George Washington at Princeton, Painting

Battle of Princeton Summary

January 3, 1777

General George Washington led the Continental Army to victory at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. The Americans won the battle which boosted American morale during a crucial 10-day period that forced the British to withdraw from southern New Jersey.

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Aftermath of the Battle of Trenton

On December 26, after the surprise victory over Hessian troops at the Battle of Trenton, General George Washington led his forces back over the Delaware River to Pennsylvania. They took Hessian prisoners with them.

Prelude to the Battle of Princeton

Cadwalader Moves Into New Jersey

When Washington arrived at the camp in Pennsylvania, he learned that General John Cadwalader had crossed over to New Jersey. Cadwalader had not been able to cross over on Christmas Eve. Cadwalader mistakenly assumed Washington had not been able to cross, and when he learned of the American victory, he was embarrassed that he had stayed in Pennsylvania. After the British broke up their camps near Trenton along the Delaware River and moved north to Princeton, Cadwalader crossed over the river and occupied Trenton.

General John Cadwalader, Portrait

Illustration of General John Cadwalader. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

On December 27, Cadwalader sent word to Washington that he had been reinforced by militia from Pennsylvania, under the command of General Thomas Mifflin, and that he was moving toward Burlington.

Unfortunately, Washington could not join Cadwalader right away. He was short on food and was faced with the fact that the enlistments for most of his men ended at midnight on December 31. He wanted to launch another attack on the British while he had his men and had momentum. He offered his men a bounty of 10 dollars to extend their enlistment for six more weeks and many of them accepted the offer.

Washington Occupies Trenton

On December 30, Washington led his men back over the Delaware River and occupied Trenton. He had around 5,200 men, including 3,600 Pennsylvania militia who arrived to reinforce him. Washington’s men were not only tired and inexperienced but were inspired by the victory at Trenton.

Cadwalader Sends Information From a Spy

On December 31, Cadwalader sent a letter to Washington. He informed the General that he had been given information on the positions of the British in Princeton and their movements. Cadwalader included a rough map of the town and the location of the British troops.

Howe Sends Cornwallis to Attack

When Brigadier General William Howe heard about the American victory at Trenton, he ordered Major General Charles Cornwallis to take command of the British forces gathered at Princeton.

Charles Cornwallis, Portrait

Portrait of Charles Cornwallis by John Hoppner.

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As Cornwallis moved toward Trenton, he was reinforced by troops from New Brunswick. By the time he reached Princeton on January 1, he had more than 6,700 troops. He left around 1,400 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood in Princeton to serve as the rear guard. General Alexander Leslie was left with his troops at Maidenhead on the Trenton Road to keep watch for American forces.

American Forces Scattered Around Trenton

Washington was at Trenton when he learned that Cornwallis was at Princeton. The American forces were scattered throughout the area. Washington’s camp was at Assunpink Creek, outside of Trenton. Colonel Edward Hand and others were southwest of Maidenhead on the Trenton Road. Cadwalader was at Bordentown, south of Trenton.

Washington anticipated an attack by the British, so he sent an advance force, under the command of Colonel Hand, toward Princeton. On January 1, Hand had his men take positions along Five Mile Run, between Trenton and Princeton. Washington also sent a letter to Cadwalader and ordered him to march to Trenton as fast as possible.

Skirmish at Maidenhead

On January 2, Cornwallis marched toward Trenton with roughly 5,500 men. Hand and his men spotted the British and engaged them at Shabakunk Creek near Maidenhead in an effort to keep Cornwallis from advancing on Washington and the rest of the Continental Army.

The Americans fell back and dug into defensive positions at their camp on Assunpink Creek outside of Trenton. Unfortunately, the camp was at the point where the creek fed into the Delaware River. The Americans had their backs to the river, so they were pinned in.

Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek

Cornwallis arrived in Trenton around 4:00 in the afternoon and he tried to send his men across the bridge over Assunpink Creek several times, but the Americans pushed them back.

