George Washington's Retreat Through New Jersey in 1776

November 20, 1776—December 25, 1776

After British forces captured Fort Lee on November 20, 1776, General George Washington and his army were forced to retreat through New Jersey and take refuge in Pennsylvania. It was a low point for Washington and the Continental Army, but it set the stage for the incredible Crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night.

Washington Before the Battle of Trenton, Painting, Trumbull

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

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Summary of Washington’s Retreat Through New Jersey to Pennsylvania

General George Washington’s retreat through New Jersey to Pennsylvania took place from November 20, 1776, until December 8, 1776. After the British captured Fort Lee, General Washington and his men retreated across New Jersey, southeast toward the town of Trenton. British forces under the command of General Charles Cornwallis followed the Americans and nearly caught up to them more than once. Cornwallis was under orders to pause the pursuit at Princeton, New Jersey until his commanding officer, General William Howe, joined him. The delay gave Washington time to move his men across the Delaware River and into Bucks County, Pennsylvania. During the retreat, Washington tried to gather reinforcements so he could make a stand in New Jersey, but almost no one came to his aid and he was forced to continue falling back. Early on, Washington’s reputation suffered due to criticism from key officers, including his aide, Joseph Reed, and General Charles Lee, his second in command. Once Washington was in Pennsylvania, Howe ended the pursuit of Washington and his army and ordered his men into their winter quarters. Howe established a series of outposts throughout New Jersey, including some along the Delaware River, which were primarily garrisoned by Hessian mercenaries. At that time, Washington’s situation was perilous. Morale was low, his men were short on clothing, food, and supplies. He would lose nearly all of his men when their enlistments expired at midnight on December 31. The British and Hessians were aware of the situation and believed Washington’s army posed a minimal threat. As a result, the defenses at the outpost in Trenton were weak. Washington and others believed the war was close to being over. Congress fled Philadelphia and many people in New Jersey pledged loyalty to the Crown. In late December, the American reinforcements finally arrived. John Sullivan, Horatio Gates, and others joined Washington in Pennsylvania, which gave Washington confidence he had enough men to launch an attack. Near the end of December, Thomas Paine published “The Crisis No. 1,” which started with the legendary words, “These are the times that try men’s souls…” Washington’s men were inspired, and he planned to move against Hessian forces in New Jersey. On the night of December 25, 1776 — Christmas — American forces moved out of their camps in Pennsylvania and prepared to cross the Delaware River to launch a bold attack on Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey.

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Washington Crossing the Delaware, Painting, Leutze
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Interesting Facts About Washington’s Retreat Through New Jersey

  • Washington and his army had to cross the four major rivers in New Jersey — Hackensack, Passaic, Raritan, and Delaware.
  • British forces led by Charles Cornwallis and William Howe crossed all but one. They never crossed over the Delaware River.
  • As Washington moved through New Jersey, he pleaded for help from General Charles Lee, the Continental Congress, and Governor Willliam Livingston of New Jersey. 
  • Reinforcements were slow to come, and very few joined Washington during the retreat. The majority of them joined him near the end, at Trenton, or after he crossed over to Pennsylvania.
  • During the retreat, Thomas Paine wrote the first pamphlet in “The American Crisis.”
  • General Charles Lee was captured by British dragoons under the command of Banastre Tarleton at Basking Ridge, New Jersey, on December 13.
  • General William Howe issued orders for his men to go into winter quarters on December 13, however, Washington believed it was nothing more than a diversion. He fully expected the British to march over the Delaware River as soon as it was frozen over and launch an attack on Philadelphia.
  • Washington considered an attack on Trenton for about 10 days before he finally settled on it. After General John Sullivan arrived, he held a council with his officers and they devised the plan.
  • After the retreat into Pennsylvania, American raiding parties crossed the Delaware River just about every day and harassed the Hessian forces.
  • None of the leaders in the British army believed Washington’s army was in any shape to launch a full-scale attack.
  • The retreat to Pennsylvania was, without a doubt, one of the lowest points for the American Cause, and nearly broke the Continental Army for good.
Charles Cornwallis, Portrait
General Charles Cornwallis led the pursuit of Washington through New Jersey.

