The Battle of Trenton — Washington's First Major Victory in the American Revolutionary War

December 26, 1776

The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776. The Continental Army, led by George Washington, launched a sneak attack on Hessian troops stationed in Trenton, New Jersey. The night before, on Christmas, Washington and and his troops crossed the Delaware River undetected. A bold move that led to a resounding victory.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Painting, Leutze

Painting of George Washington and his troops crossing the Delaware River.

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Battle of Trenton Summary

The Battle of Trenton was fought between the United States and Hessian mercenaries fighting for Great Britain on December 26, 1776, in Trenton, New Jersey. After retreating from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, the situation was bleak for George Washington, the Continental Army, and the American cause. Many Americans who supported the Patriot Cause believed it was lost and the war would be over soon — including Washington. However, American reinforcements joined Washington in Pennsylvania, and British forces decided to take shelter for the winter, establishing a series of outposts throughout New Jersey. The outposts along the Delaware River were garrisoned primarily by Hessians. At Trenton, Colonel Johann Rall believed Washington was in no condition to launch an attack and refused to strengthen the town’s defenses. Washington saw there was a chance — although a slim one — to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton.

Battle of Trenton, Painting, McBarron
This painting by Hugh Charles McBarron depicts American forces storming Trenton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

On December 24, Washington and his officers finalized the plan of attack. Three columns would converge on Trenton, take the outpost, and then move on to other British outposts. The next night, Washington’s army set out to cross the Delaware River, but a vicious snowstorm set in. Only one column of the army was able to cross the river to New Jersey — Washington’s — and it was hours behind schedule. He briefly considered calling off the attack but decided to press on. Although the sun was up, the army’s movements were still hidden by the snowstorm. Around 8:00 a.m., the first shots were fired on the outskirts of Trenton and American forces poured into the town. The Hessians quickly assembled in the streets, but American artillery batteries fired on them, forcing them to break ranks. The Hessians tried to escape, but they were cut off on the north end of town by the division of General Nathanael Greene and on the south end by the division of General John Sullivan. The Hessians were forced to surrender, and more than 900 of them were taken as prisoners. Their commanding officer, Colonel Rall, was mortally wounded. Two Americans were wounded — Captain William Washington and Captain James Monroe.

In the aftermath of the battle, Washington considered pushing on and attacking British outposts at Princeton and Brunswick. However, due to the inability of the other columns to cross the Delaware River, he decided it was best to return to the camp in Pennsylvania.

The victory at Trenton was the first major battlefield victory for Washington in the war, and it came at a time when American morale was at a low point. News of the shocking victory spread through the new nation and inspired men to volunteer for their local militias and enlist in the Continental Army. The war was far from over, but it would not end in December 1776. Washington’s bold attack on Trenton and resolve to take the town not only saved the Continental Army, but also the American Cause.

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Battle of Trenton Quick Facts

  • Date Started: The Battle of Trenton was fought on Thursday, December 26, 1776.
  • Date Ended: The battle ended on December 26, 1776.
  • Location: It was fought in and around the town of Trenton, New Jersey.
  • Theater: The battle was part of the Northern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Campaign: It was part of the New York-New Jersey Campaign of 1776–1777. It is also part of the “Ten Crucial Days in New Jersey.”
  • Who Won: The United States of America won the Battle of Trenton.
  • Also Known As: The Battle of Trenton is also known as the First Battle of Trenton.
  • Slogan: The password issued for the Continental Army for the operation was “Victory or Death.”
  • Fun Fact: It was George Washington’s first major victory in the war and is considered a major turning point in the American Revolutionary War.
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, Trumbull, Painting
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton by John Trumbull. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Important Facts About the Battle of Trenton

  1. By the end of 1776, the euphoria created by the Declaration of Independence had been supplanted by the realities of waging war.
  2. The size of the British army in North America had swollen to 32,000 troops — the largest expeditionary army the Crown had ever assembled.
  3. By December, the Continental Army, once 25,000 strong, had been driven from New York and numbered approximately 4,300 men.
  4. To make matters worse, the enlistment period for most of the remaining troops was set to expire on December 31. General George Washington knew that if he did not do something to reverse the tide, the army would nearly cease to exist and the Revolution would be lost.
  5. From his encampment in Newtown, Pennsylvania, Washington boldly decided to launch an attack on the Hessian mercenaries garrisoned at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day.
  6. The Americans would cross the Delaware River on Christmas Night, and arrive in Trenton before daylight on December 26.
  7. Throughout the night of December 25, Washington ferried 2,300 men and equipment, undetected through a snow and sleet storm, across the ice-clogged Delaware River roughly 10 miles above Trenton.
  8. The attack was delayed by three hours due to the bad weather.
  9. On the morning of December 26, the Americans descended on Trenton and encountered the first Hessian resistance at about 8 a.m. 
  10. In little more than an hour, the Continentals completely routed the unsuspecting Hessians, killing, wounding, or imprisoning over 900 of the 1,500 troops in the garrison.