Cornwallis knew his men were tired, so he pulled them back and decided to wait until the next day to launch another attack. Some of his officers disagreed with the move and thought the British should mount another attack. Cornwallis disagreed, as he believed Washington and his men were trapped and had nowhere to go.

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Washington Escapes From Cornwallis

That night, Washington called a council of war with his officers. They decided to execute a bold plan to evacuate the army, attack Princeton, and, if possible, attack New Brunswick. New Brunswick was the base of British operations in New Jersey, and the Americans knew there were valuable provisions there they could capture.

Around midnight, the temperature dropped and the ground became frozen and hard. The baggage train and artillery were moved south toward Burlington. The wheels of the wagons and artillery carriages were wrapped in rags to help keep them quiet, similar to what the Americans had done prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

It was close to 1:00 a.m. on the morning of January 3 when Washington and most of his men moved out. He left 400 men behind to make just enough noise in the night to go along with the burning fires to keep the British distracted. British sentries thought the Americans were digging entrenchments to defend themselves.

The diversion allowed the Americans to slip away by moving around the right flank of the British, completely undetected. The men marched 18 miles to the east and then north along backroads without being heard or seen, right past Cornwallis and his men as they slept.

Summary of the Battle of Princeton

During the march, Washington broke off and took his men toward Princeton. Only Washington and his generals knew where he was going, in order to keep it a secret from spies. Washington planned to send Brigadier General Hugh Mercer toward Stony Creek Bridge with orders to destroy it. Without the bridge, it would be difficult for British reinforcements to get to Princeton.

Mercer and Mawhood Clash on the Road Near Princeton

On the morning of January 3, Mawhood, who was at Princeton, took most of his men and moved south toward Trenton to join Cornwallis. The Americans were near the farm of Thomas and William Clarke when they spotted the British. Washington sent Mercer and his men to investigate.

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The Americans under Mercer’s command heard a rumor that they were going to be attacked by the Hessians. Some of the American militia forces broke ranks and took refuge in an orchard. Mawhood spotted the Americans and thought they were the Hessians. Mawhood sent his men into the orchard where they ran into Mercer’s men and fighting broke out.

Both sides formed battle lines and fired at each other, then Mawhood ordered his men to fix their bayonets and charge the Americans. The Americans scattered and tried to retreat. Mercer tried to rally his men but fell from his horse. He got up and continued to fight, but was stabbed with bayonets by enemy troops and left for dead. Many of the British troops believed the man they had stabbed was actually Washington.

Death of Hugh Mercer, Painting

This painting by John Trumbull depicts Hugh Mercer being stabbed with bayonets on the battlefield (Public Domain).

While the fighting raged at Princeton, Cornwallis woke to the news that Washington and his army were gone. Soon after, Cornwallis heard the sounds of the cannons from Princeton, and British messengers arrived with news of the fighting. Cornwallis, who was outraged, immediately gathered his forces and marched to Princeton.

Washington Rides Into the Fighting at Clarke’s Farm

Washington was leading the main force toward Princeton when he heard the sounds from the fighting and arrived around the time Mercer fell. As Mercer’s men continued to fall back, Washington sent Cadwalader in to reinforce them. Cadwalader moved up with around 600 men from the Philadelphia Associators.

When Mawhood saw them coming, he pulled his men back behind his two cannons for protection. Mawhood turned the artillery on the Americans and Cadwalader’s line started to break. However, General John Sullivan arrived with his men and increased the attack on Mawhood’s position.

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Washington rode into the fray — between the American and British lines — and called for the retreating Americans to rally around him, despite intense fire from the British, and to fire on the enemy. American artillery under command of Joseph Moulder opened fire on the British and pushed them back toward Clarke’s farmhouse. When his main force was in position, Washington rushed to the front of the line and the Americans lost sight of him through the smoke. When he reappeared the Americans rallied and Washington ordered them to charge the British.

Washington Rallies Troops at Princeton, Painting

This painting by William Ranney depicts Washington rallying the troops at Princeton (Public Domain).