History of Washington’s Retreat Through New Jersey

In the early days of the American Revolutionary War, American forces were able to build confidence through a series of victories at the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, and the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. However, once British forces were able to organize and plan a campaign, the tide turned. American confidence was nearly wiped out by a string of losses in New York. The British took control of New York City, executed Nathan Hale as a spy, and forced the Continental Army to retreat to evacuate all positions in and around Manhattan Island — except for Fort Washington — which was on the east bank of the Hudson River, on the north end of the island. A few days after the Battle of White Plains, the British army, under the command of General William Howe, left White Plains. General Washington had no idea where it was going, and sent troops to defend key positions.

  1. General Charles Lee — Lee, Washington’s second-in-command, had roughly 7,000 men at North Castle, north of White Plains. John Sullivan and Joseph Spencer were with Lee. Lee was in a position to defend against Howe moving north into New England.
  2. General William Alexander — Washington sent Alexander, who was also known as Lord Stirling into New Jersey to protect Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was. Alexander had around 1,000 men under his command.
  3. General William Heath — Heath was sent to Peekskill, New York with 4,000 men, in order to protect the Hudson River and the Hudson Highlands from Howe moving north. Heath was also on the watch for British forces that could march south from Fort Ticonderoga to join Howe.

Washington himself was at Fort Lee in New Jersey with General Nathanael Greene and his men. Fort Lee was on the west bank of the Hudson River, across from Fort Washington. Washington had around 2,000 men under his command, some were at the fort and some were at Hackensack, New Jersey, about 10 miles west of the fort.

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

Prelude to the Retreat Through New Jersey

In early November, between the Battle of White Plains (October 28, 1776) and the Battle of Fort Washington (November 16, 1776), Washington sent an advance guard out, under the command of General William Alexander, to find a safe passage across the Hudson River into New Jersey. 

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November 9–10 — Alexander crossed from Peekskill to Haverstraw and found a suitable path. He left men to guard the pass, returned to the American camp at North Castle, and informed Washington. Washington and his men went through the pass on November 10 and camped at Hackensack, New Jersey.

November 15–16 — Washington rode from the camp at Hackensack to Fort Lee and met with General Nathanael Greene. The next day, the Battle of Fort Washington took place. Washington, Greene, and some other officers actually crossed over to the east side of the Hudson River to watch the battle from the top of a hill. The British forces, led by Hessian regiments, crushed the Americans. Nearly 3,000 American soldiers were captured and the fort was lost, including valuable supplies and equipment.

November 17 — With Washington at Fort Lee, General Alexander and his men moved down to Brunswick.

The Retreat Begins — The Battle of Fort Lee (November 20, 1776)

In mid-November, the British received intelligence from a Loyalist they could march on Fort Lee through the pass at Closter Dock Landing, on the New Jersey shore, which the Americans had left unguarded.

November 18 — British flatboats transported troops up the Hudson. They stayed close to the east bank, to stay out of sight of the Americans, and sailed to Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

November 19 — Orders were issued to British forces to prepare to attack Fort Lee on the 20th. The attack would be led by General Charles Cornwallis. That night, the British marched further north to Yonkers, New York. That same day, Washington suggested that Fort Lee should be abandoned. Later that night, the British started to cross over to Closter Dock Landing.

November 20, 9:00 a.m. — The entire British force was across the river and started the march to Fort Lee. An American — either an officer in the army or a local farmer — saw the British on the move and ran to the fort to warn General Greene. In turn, Greene informed Washington.

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November 20, 10:00 a.m. — The British advance force fired the first shots at Fort Lee. Greene ordered the men that were on duty to abandon their posts. He led them out of the fort where Washington joined them. Greene left the men with Washington and went back to the fort to retrieve the rest of his men.