History of the Battle of Trenton

The American Revolutionary War officially started on the morning of April 19, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. After the events at Concord, militia forces from the towns and villages in Massachusetts followed British farces back to Boston. A series of smaller battles took place during the British retreat, and the Massachusetts Militia forces grew in number. By the end of the day, the British were trapped in Boston. For nearly a year, the Siege of Boston continued, until the British finally evacuated the city on March 17, 1776. General George Washington sent some of the forces from the new Continental Army to New York City to prepare the city for an attack by the British.

Washington’s Retreat Through New York and New Jersey

The British sailed from Boston to Nova Scotia and prepared to launch their attack on New York. General William Howe, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, wanted to take control of the city and end the war. Howe assembled a massive invasion force that included nearly 32,000 men and a fleet of warships. The British started to land men near Staten Island on August 21. A few days later, they advanced on American defenses on Long Island and forced the Americans to retreat to Manhattan. Over the next two months, the British pushed Washington and his army off of Manhattan Island, and north to White Plains. On October 28, the Battle of White Plains took place and Washington was forced to retreat further north. Instead of continuing the pursuit of Washington, Howe turned his army and returned to Manhattan Island where he attacked Fort Washington on November 16 and won a resounding victory. Nearly 3,000 American soldiers were captured in the battle, and the British took control of the fort. Four days later, Howe sent General Charles Cornwallis to attack Fort Lee in New Jersey. The Americans were unprepared and were forced to evacuate without putting up a fight. Washington and General Nathanael Greene led the men to Hackensack, New Jersey.

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Washington Before the Battle of Trenton, Painting, Trumbull
Washington Before the Battle of Trenton by John Trumbull. Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the aftermath of the capture of Fort Lee, Howe ordered Cornwallis to continue the pursuit of Washington and his men into New Jersey. By then, Washington had divided the army, so he did not have the full strength of the Continental Army with him in New Jersey. As he retreated from Hackensack to Newark to Brunswick and, finally, to Trenton, he pleaded with General Charles Lee, his second-in-command, the Continental Congress, and Governor William Livingston of New Jersey to send reinforcements. The response was slow, which forced Washington to continue to fall back, even though he wanted to make a stand in New Jersey against Cornwallis. Although some reinforcements arrived while he was at Trenton, Washington was left with no choice but to retreat into Pennsylvania, so he ordered his men to cross the Delaware River. The last men, including Washington, made the crossing on December 8.

Howe Establishes Outposts in New Jersey

The British were in control of both New York and New Jersey and were in a position to launch a final, decisive attack on Philadelphia. Washington fully expected the British to attack him in Pennsylvania and then march to Philadelphia as soon as possible. However, on December 13, Howe ordered his men to take shelter for the winter, ending the campaign. The British proceeded to set up outposts throughout New Jersey, including several along the Delaware River, directly across from the American army in Pennsylvania. 

Howe said the line was for “the Protection of Inhabitants and their Property” against raids from the American forces. However, it was more about protecting the Loyalists in New Jersey, giving them confidence the British would maintain control of the state throughout the winter. Howe placed General James Grant in charge of forces in New Jersey, and Grant’s headquarters were at Princeton.

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In regard to the Battle of Trenton, the line of outposts along the Delaware River are the most important. The line ran from Bordentown in the east to Trenton in the west. 

Hessian and British Atrocities in New Jersey

The outposts along the river were garrisoned by the Hessian mercenaries, who were feared by most Americans — Patriots and Loyalists — due to their reputation for brutality. In fact, as the British army chased Washington across New Jersey, the Hessians committed atrocities that upset and embarrassed their British commanders. 

Even Loyalists who were issued paperwork that confirmed their loyalty to King George III were harassed. Making it worse for the British commanders was that the Redcoats — the regular soldiers in the Royal Army — often followed suit and committed atrocities.

General Henry Clinton wrote, “Unless we should refrain from plundering, we had no business to take up winter quarters in a district we wished to preserve loyal. The Hessians introduced it.”

