Before Trenton, the True Story of Washington’s Retreat from White Plains Across New Jersey

This portrait of George Washington was painted by John Trumbull c. 1792. It depicts Washington before the Battle of Trenton. Image Source: The Met.

Before he crossed the Delaware River and attacked the Hessians at Trenton, George Washington was at a low point. The British had beaten him at almost every turn, forcing him to evacuate New York City and retreat to White Plains. From there, he was forced to flee to New Jersey where he was criticized by some of his officers and soldiers abandoned the Continental Army. The situation was dire, and the revolution seemed lost. As Thomas Paine, who was with Washington wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Thomas Paine, Founding Father, Portrait, Dabos, 1792 NPG
Thomas Paine, circa 1792 by Laurent Dabos. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Not long after the 13 Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, General William Howe initiated a plan to engage General George Washington and the Continental Army in Brooklyn Heights on Long Island and New York City on Manhattan Island.

Howe’s brother, Admiral Richard Howe, transported around 32,000 British and Hessian soldiers to Staten Island in July and August. Then, from August 22–25, around 20,000 of those troops were moved across the bay to Long Island. On August 27, the British attacked American forces.

Richard Howe, Admiral, British Royal Navy
Admiral Richard Howe. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The British won at Long Island, which started Washington’s retreat from New York as the British systematically pushed him off of Manhattan Island and north to White Plains. On October 28, Howe attacked Washington again and won the Battle of White Plains, which ultimately forced Washington to retreat to Fort Lee in New Jersey.

November 20 — Washington at Hackensack, New Jersey

Fort Lee fell to the British on November 20, and Washington made his way to Hackensack, New Jersey. While he was in Hackensack, Washington stayed at the mansion of Peter Zabriskie.

Zabriskie Mansion, Hackensack, NJ, LOC
This 1936 photo shows the Zabriskie Mansion. Image Source: Library of Congress.

On November 21, General Charles Cornwallis sent an advance force, led by General John Vaughn, toward Hackensack. Washington and most of his men left Hackensack, marched to Aquackanock, and crossed the Passaic River. The rest stayed behind to destroy bridges and delay the British advance.

November 28 — Retreat from Hackensack to Brunswick

Washington’s army regrouped at Newark on November 22. The exact location of Washington’s headquarters is unclear, however, Cornwallis continued to pursue the Americans. On November 28, Washington left Newark and retreated to Brunswick, New Jersey.

November 30 — Howe’s Proclamation of Amnesty

Over the next 10 days, the British slowly took control of New Jersey, and the Howes issued a “Proclamation of Conciliation,” promising amnesty to anyone who had taken up arms against the King, provided they swore an oath of loyalty. 

The proclamation was successful as nearly 3,000 residents of New Jersey took the oath. The proclamation also prevented the men in the New Jersey Militia from turning out, even though Washington desperately needed them. Eventually, even the New Jersey Assembly went home, and some of the political leaders even took the oath, including Richard Stockton, who signed the Declaration of Independence.

General William Howe, Illustration
General William Howe. Image Source: Wikipedia.

That same day, roughly 2,000 men abandoned Washington and the Continental Army. The situation was so bad that Washington posted guards on the roads to keep men from leaving. Washington’s aide, Joseph Reed, said all that was left was “the wretched remains of a broken army.”

While he was in Brunswick, Washington started making plans to leave New Jersey, cross the Delaware River, and land in Pennsylvania.

When Cornwallis arrived near Princeton, he received orders from General Howe to hold his position, so Howe could join him.

December 1 — Retreat from Brunswick to Princeton

Scouts informed Washington that Cornwallis was about 2 hours from Brunswick and he issued orders for the army to retreat to Princeton.

December 2 — Retreat from Princeton to Trenton

Most of Washington’s army was at Princeton. One of the American soldiers, Solomon E. Clift, wrote:

“Yesterday, on the appearance of the enemy at Brunswick, General Washington ordered a retreat to Princeton, where we arrived early this morning. We are in a terrible situation, with the enemy close upon us, and whole regiments of Marylanders and Jerseymen leaving us. Tomorrow we go to Trenton. where the general is determined to make a stand.