November 20, 1:00 p.m. — Cornwallis and the main body of his force arrived at the fort. It was essentially abandoned, except for a few Americans who were drunk. It was obvious the Americans had left in a rush. They left behind just about everything they could not carry, and fires were still burning. The British were able to capture around 100 American stragglers in the woods around the fort.

The Aftermath of the Capture of Fort Lee — Washington led Greene and his men to Hackensack, where they joined with the rest of Washington’s men. Although Washington wanted to try to make a stand, nearly everything that took place for the next three weeks worked against Washington. The retreat across New Jersey had begun.

The State of the War in New Jersey During the Retreat

Prior to the war, the people of New Jersey were not as vocal in their opposition to British policies as those in New York and Massachusetts. However, New Jersey aligned itself to the Patriot Cause with the other colonies. New Jersey established a Provincial Congress in 1775, passed its first state constitution in June 1776, and authorized its delegates to the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence. 

William Livingston was named as the state’s first Governor, replacing William Franklin, the last Royal Governor of New Jersey. The new government was called the Convention of the State of New Jersey. It was responsible for raising and organizing the militia. Prominent Patriots in New Jersey were William Alexander (Lord Stirling), Richard Stockton, and Elias Boudinot.

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Lord Stirling, Illustration
General William Alexander, Lord Stirling. Image Source: Harper’s Encyclopædia of United States History, Vol. I.

Loyalists were harassed in New Jersey, but after the fall of Fort Lee, the situation changed. On November 30, as British forces slowly took control of the state, General Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, issued a proclamation of amnesty. They promised to pardon anyone who had taken up arms against the King, provided they took went home and took an oath of loyalty. The proclamation was successful. Nearly 3,000 inhabitants of New Jersey agreed and were given paperwork confirming their loyalty. It 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.

The Effects of the Terrain in New Jersey on the Retreat

The terrain of New Jersey was fairly flat. It was covered with swamps and there were four main rivers that lay in front of Washington and his men as they moved through New Jersey.

  1. Hackensack River
  2. Passaic River 
  3. Raritan River 
  4. Delaware River

In order to slow down the British advance, the Americans would need to destroy bridges that spanned the rivers. This would force the British to find places they could ford the rivers, cross over with boats, or rebuild the bridges.

The flat terrain made it difficult to have natural barriers the Americans could use to hide behind and fire on the British. Making matters worse, they lost all of the tools they needed to build earthworks and dig trenches when the British captured Fort Washington and Fort Lee.

November 20 — Washington at Hackensack

Washington and his men spent the night of the 20th in Hackensack. Washington himself stayed at the home of Peter Zabriskie. He was concerned the British could trap him between the Hackensack River and the Passaic River, so he knew he had to retreat further south. 

Throughout the entire retreat, Washington sent letters to General Charles Lee, John Hancock — President of the Continental Congress — and Governor Livingston, asking for them to send men to help him make a stand. Unfortunately, reinforcements were either far away, slow to respond, or failed to heed the call. Many people thought the war would be over soon, which affected the turnout of militia forces in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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Washington sent messengers and letters — almost on a daily basis — to his second-in-command, General Lee. In every message, Washington made it clear to Lee that he wanted him to march to New Jersey so they could join their armies. Lee always had an excuse for why he was not marching to New Jersey. At first, it was because he wanted to attack Robert Rogers and his Queen’s Rangers in New York. As the days went by, Lee complained that he was low on supplies and that the march would use too many resources. The reality is, Lee questioned Washington’s leadership and decision-making skills, and may have wanted to try to replace him as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

General Charles Lee, Illustration
General Charles Lee. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Howe Sends Cornwallis After Washington

While Washington was at Hackensack, General Howe made two moves aimed at ending the war. First, he sent General Henry Clinton and around 6,000 men to Newport, Rhode Island. Clinton was to take control of the city and stay there for the winter. Second, he sent Charles Cornwallis after Washington. From that point on, Cornwallis would press Washington, forcing him to continue the retreat through New Jersey.