Hessians, Lossberg Regiment, American Revolution
This illustration depicts Hessian soldiers from the Lossberg Regiment. Image Source: Brown University Library.

Rall’s Weak Defenses at Trenton

Howe placed Colonel Carl von Donop in command of the Hessian brigades at Bordentown and Trenton. Von Donop was stationed at Bordentown, and Colonel Johann Rall was at Trenton. Von Donop did not trust Rall because he had a reputation for being stubborn, so he wanted him in Bordentown, but Howe decided to keep him in Trenton, likely as a reward for his efforts at the Battle of White Plains and the Battle of Fort Washington.

Rall had three regiments of Hessians with him at Trenton — his own, the Lossberg Regiment, and the Knyphausen Regiment. His second-in-command was Major Friedrich von Dechow. Rall also had 50 Hessian Jaegers — highly skilled riflemen — and 20 men from the British 16th Light Dragoons — cavalry — at Trenton.

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On December 15, von Donop sent an engineer, Captain Georg Heinrich Pauli, to Trenton to discuss building earthworks and defenses around the town. Rall, Pauli, and others surveyed the area around the town. Pauli made his suggestions, and Rall agreed, but simply never executed the plan. Later, when he was pressed about building the defenses, he outright refused. He considered the Americans “nothing but a lot of farmers.” As the days went on, Rall insisted the Americans were no threat. When he was pressed about completing the defenses, he said, “Let them come! We want no trenches. We will go at them with the bayonet!”

Rall was somewhat flamboyant in his command of Trenton and liked to parade his men and show off the cannons he had. Lieutenant Andreas Wiederhold said, “The cannon, instead of being out at the head of the street where they could be of use, were in front of his quarters and two of them had to be paraded to the lower part of the town every morning and back again so as to make all the display possible.”

Washington Moves to Protect Philadelphia

Washington’s small, weak army — and the Delaware River — was all that stood between the British and Philadelphia, the capital of the new United States. Trenton was less than 50 miles from Philadelphia, and Bordentown was about 40.

On December 10, Washington ordered Commodore Thomas Seymour to take his flotilla of small ships, armed with cannons, to the river near Burlington. Burlington was downriver from Bordentown, roughly 18 miles from Trenton, and 18 miles from Philadelphia. Seymour was under orders to bombard Burlington if he saw the Hessians there. He was also in a position to block any British vessels from sailing downriver toward Philadelphia.

American Forces Harass the Hessian Outposts

After Howe’s announcement on December 14, Colonel John Cadwalader informed Washington of the movements of the British forces. Washington and his officers were concerned they could be preparing for an advance on Philadelphia, as soon as they could cross the Delaware River. Washington himself believed Howe’s announcement that his men were moving into winter quarters was nothing more than a ruse — a trick meant to have Washington let his guard down.

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Fearing the British were simply waiting for the river to freeze so they could march across, Washington started to develop a plan to launch an attack on the British outpost at Trenton. In the meantime, he sent small contingents of men across the river on a frequent basis to harass the Hessian outposts. The Americans carried out hit-and-run attacks on Hessian patrols. The constant attacks kept the Hessians on constant alert and helped wear them down leading up to the Battle of Trenton.

Washington Begins to Consider an Attack

According to Major John Amstrong, who was an aide-de-camp to General Hugh Mercer during the campaign, some of the American officers discussed the possibility of attacking the British outposts shortly after the American forces retreated to Pennsylvania. Armstrong said:

“Two or three days after we had crossed the Delaware there were several meetings between the adjutant-general and General Mercer, at which I was permitted to be present; the questions were discussed, whether the propriety and practicability did not exist of carrying the outposts of the enemy and ought not to be attempted. On this point no disagreement existed between the generals, and to remove objections in other quarters it was determined they should separately open the subject to the commander-in-chief and to such officers as would probably compose his council of war, if any would be called. I am sure the first of these meetings was at least ten days before the attack on Trenton was made.”

Washinton was in a difficult situation because the enlistments for many of his men were set to expire on December 31. On January 1, 1776, nearly all of the men with him in Pennsylvania would be free to return to their homes. He was desperate, short on men and supplies, and on the brink of having no army at all. What made matters worse for him was the British were aware. Spies informed Howe the situation in the American camp was bleak, and the enlistments would soon be up. Howe was in a position to simply wait it out — wait for the Continental Army to simply disappear.

On December 14, Washington wrote three letters that suggested the possibility of launching an attack.