Clift was under the command of General William Alexander — Lord Stirling — and stayed behind in Princeton to protect the rear of the Continental Army and slow down Cornwallis.

Alexander and his men took shelter in Nassau Hall on the campus of the College of New Jersey — present-day Princeton University.

December 3–7 — Preparations to Cross Over to Pennsylvania

Once he arrived at Trenton, Washington ordered his men to move boats from the New Jersey side of the river to the Pennsylvania side. Meanwhile, American reinforcements started to arrive, including:

  • Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy, a French volunteer with a commission as a Brigadier General from Congress.
  • Colonel Nicholas Hausegger and a regiment of Germans from Pennsylvania and Maryland.
  • New Jersey Militia units under the command of Colonel Isaac Smith and Colonel John Neilson

General Howe joined General Cornwallis at Brunswick. Together, they marched toward Trenton, on December 7.

Charles Cornwallis, Portrait
General Charles Cornwallis.

December 8 — Washington Crosses the Delaware River to Pennsylvania

Washington and his men crossed the river on the 8th. As the last boats shoved off from the New Jersey shore, The British advance force — light infantry and Hessian Jaegers — arrived. American batteries on the Pennsylvania side of the river fired on the British, covering the escape.

Starting on December 9th, both Washington and Howe began to make plans for their next steps. The war was not over — but Washington’s army would be decimated soon by expiring enlistments.

December 12 — Cornwallis at Princeton

On December 12, an unidentified American soldier at Trenton wrote:

“Since last Sunday, we have all been at the laboring oar, from the generals to the privates. Early in that day we heard that Cornwallis was coming in three different ways. 

Knowing our weak situation, he made a forced march to come up with us, and was within two miles of Princeton, when Lord Stirling began his retreat with two brigades. Boats from every quarter were collected, and our stores, together with the troops remaining at Trenton. were immediately conveyed over the Delaware. 

On Sunday morning, having everything over, we crossed the Delaware, and took our quarters about half a mile from the river. About eleven o’clock the enemy came marching down with all the pomp of war, in great expectation of getting boats, and immediately pursuing; but of this we took proper care, by destroying every boat, shallop, &c., we could lay our hands on. They made forced marches up and down the river, in pursuit of boats, but in vain. 

This is Thursday; the enemy are much scattered, some in Trenton, directly opposite; from that on their left to Bordentown and Burlington, on the river banks. They are at least twelve thousand strong, determined for Philadelphia, for which purpose they are transporting flat-bottomed boats from Brunswick to Trenton by land.”

Criticism of the Patriot Cause 

This article appeared in a Loyalist newspaper during Washington’s retreat across New Jersey. It criticizes the Patriot Cause and the “poor deluded men who have taken up arms,” tricked by leaders who “plunder…their country” for their benefit, at “the expense and ruin of a once happy and flourishing country.”

“Mr. Washington has ordered the people of New Jersey to burn and destroy all the hay and corn which they cannot carry back into the country. This, among other enormities of the like kind, will ruin many farmers in that province and desolate the country. And yet this is the man, who has the assurance to accuse others of devastation and mischief. Rebels are hopeful reformers.

So great is the rage of fighting among the Presbyterian preachers, that one of them has taken no less than seven different commissions, in order to excite the poor deluded men who have taken up arms, they know not why, to stand forth with an enthusiastic ardor, against their King and the constitution.

Two or three members of Congress, one or two of them worse than nothing, and the other involved in debt, have realized great sums, which they have remitted to Holland and some of the European banks; where, it is supposed, they mean to retire when the desperate game they are now playing can be no longer maintained. 

This is plunder upon their country, under the infamous pretense of patriotism and public virtue. Charity itself cannot wish that men with such ill-gotten goods, acquired at the expense and ruin of a once happy and flourishing country, should ever be able to enjoy them in peace and security.”

Suggested Reading About the American Revolutionary War

For a more detailed look at Washington’s Retreat Through New Jersey to Pennsylvania, read the entry from the American History Central Encyclopedia.

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