November 21 — Retreat from Hackensack to Newark

Cornwallis marched toward Hackensack and sent an advance force, led by General John Vaughn, out in front of his main force. Washington and most of his men left Hackensack, marched to Aquackanock, and crossed the Passaic River. He left three regiments in Hackensack to destroy the bridge and slow the British advance. Just as the Americans finished destroying the bridge, Vaughn and his men came into view. It was the first narrow escape for the American forces during the retreat through New Jersey. The American forces gathered in Newark.

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November 21 — Reed’s Letter to Washington

Joseph Reed, Washington’s Adjutant General, and close confidant, wrote his own letter to General Charles Lee. In the letter, Reed questioned the decisions Washington had made. He wrote, “I do not mean to flatter or praise you at the expense of any other…but I confess I do think it is entirely owing to you that this army, and the liberties of America…are not entirely cut off. You have decision, a quality often wanted in minds otherwise valuable…Oh! General, an indecisive mind is one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall an army; how often have I lamented it in their campaign… We are in a very awful and alarming situation – one that requires the utmost wisdom and firmness of mind…”

November 22–28 — Washington in Newark

By the evening of November 22, all of Washington’s men were in Newark. The next day, Washington established his headquarters and posted his men throughout the area. The Americans were able to spend the next five days in Newark because Cornwallis had to build new bridges over the Hackensack River. However, Cornwallis also received reinforcements, giving him more of an advantage over Washington.

While he was in Newark, Washington continued to send letters to Lee, Congress, and Livingston, asking for reinforcements and supplies. He was also plagued by defections and sickness. The sick men in his camp were sent to the American camp at Morristown, New Jersey.

On November 26, Washington received a letter from Lee. Lee was still in New York and still considering an attack on Rogers and his rangers in the White Plains area. That same day, Washington sent a message to General Philip Schuyler, head of the Northern Department. He asked him to send the Pennsylvania troops to New Jersey.

In an effort to raise militia forces from New Jersey, Washington sent Joseph Reed, to Burlington to meet with Governor Livingston. Reed, a native of New Jersey, carried a message from Washington that said, “The critical situation of our affairs and the movements of the enemy make some further and immediate exertions absolutely necessary.”

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The New Jersey Legislature agreed to raise four battalions of state troops. In addition, they agreed to ask for volunteers from the county militias. However, the New Jersey Militia failed to turn out in strong numbers, and any state troops came too late to aid Washington during the retreat.

Washington also sent Thomas Mifflin to Philadelphia to meet with Congress and ask for help. Mifflin also traveled through the countryside around the city, looking for volunteers. Mifflin had some success, however, the response was slow, and provided no help to Washington during the retreat.

Thomas Paine and the American Crisis

Thomas Paine, who rose to prominence as the author of “Common Sense,” was with General Greene at Fort Lee. Paine retreated with the army through New Jersey. At Newark, he started writing a new pamphlet, one that reflected the dire circumstances the young nation found itself in. Using a head of a drum as a desk, Paine started to scribble the words to “The American Crisis.”

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

November 28 — Retreat from Newark to Brunswick

On November 28, British forces advanced on Newark. Washington and his men scrambled to retreat across the Raritan River. Once again, they barely escaped. The American rear guard was marching out of Newark just as the British advance force marched into the town. Washington divided his forces into two columns and marched south to Brunswick. William Alexander led the American advance force. 

That same day, Cornwallis was reinforced by Hessians under the command of Johann Rall.

November 29 — Washington at Brunswick

The Americans crossed the Raritan River and the first of them arrived in Brunswick around noon on the 29th. This time, Cornwallis and his army were able to move faster and took less time to catch up to Washington.

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November 30 — The Wretched Remains of a Broken Army

On November 30, an estimated 2,000 American troops abandoned Washington, including men from the New Jersey Militia, under the command of General Nathaniel Heard, and the Maryland Militia, under the command of General Reazin Beall. Many of the men from Pennsylvania were also leaving, even though their enlistments were not expired. 