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  • To General Horatio Gates — “If we can draw our forces together, I trust, under the smiles of Providence, we may yet effect an important stroke, or at least prevent General Howe from executing his plans.”
  • To Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, referring to Gates and his men — “By coming on, they may, in conjunction with my present force, and that under General Lee, enable us to attempt a stroke upon the forces of the enemy, who lie a good deal scattered, and to all appearances in a state of security. A lucky blow in this quarter would be fatal to them, and would most certainly rouse the spirits of the people, which are quite sunk by our late misfortunes.”
  • To General William Heath — “If we can collect our force speedily I should hope we may effect something of importance or at least give such a turn to our affairs as to make them assume a more pleasant aspect than they now have.”

According to Armstrong’s recollection of events, Washington met with his officers around the same time and started discussing an attack.

The American Crisis Inspires Washington and His Men

The reality is, Washington needed more men to carry out an attack — especially against the fearsome, experienced Hessians. During the retreat across New Jersey, he wrote letter after letter to General Charles Lee, Governor Livingston, and Congress, essentially begging for them to send him more men.

The situation was so bad that Washington told his brother, John Augustine Washington, that he believed the end of the war was near. 

“If every nerve is not strained to recruit the new army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty nearly up, owing, in a great measure, to the insidious arts of the enemy and disaffection of the colonies before mentioned, but principally to the ruinous policy of short enlistments, and placing too great a dependence on the militia…”

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Washington wrote that letter on December 18. The next day, Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, who was with the army as it retreated through New Jersey, published a new pamphlet. It was the first in the American Crisis series, in which Paine called for the perseverance of the Patriot Cause through the adversities of the American Revolutionary War. The Philadelphia Journal printed the text of the pamphlet on December 19. 

Thomas Paine, Portrait, Painting
Thomas Paine. Image Source: Wikipedia.

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

The words were inspiring, and Washington had copies distributed throughout the camp. By all accounts, it raised morale and provided inspiration for the men which Washington desperately needed.

American Reinforcements Arrive

Around December 20, reinforcements led by General John Sullivan and General Horatio Gates arrived at the American camp. With about 2,500 healthy men between them, it doubled Washinton’s fighting force. Sullivan remained with his men, but Gates took sick leave and went on to Philadelphia.

The Americans Decide to Attack Trenton

Around December 22, Washington met with a group of officers at his headquarters near Newtown. The meeting included:

Together, they devised the plan to attack Trenton, however, crossing the Delaware River was a concern. Colonel Glover said that his men would be able to move the boats across. 

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John Stark, as fearless as any leader the Americans had, believed the time had come for the Americans to attack. He supposedly said to Washington, “Your men have too long been accustomed to place their dependence for safety upon spaces and pickaxes. If you ever expect to establish the independence of these States you must teach them to place dependence on upon their firearms and courage.”

General John Stark, Illustration
John Stark. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In total, there were about 5,000 men who were able to fight. The basic outline of the plan was as follows:

  • It would be an offensive movement, instead of a defensive move, which is what the army had been doing since the British invaded New York.
  • They would cross the Delaware River in three different places.
  • Colonel John Cadwalader would cross and attack Mount Holly, Black Horse, and Bordentown. Cadwalader was made a General for the operation.
  • General James Ewing would cross at Trenton Ferry and take positions at Assunpink Creek to block the escape to Pennsylvania and von Donop’s path to Trenton.
  • Washington would cross at McConkey’s Ferry, divide his forces, approach Trenton from the North, and make a direct attack on the town.
  • If the attack on Trenton was successful, the three columns would unite and march on to attack Princeton and Brunswick.
  • They chose to cross the river on Christmas Night, and attack the Hessians just before dawn on December 26.

On the 23rd, orders were issued to begin preparations for the attack and Washington wrote a letter to Adjutant General Joseph Reed. He told him, “Christmas day at night, one hour before day is the time fixed upon for our attempt on Trenton.” Washington also scribbled a phrase on a piece of paper that would be used as the password for his men to use during the operation — “Victory or Death.”

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Washington met with his officers one last time on December 24. Some of the officers in attendance were not involved with the earlier meetings, so they were hearing about the plan for the first time. Among the new officers were future Founding Fathers — Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe.

Preparing his men for the attack, Washington issued orders for three days’ worth of cooked rations to be prepared. The men were paraded every day at 2:00 and then returned to their quarters.

December 24 — Grant and Rall are Warned

Rumors of an impending attack by the Americans were spreading throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania for at least a week.

