near, and the British promised no mercy in punishing those who defied the crown.
Rather than fold, Washington decided on a bold move: attack...
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the Hessian garrison in a daring surprise attack on the day following Christmas, when celebrations by the troops would find them groggy and tired. The Trenton attack on that December 26 morning was an overwhelming success, and the boost to American morale and spirits was the result of this bold and daring attack. Washington's army killed or captured the bulk of the Hessians that day. Following that spectacular victory, the British sent an expedition down from New York to avenge this loss and finally defeat Washington. Both rival forces met at Princeton, New Jersey, where once again, a now rejuvenated American Army stood toe to toe against the British and swept them from the field, giving an unexpected one-two punch to the British Army. But most important was keeping alive the American Patriot cause. The struggle would go on for five more years, and a peace treaty was signed two years after that, in 1783. But without the victories of Trenton and Princeton, the light of the American Revolution would have been snuffed out before the Declaration of Independence was even one year old.
Here are some of the key characters in these conflicts mentioned by Mr. Fischer, the author of this most fascinating book of history:
George Washington: Washington was not just the overall commander of the entire Continental Army but had tactical command of this force moving on Trenton. Washington is perhaps best remembered here in the epic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze.
General William Howe: This British viscount was Washington's counterpart on the British side. He struggled unsuccessfully to find a way to achieve victory over the Americans. Failing to do so, Howe eventually resigned his command and returned to England. Howe was always reluctant to leave New York City, his safe haven, knowing that the farther his troops went, the more exposed they would be to American attack.
Colonel Johann Rall: The German commander of the Hessians was disliked by his own men for his indecisiveness, as well as being too kind a person to be a formidable commander. He took little interest in the care or comfort of his troops, but the greatest story regarding Rall is that an American Tory (loyal to Britain) was shadowing the movement of Washington’s army. Sensing that they were about to attack Trenton, this spy sent a note of warning to Rall. While playing cards on Christmas day, and somewhat intoxicated, Rall shoved the note, unread, into his pocket, where he promptly forgot about it. When the first shots of the battle rang out, Rall ran out to direct his troops, was shot, and died not long afterward. The note, unopened, was found on him. We can only speculate on how American history might have changed had Rall opened this note warning him of the impending attack. A sound defense on his part may well have crushed American independence at this last desperate time.
Nathanael Greene: One of Washington's most able officers, Greene was a Quaker who suspended his pacifist faith to pursue liberty for America. Fighting at Washington’s side at Trenton, Greene would serve an important post as Washington’s quartermaster general, feeding and provisioning the army, never an easy task for the American army at that time. Later, when the war shifted to the American South (1778 to 1781), Greene took over from the failed General Gates and won important victories. Even his defeats severely cost the British. Greene was a tactical genius who led the British far into the backwaters and fooled and frustrated General Cornwallis, his British rival. Through Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, Greene’s tactics helped set the stage for the ultimate victory at Yorktown, Virginia.
Carl von Donop: This Hessian general was Rall's superior. Donop disliked Rall but needed his service due to Rall's long years of experience. Donop was a few days' march away with another force located in Mount Holly, New Jersey. The mutual dislike of one Hessian for another did not make for good cooperation, something much needed between a commander and his subordinate.
James Grant: A British General, Colonel Rall appealed to Grant for more troops to reinforce Trenton, a request that was denied. This unwillingness to reinforce a front-line deployment must also be considered as a factor for British/Hessian defeat.
John Honeyman: A Scots Irish weaver from Armagh, Ireland, Honeyman served as one of Washington's most important spies. Posing as a Tory (British loyalist), He gathered valuable information for Washington. In one of his meetings with Colonel Rall, Honeyman told Rall that the state of Washington's army was so demoralized, so defeated, that there was almost no possibility that Trenton would be attacked by the Continental Army. The intelligence Honeyman provided to Washington, and the disinformation he dropped on the British, was a key ingredient in these victories at Trenton and Princeton.
George Cornwallis: Cornwallis was a British officer who was present at the British defeat at Princeton. Later, as the command officer in the Southern states, Cornwallis would command the British Army, winning some battles and losing others. He is most remembered for his defeat at Yorktown. This massive defeat, in which a great percentage of Britain's North American army was lost, was understood to be, in effect, the end of the war. It was also the end of British rule over the thirteen colonies and sealed the independence of America.
Alexander Hamilton: An American cavalry commander at Princeton, Hamilton served in other engagements, leading one of the charges on a British position at Yorktown. But Hamilton is best remembered as one of the Founding Fathers and author of many of the "Federalist Papers," as well as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. His efforts put the US on a firm financial footing during the first ten years of the United States under the Constitution. Had his efforts failed, the young republic would have found itself in great peril.
Lieutenant James Monroe: Except for two Americans who died of exposure from the cold during the march to Trenton on that cold, snowy night, the Americans, amazingly, saw no battle deaths at Trenton, so great was the surprise of the Hessians. There were two Americans wounded. One of them was a young lieutenant from Virginia, James Monroe, who would later serve as the fifth president of the United States.