It was so bad that Washington had to post guards on the roads to keep men from leaving. Everyone was aware of the sad state of the army. Joseph Reed called it “the wretched remains of a broken army.” Loyalists informed the British of the state of the army. Howe and others were convinced the Continental Army could not last much longer and it would only be a matter of time before they could take Philadelphia. 

While he was at Brunswick, Washington started planning for moving the army across the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania. He issued orders to have the boats along the Delaware River collected and to have new boats built.

  • Colonel Richard Humpton and his men of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment were sent to collect boats along the Delaware River and move them over the Pennsylvania side.
  • General William Maxwell and his men were also sent to help move boats.
  • General Israel Putnam was told to build rafts from timber that was available in Trenton.

November 30 — Washington Intercepts Lee’s Reply to Reed

Reed was at Burlington when a letter arrived at the American camp for him. The letter was from General Lee. Washington did not realize it was a personal letter. He thought it was official correspondence, so he opened it. He was most likely shocked, disappointed, and deeply hurt by Lee’s words, which were in response to the concerns Reed had raised about Washington.

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“My dear Reed…I received your most obliging, flattering letter; lament with you that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity, or even want of personal courage; accident may put a decisive blunderer in the right, but eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the man of the best parts if cursed with indecision.”

  • Lee was critical of Washington’s indecision — “that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity.”
  • He pointed out that the suggestion to march to New Jersey was not an order — “in so pressing a manner as almost to amount to an order.”
  • Lee assured Reed he was going to meet up with Washington — “for to confess a truth, I really think our Chief will do better with me than without me.”

The letter made it clear to Washington that Reed and others questioned his capacity to lead and ability to make decisions. Further, Lee was going to do whatever he felt was best, and at his own pace.

Washington responded by writing a letter to Reed, explaining what had happened. The incident damaged the relationship between Washington and Reed. When Reed found out, he submitted his resignation. However, he rescinded it a few days later and served out the remainder of the campaign with Washington. After the campaign was over, Reed was replaced by Alexander Hamilton.

November 30 — Howe’s Proclamation of Amnesty

The day continued to wreak havoc on the Patriot Cause in New Jersey. The Howes issued their proclamation of amnesty. They asked all men who had taken up arms against the King to return to their homes. If they did so and swore an oath renouncing independence and loyalty to the King within 60 days, they would be granted a full pardon. The people who accepted the offer were issued a certificate, signed by an officer, that was supposed to protect them from harassment by British and Hessian troops. Sadly, Richard Stockton, who had been a Patriot leader, and signed the Declaration of Independence, took the offer.

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

December 1 — Retreat from Brunswick

Washington received reports that indicated the British were on the move and only 2 hours away from Brunswick. Around 1:30 p.m., the British were sighted near the bridge at the Raritan River. Soon after, they started firing on the town with artillery. Washington knew he could not hold his position, so he decided to fall back to the west side of the Delaware River — into Pennsylvania.

Washington stayed briefly in Brunswick to write letters to Lee, Congress, and Governor Livingston. He told Congress that he was going to retreat to the Delaware River. He asked Livingston to help him procure all the boats along the river, especially the Durham Boats. He also told them of the desperate need for reinforcements as soon as possible.

To General Charles Lee — “The Enemy are advancing, and have got as far as Woodbridge and Amboy, and from information not to be doubted, mean to push to Philadelphia. The force I have with me, is infinitely inferior in Number and such as cannot give or promise the least successful Opposition… I must entreat you to hasten your march, as much as possible, or your arrival may be too late to answer any valuable purpose…”

To Congress — “The Enemy are fast advancing, some of ‘em are now in sight. All the men of the Jersey flying Camp under Genl. Herd being applied to, have refused to continue longer in service.”

John Hancock, Portrait, Copley
John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress. Image Source: Wikipedia.