On December 24th, a Loyalist informed Grant the Americans had held a Council of War and were planning to attack. Grant sent a message to Rall and told him to be on his guard. However, Grant did not think Washington was in a condition to launch a large-scale attack.

Von Dechow asked Rall to send the supplies and spare equipment away from Trenton for safety, but Rall declined. Like Grant, Rall did not think the Americans were capable of a large-scale attack.

Rall was likely convinced that Washington was in no condition to launch the attack because of information he received earlier that day from a man named John Honeyman. Honeyman apparently met with Rall and told him the Continental Army was in terrible condition. While that was true, Honeyman also appears to have reinforced the idea that Washington did not intend to launch a major attack. There is speculation that Honeyman — who was well-known to be a Loyalist — may have actually been an American spy. After the war, Washington visited Honeyman at his home and personally thanked him for his effort — but was unclear about just what “effort” he was referring to.

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December 25 — The American Camp in Pennsylvania

Washington issued orders to his officers, which outlined the organization of his column for the attack on Trenton, and the order in which they were to cross the Delaware River.

The army was divided into three divisions for the Battle of Trenton and the divisions were led by John Cadwalader, James Ewing, and Nathanael Greene. Washington would be with Greene’s division, which was going to make the direct attack on Trenton. 

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Greene’s column was organized as follows:

  • Washington divided Green’s force into two columns, to be led by Greene and General John Sullivan.
  • Greene’s column was the left wing of the army, and Sullivan’s the right.
  • Greene’s column was four brigades while Sullivan’s was three. Green’s column was four brigades because one of them, under command of General Adam Stephen, acted as the advance guard, moving ahead of the entire force.
  • Two scouts — local men from New Jersey — were assigned to each brigade. 
  • Each column had four pieces of artillery in front of the first brigade.
  • There were to be three pieces of artillery at the front of the first brigade.
  • The reserve force for each column had two pieces of artillery.
  • Colonel Henry Knox was in command of the artillery batteries.

Major General Nathanael Greene and Washington’s Left Column

The four brigades under Greene were commanded by:

  • Brigadier General Adam Stephen
  • Brigadier General Hugh Mercer
  • Brigadier General William Alexander, Lord Stirling
  • Brigadier General Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy

Greene’s column, which Washington referred to as his “2nd division or left wing of the army” was ordered to march into Trenton on Pennington Road, which ran north to south. Greene’s brigades would enter Trenton from the north and march south.

General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
General Nathanael Greene. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Major General John Sullivan and Washington’s Right Column

The three brigades under Sullivan were commanded by:

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  • Colonel John Glover
  • Colonel Paul Dudley Sargent
  • Brigadier General Arthur St. Clair

Sullivan’s column was the “first division of the army, and to form the right wing.” Sullivan and his brigades were ordered to march into Trenton on River Road, which ran along the river, east to west, on the south end of the town.

As soon as the brigade commanders received the order from Washington, they set about preparing their men to execute one of the most famous maneuvers of the American Revolutionary War — the Crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night.

General John Sullivan, Portrait, Illustration
General John Sullivan. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

December 25 — Christmas Day in Trenton

The Hessians celebrated the Christmas season, especially the first two days of the 12 days — December 24 and 25. On the morning of the 25th, the alarm was raised in Trenton when an American raiding party attacked. Rall may have believed this to be the attack that he and Grant were warned about. Rall rode out to where the skirmish took place, received a report from his men, and returned to Trenton.

That night, Rall went to the home of Abraham Hunt, a wealthy merchant and the postmaster in Trenton. They spent the night playing cards and drinking. At some point during the night, a man knocked on the door at Hunt’s house. When the servant answered the door, the man said he had a message for Rall. However, the servant would not allow him to enter the house, so the man scribbled a message for Rall on a piece of paper and left. The servant delivered the message to Rall, who, by all accounts, stuffed it into his pocket and never read it. He would not have been able to read it anyway, because it was in English. The message warned him that the Americans were in fact, on their way to attack Trenton. It was found in his pocket after the Battle of Trenton.

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As with John Honeyman, there is speculation that Abraham Hunt was also in league with the Americans, and kept Rall up all night as a distraction. Rall left Hunt’s house around 6:00 in the morning, just two hours before the Americans launched their attack on Trenton.

Christmas Night — Washington Crosses the Delaware River

Washington assembled his forces along the river late in the afternoon, out of sight of the Hessians across the river. Around 6:00, Colonel John Glover and the men from his Marblehead Regiment started transporting the men across the Delaware River in large boats designed to ship iron ore on the river. Meanwhile, the artillery and horses were transported across using the boats at McConkey’s Ferry.