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The British line collapsed. Mawhood ordered his men to charge and some of them were able to break through and fight their way down the road toward Maidenhead. The rest retreated to Princeton. Washington pursued Mawhood on the Trenton Road toward Princeton.

Fighting at Frog Hollow and College of New Jersey

While Washington pursued Mawhood, Sullivan’s forces attacked British troops that had taken defensive positions in Princeton.

Some of the British tried to make a stand at Frog Hollow, but they surrendered when they saw they were outnumbered.

A group of British troops fled into Nassau Hall on the campus of the College of New Jersey. General Sullivan and his men went after them. Sullivan had his artillery, under the command of Alexander Hamilton, aim the cannons at the building and open fire.

Legend has it that a cannon shot went into the building and decapitated a portrait of King George III. At that moment, the British in and around Nassau Hall surrendered to New Jersey militia forces under the command of James Moore.

Washington Ends Pursuit of Mawhood

Washington decided to end the pursuit of Mawhood when the Americans spotted the main force, under the command of Cornwallis, had returned to Princeton. After all the American forces had crossed Stony Creek Bridge into Princeton, a militia unit was left behind to tear down the bridge.

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Cornwallis Arrives at Princeton

Cornwallis arrived right around the time the Americans were destroying the bridge, which forced the British to wade across the creek. The Americans held their ground and forced a fight, which delayed Cornwallis and gave Washington and the main army more time to move away from Princeton.

Aftermath of the Battle of Princeton

Washington and his officers knew Cornwallis was headed their way and they also knew the troops were tired. They decided they would not be able to march on New Brunswick and decided to march toward Kingston. The Americans moved north along the Millstone River to Somerset Court House, where they finally rested.

Cornwallis decided to rest his troops for a few hours and then marched to Brunswick, which was not far from Somerset Court House. Washington and his officers considered their options and chose not to attack Brunswick. They decided to withdraw and move north to Morristown, New Jersey. The area provided hills covered with thick woods, which would help protect the Americans from a British attack.

On January 4, Washington and the Continental Army continued their march north and arrived at Morristown over January 5th and January 6th, where they established winter headquarters. The position put the Americans on the flank of the British line. This caused General Howe to withdraw all British troops in New Jersey, including Cornwallis and his men, back to New Brunswick.

Death of Hugh Mercer

Mercer was carried from the battlefield and placed under the care of Doctor Benjamin Rush. He died from his wounds on January 12, 1777.

Key Facts About the Battle of Princeton

The Battle of Princeton occurred on January 3, 1777.

The Battle of Princeton was part of the Ten Crucial Days.

The outcome of the Battle of Princeton was an American victory.

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The key American military leaders at the Battle of Princeton were:

The key British military leaders at the Battle of Princeton were:

  • Charles Mawhood
  • Charles Cornwallis

The strength of the American forces at the Battle of Princeton was around 4,500.

The strength of the British forces at the Battle of Princeton was around 1,200.

The American forces suffered around 75 casualties of men who were killed, wounded, or captured.

The British forces suffered around 270 casualties of men who were killed, wounded, or captured.

Significance of the Battle of Princeton

The Battle of Princeton was significant because the American victory boosted the morale of Washington’s troops and allowed them to settle into their winter quarters at Morristown unmolested by the British.

General William Howe was forced to withdraw all British forces to New Brunswick, closer to New York City, which significantly reduced their presence in New Jersey.

The British had been in a position to make an attack on Philadelphia, but the withdrawal to New Brunswick took away that opportunity, at least for the winter.

Washington and his officers learned it was valuable to launch attacks on smaller contingents of British forces, rather than the main body. This tactic would be used throughout the rest of the war.

The victories at Trenton and Princeton gave the Americans confidence that they could hold their own with — and defeat — the more experienced British forces.

The victories at Trenton and Princeton caught the attention of the French, who were considering providing support to the fledgling United States with troops, ships, and supplies.

Battle of Princeton: In Four Minutes

Suggested Reading

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Battle of Princeton Summary
  • Coverage January 3, 1777
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Princeton, Ten Crucial Days
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date September 24, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 20, 2022