To Governor Livingston — “…Unless my force is speedily augmented, it will be impossible for me to make any stand at this Place… the militia from the Counties of Morris and Sussex, turn out slowly and reluctantly, whether owing to the want of officers of spirit to encourage them, or your summons not being regularly sent to them, I cannot say; but, I have reason to believe, there has been a deficiency in both cases.”

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Alexander Hamilton and his artillery battery covered the American retreat to Princeton and partially destroyed the bridge over the Raritan River. Washington moved out of town and spent the night in his tent.

December 1 — Cornwallis Delayed at Brunswick

Cornwallis and his men had a hard march from Newark to Brunswick due to heavy rain. The men were exhausted, so he stopped at Brunswick. He also received orders from Howe to stay there and wait for him — which took several days. Washington used the time to his advantage.

December 2 — Retreat from Brunswick to Princeton

The next day, Washington and his men broke their camp and marched south to Princeton. Washington himself arrived there between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. The town was nearly abandoned. Believing Cornwallis was coming soon, Washington decided to march on to Trenton. However, he left General Alexander and his men to defend the town, and serve as the rear guard. Alexander and his men took shelter in Nassau Hall on the campus of the College of New Jersey — now called Princeton University.

As Washington retreated to Trenton, General Schuyler gave orders to General Horatio Gates to take eight regiments and march to New Jersey to join with Washington. Finally, reinforcements were on the way.

December 3–8 — Washington at Trenton

Once he was established at his headquarters near Trenton, Washington wrote to Congress and provided an update on his movements and his plans. Meanwhile, his men continued to move boats to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and the sick and disabled men were sent to Philadephia. 

On December 4, Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy, a French volunteer, arrived at the camp. He had been given a commission by Congress as a Brigadier General. He was followed by additional reinforcements over the next few days — the men Washington had needed so desperately during the retreat.

Congress sent Colonel Nicholas Hausegger and a regiment of Germans that were from Pennsylvania and Maryland.

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The New Jersey Militia finally turned out. Contingents under the command of Colonel Isaac Smith and Colonel John Neilson joined Washington at Trenton.

From Philadelphia came:

  • Three battalions of Philadelphia Associators led by Colonel John Cadwalader.
  • Captain Samuel Morris and his troop of light horse from Philadelphia.
  • Captain Thomas Forest and his artillery battery from Philadelphia.

December 5 — Washington was informed some of the British had crossed over the Raritan River at Brunswick, but the main force was held up by bad weather.

December 6 — Around the 6th, Howe finally arrived in Brunswick. He gave permission to Cornwallis to move forward and pursue Washington. When General Alexander found out Howe was moving into Princeton, he organized his men and prepared to retreat from the town.

December 7 — Howe moved out of Brunswick at 4:00 a.m. in two columns. Cornwallis and Karl von Donop led the columns. Cornwallis moved ahead but was slow and cautious. He put flankers out to both sides of the column to watch for an ambush. He was also slowed down by trees the Americans had cut down and left on the road, along with a lack of bridges.

Washington had no idea where Alexander was — or the British army. Early in the morning while it was still dark, he took 1,200 men and marched back toward Princeton to survey the situation and confront the British if necessary. He left men at Trenton Ferry to guard the landing. 

Outside of Trenton, on the way to Princeton, he met General Alexander on the road. Washington and his men moved to the rear and covered Alexander’s retreat. Washington also sent orders to the camp in Trenton to begin crossing the men over the Delaware River right away. While Washington and Alexander returned to the ferry, their men cut down trees and left them on the road.

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Washington also sent Major Robert Hoops to find Lee and encourage him to move to Trenton as soon as possible and to let him know there were boats waiting to carry his men across the Delaware River.

Howe and Cornwallis took their time in Princeton and lingered there for far too long — long enough for Washington and his men to finish the retreat across New Jersey and escape to Pennsylvania.

In Trenton, Lieutenant Colonel David Henley oversaw the movement of American troops across the river in Washington’s absence. Washington arrived in Trenton after dark and stayed there for the night.

December 8 — The Retreat Through New Jersey Comes to an End

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.