A massive snowstorm blew in during the crossing, and the wind blew large chunks of ice downriver and into the path of the crossing for all three columns. The terrible weather made the crossing extremely difficult. Washington had the advantage of having Glover and his men — experienced seamen — at his service. They were able to move all of Washington’s men across the river. However, they did not finish until 3:00 in the morning — roughly four hours behind schedule.

Passage of the Delaware, Painting, Sully
This painting by Thomas Sully depicts Washington watching his men cross the Delaware River. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Per the original plan, the attack on Trenton was supposed to start around 5:00 a.m., while it was still dark. Due to the delay, there was no way the attack would start until after daylight. It would be dangerous because the Hessians might see them coming. However, Washington decided to push forward.

Fortunately for Washington, the snowstorm continued, which hid his men during the march to Trenton. However, what he did not know was that neither Ewing nor Cadwalader were able to cross the river. Washington was on his own, behind schedule, and with far fewer men than he expected.

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Dec. 26, 3 A.M. — I am writing in the ferry house. The troops are all over, and the boats have gone back for the artillery. We are three hours behind the set time. Glover’s men have had a hard time to force the boats through the floating ice with the snow drifting in their faces. I never have seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet, and cuts like a knife. The last cannon is being landed, and we are ready to mount our horses.

— From the Diary of an Unkown Officer on Washington’s Staff

Washington’s March to Trenton

The army rested around Johnson’s Ferry — the name of the ferry on the New Jersey side of the river — for about an hour. Starting around 4:00 a.m., Washington’s army marched toward Trenton.

At Birmingham, four miles from Trenton, Washington stopped the army. The officers gathered and set their watches according to Washington’s. Then the army divided into two columns and started the final approach to Trenton.

Washington received a message from General Sullivan, informing him the storm was making the muskets and ammunition wet. They would be unusable if they were wet. Washington sent a message back to Sullivan — “…use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”

Greene’s column took the Pennington Road, so it would enter Trenton from the north. Sullivan’s column matched down the River Road, so it would enter Trenton from the southwest.

Victory or Death, the Advance on Trenton, Troiani, Painting
This painting by Don Troiani depicts the American artillery during the march to Trenton. Image Source: Museum of the American Revolution.

Washington did his best to encourage his men as they continued the march. Private Elisha Bostwick wrote, “our march began…the torches of our field pieces…sparkled and blazed in the storm all night and about day light a halt was made, at which time his Excellency…came near to front on the side of the path where the soldiers stood…he was…speaking to and encourageing the soldiers. The words he spoke as he passed by where I stood and in my hearing were these…’Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God’s sake, keep by your officers!‘ Spoke in a deep and solemn voice…Our horses were then unharnessed and the artillery men prepared. We marched on and it was not long before we heard the out Gentries of the enemy both on the road we were in and the eastern road, and their out gards retreated fireing, and our army, then with a quick step…entered the town.”

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The Battle of Trenton Begins

As the Americans approached Trenton, there were fewer Hessians on patrol. The storm — and the fact it was the day after Christmas — convinced Major von Dechow to cancel the morning patrol.

Attack on the Outpost at the North End of Trenton

On the north end of Trenton, Lieutenant Andrew Wiederhold and some men were stationed at a house that served as one of the northern outposts outside of Trenton. Wiederhold happened to walk out of the house just as some of the Greene’s men were close enough that he could see them through the snow.

Of this first encounter, Lieutenant Tench Tilghman, one of Washington’s aides-de-camp, wrote:

“Our party amounted to 2400 Men, we crossed the River at McKonkeys Ferry 9 Miles above Trenton the Night was excessively severe, both cold and snowey, which the Men bore without the least murmur. We were so much delayed in crossing the River, that we did not reach Trenton till eight o’clock, when the division which the General headed in person, attacked the Enemy’s out post.”

The Hessians fired at least once at the oncoming Americans, who did not slow down. Within seconds, Wiederhold saw more Americans streaming past the outpost all around him. The Americans running by were from the brigade of General Adam Stephen, followed by men from the brigade of General Hugh Mercer.

Attack on the Hermitage, Southwest Corner of Trenton

Three minutes after the first shots were fired on the north end of town, Sullivan’s men attacked enemy troops stationed at an outpost half a mile outside of Trenton. The Hessians at the outpost retreated toward Trenton, to a farm owned by General Philemon Dickinson, a commander in the Jersey Militia. At the time of the attack, Dickinson was on the other side of the river with Ewing’s brigade. Dickinson’s estate was called “The Hermitage” and was occupied by Hessian Jaegers and the British dragoons. 

