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

Battle of Trenton Summary

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.

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Summary

By the end of 1776, the euphoria created by the Declaration of Independence had been supplanted by the realities of waging war.

The size of the British army in North America had swollen to 32,000 troops — the largest expeditionary army the Crown had ever assembled.

By December, the Continental Army, once 25,000 strong, had been driven from New York and numbered only 4,300 men.

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.

From his encampment in Newton, Pennsylvania, Washington boldly decided to launch an attack on the Hessian mercenaries garrisoned at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day.

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 seven miles above Trenton.

On the morning of December 26, the Americans descended on Trenton and encountered the first Hessian resistance about 8 a.m. 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.

Quick Facts

  • 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.
  • Future President James Madison 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

The Battle of Trenton was significant because it provided a much-needed morale boost for Washington’s beleaguered Army and extended the Revolution.

Crossing the Delaware River: In Four Minutes

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Battle of Trenton Summary
  • Coverage December 26, 1776
  • Author
  • Keywords battle of trenton
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 6, 2022
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