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The Americans came on the Hessians fast and furious. A Hessian Lieutenant said, “…the rebels were coming in strong force already at the Dickinson House…with bayonets fixed.” Some of the Hessians and British were able to escape Trenton during the attack, because the Americans did not yet have all of the routes blocked.

Battle of Trenton, American Artillery, McBarron, Painting
This painting by Charles H. McBarron depicts American artillery batteries at the Battle of Princeton. Image Source: Pritzker Military Museum and Library.

The Main Assault on Trenton

As soon as he heard the first shots being fired, Lieutenant Jacob Piel ran to Rall’s headquarters and woke him. After the long night at Hunt’s, Piel had to call for Rall three times before he responded. Meanwhile, the Rall Regiment, which was on duty for the night, assembled on the southern end of King Street and marched north toward Rall’s headquarters.

King Street ran north to south in Trenton and was on the west side of town. It was nearly parallel to Queen Street, on the east side of town. The two main streets were slightly angled and met at the north end of town.

The Lossberg Regiment assembled on the north end of King Street, while the two cannons the Hessians had were taken out and placed in front of the Lossbergs, pointing north and northwest, toward the oncoming men from Mercer’s brigade.

Colonel Henry Knox, who was in charge of the American artillery, set his cannons north of town, at the point where the Pennington Road and the Princeton Road came together. Knox started firing down the two main streets, forcing the Rall Regiment and Lossberg Regiment to move off the roads and to fields east of town.

The Knyphausen Regiment was originally assembled in Queen Street and was also forced to the east side of town.

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Rall moved his men further east to an apple orchard. There, he decided to try to escape north, via the Princeton Road. From his position on the high ground at the north end of Trenton, Washington spotted Rall and sent Colonel Edward Hand and General Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy to move in that direction and block the escape. Rall was forced to turn back toward Trenton and he decided to go back into the streets and try to retake the town.

Rall Attempts to Retake Trenton

About that time, the Knyphausen Regiment joined with the other two regiments, which may have led to confusion. When Rall issued his orders to march back toward Trenton, the Knyphausen Regiment marched in the opposite direction.

Anticipating Rall’s attempt to retake Trenton, Washington ordered General William Alexander, Lord Stirling, to move his men down along the west side of Queen Street. The move put Alexander on Rall’s flank. By that time, American troops had taken defensive positions all throughout Trenton, in and around houses and buildings.

Rall advanced into the town, drums beating and firing at the Americans. However, the poor weather conditions continued and the Hessian muskets were quickly rendered useless. Within a few moments, Rall was shot twice and his men retreated back toward the apple orchard on the east side of Trenton. Meanwhile, Rall was carried off of the battlefield and into the Presbyterian Church.

Rall Shot at Trenton, Troiani, Painting
This painting by Don Troiani depicts Colonel Rall being shot off his horse during the Battle of Trenton. Image Source: Pritzker Military Museum and Library.

The Rall and Lossbert Regiments Surrender

The Americans closed in on the Rall and Lossbert Regiments and were as close as 50 paces. The men in de Fermoy’s brigade, which included Germans from Pennsylvania and Maryland, were shouting in English and German for the Hessians to surrender. Seeing no way out, and completely surrounded by American forces, the Hessian officers signaled their surrender and the soldiers turned their weapons upside down and spiked them into the ground.

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The Battle of Trenton Ends

Seeing the other regiments preparing to surrender, the Knyphausen Regiment moved toward the river in an effort to break through the American line and escape toward Bordentown. Forces under the command of Colonel John Glover and Colonel Paul Sargent blocked the path, followed by General Arthur St. Clair and his men.

In the fight that followed, Major von Dechow was wounded and quickly decided to surrender. However, some of his men refused. He simply told them to do whatever they wanted, and he waved a white handkerchief and left the battlefield, with the help of two men.

The Hessians continued to try to escape, but they were surrounded, and the Americans had cannons pointed at them. St. Clair told them to surrender or he would wipe them out. The Hessians surrendered and the Batte of Trenton ended.

Outcome of the Battle of Trenton

In the aftermath of the Battle of Trenton, Washington realized that Ewing and Cadwalader had filed to cross the river and participate in the attack. His men were exhausted and won an important victory for the United States. They also had 900 Hessian prisoners they would have to take with them. Instead of pushing on the Princeton, Washington decided to end the operation.

Most of the American troops, including the Hessian prisoners, marched to Johson’s Ferry, re-crossed the Delaware River, and made their way to Newtown, Pennsylvania. The Hessians were kept in Newtown for a while, before being taken to Philadelphia where they were marched through the streets of the city for everyone to see — a symbol of the American victory at Trenton.

On December 27, Colonel Rall and Colonel Dechow died from their wounds. In his report to Congress, Washington said his man captured, “918 prisoners — 23 of them officers — 6 brass 3-pounders, 3 ammunition wagons, as many muskets, etc. as there were prisoners, 12 drums, and 4 colors.”

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Interesting Facts About the Battle of Trenton

  • The commander of the Hessian troops garrisoned at Trenton was Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall.
  • A Loyalist farmer attempted to deliver a written warning about the approaching American Army to Colonel Rall on the eve of the battle. Busy celebrating Christmas, Rall stuffed the message in his pocket without reading it.
  • The Crossing of the Delaware River began at 11 p.m. on Christmas night and was completed at about 3 a.m. on the next morning.
  • Colonel John Glover’s Fourteenth Regiment of Continental Line, a unit largely composed of fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, navigated through swift currents and a winter storm to transport Washington’s army and munitions across the ice-clogged Delaware River without losing a man.
  • Washington had planned a pre-dawn attack, but bad weather and the prolonged crossing of the Delaware River delayed the encounter until about 8 a.m.
  • Underestimating the threat of an American attack, Colonel Rall neglected orders to construct defensive works around Trenton.
  • Some of the Continental soldiers marched to battle with their feet wrapped in rags or with no shoes at all, leaving a bloody trail in the snow.
  • Future American leaders present at the Battle of Trenton included James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton.
  • Captain James Monroe was severely wounded at the Battle of Trenton by a musket ball that severed an artery in his shoulder. Doctor John Riker clamped the artery, keeping him from bleeding to death.
  • Colonel Rall was killed during the Battle of Trenton. The Loyalist message warning him of the impending attack was found in his pocket after his death.
  • The Hessian prisoners captured at the Battle of Trenton were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia as evidence of the success of the American Army.

Significance of the Battle of Trenton

The Battle of Trenton is important to United States history because it resulted in a crucial victory for George Washington and the Continental Army. It came at a critical time for Washington, as most of his men were scheduled to be released from their enlistments on December 31. The victory at Trenton shocked American and British leaders alike and boosted the morale of the men in the Continental Army and those who were allied to the Patriot Cause. Capitalizing on the success of his first battlefield victory in the war, Washington would decide to launch another attack, which led to the miraculous escape after the Battle of Assunpink Creek and another American victory at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1776. The Battle of Trenton was significant because it provided a much-needed morale boost for Washington’s beleaguered army and extended the Revolution.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Battle of Trenton

Who won the Battle of Trenton?

The United States of America won the Battle of Trenton. American forces led by General George Washington routed Hessian forces under the command of Colonel Johann Rall in the battle.

When was the Battle of Trenton?

The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War. The battle followed Washington’s Retreat Through New Jersey and the bold Crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night.

Why was the Battle of Trenton Important?

The Battle of Trenton was important because it came at a critical moment for the United States. General George Washington and his army had been forced to retreat from New York and New Jersey, leaving both under the control of the British. British forces were close enough to Philadelphia that they could have launched a decisive blow that may very well have ended the war. The American victory at Trenton completely reversed the course of the campaign.

Battle of Trenton AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Battle of Trenton, the key people involved, and the New York-New Jersey Campaign for the AP US History (APUSH) Exam.

Battle of Trenton APUSH Definition

The definition of the Battle of Trenton for the AP US History (APUSH) exam is a battle that took place on December 26, 1776, between the United States of America and Great Britain. The United States of America, led by General George Washington, won a significant victory over Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians were hired by the British to help fight the American Revolutionary War.

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Crossing the Delaware River: In Four Minutes

Learn More About the New York-New Jersey Campaign and the 10 Crucial Days in New Jersey on American History Central

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Battle of Trenton — Washington's First Major Victory in the American Revolutionary War
  • Coverage December 26, 1776
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Trenton, New York-New Jersey Campaign, 10 Crucial Days, American Revolutionary War, George Washington, Continental Army
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date January 28, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 4, 2023

The Battle of Trenton — Washington's First Major Victory in the American Revolutionary War is Part of the Following on AHC

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