After the main body arrived in Trenton, Howe and Cornwallis sent their men to find boats they could use to cross the river. However, all the boats had been moved by the Americans or destroyed. The British could either build boats from materials available in Trenton, go back and retrieve boats from Princeton, or wait for the Delaware River to freeze, so they could march across. For the time being, there was nothing they could do. The chase was over. Washington and his men were safe — the retreat was over.

Later that day, Joseph Reed returned to the American camp — disgraced by the situation over his letter to General Lee. Washington immediately sent him to Philadelphia with a message for Congress that said, “not a moment’s time to be lost in assembling such force as can be collected.” Washington fully expected the British to launch an attack on him — and then march to Philadelphia — as soon as possible.

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That same day, Charles Lee finally arrived in New Jersey — but he was in Morristown, far north of Trenton. It had taken him 23 days to move from White Plains to Morristown. Washington was not the only one frustrated with Lee’s slow pace and failure to do what Washington wanted. Nathanael Greene told Washington, “I think General Lee must be confined within the lines of some general plan, or else his operations will be independent of yours. Lee stayed in Morristown until December 11.

The Aftermath of the Retreat Through New Jersey

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. 

Howe could simply sit back and wait for it to happen and save his resources — men and supplies. Further, he could spend the winter in luxury in New York, spending time with his mistress and enjoying the benefits of being the highest-ranking British official in America. He showed almost no urgency in striking at Washington and ending the war.

For Washington, the American Cause and the Continental Army seemed to be at their end. New York City was under British control, and he had been pushed out of New York and then New Jersey. Even in the north, the war was not going well, and it only seemed a matter of time before American forces would have to retreat. Although Benedict Arnold had made a valiant stand with a small fleet of ships at the Battle of Valcour Island, the British were poised to launch an invasion of New York out of Canada in the spring.

Over the course of the next week, the situation only seemed to grow worse for Washington. The winter of 1776–1777 seemed like it would be the end of independence for the fledgling United States of America. 

American Defenses in Pennsylvania

Washington’s headquarters were in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and he stationed his men along the river, from Coryell’s Ferry, down past Trenton Ferry, all the way to Dunk’s Ferry, south of Bristol. The purpose of the line was to protect Philadelphia, which was about 30 miles to the southwest of Newtown.

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  • Four brigades of Continental troops were stationed along the river from Coryell’s Ferry to Yardley’s Ferry. These brigades were commanded by Generals Alexander, Adam Stephen, Hugh Mercer, and De Fermoy.
  • The Pennsylvania Militia, with a small contingent of New Jersey Militia, protected the shore from Yardley’s Ferry to Bordentown.
  • The Philadelphia Associators were stationed below Trenton Ferry and then moved to Dunk’s Ferry, below Bristol.
General Hugh Mercer, Portrait, Illustration
General Hugh Mercer. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Earthworks were constructed at the following ferries along the river, where the British might try to cross over to Pennsylvania.

American troops were spread out along a line that was at least 25 miles long. On December 10 Commodore Thomas Seymour and his ships were placed on the river between Bordentown and Philadelphia. The ships sailed up and down the Delaware River, keeping an eye out for the British army and Loyalists, especially around Burlington.

December 12 — Congress Flees from Philadelphia

In order to protect Philadelphia, Washington sent General Israel Putnam to Philadelphia to help organize defenses for the city. Mifflin was also sent to Philadelphia and was in charge of the supplies and equipment. 

Both of them warned the members of Congress to leave the city. It would only be a matter of time before British forces would be able to move in and attack.

At first, they refused, because they believed it would appear to be a sign of weakness. However, Congress turned control of the city over to Putnam and then decided to leave the city on December 12. Robert Morris, George Walton, and George Clymer, stayed to conduct critical business, but the rest of the members went to Baltimore.

The fact that Congress left Philadelphia was not popular. Captain Samuel C. Morris of the Philadelphia Associators said, “It had struck a damp on ye spirits of many.”

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December 12 — Congress Gives Washington Control of the Army

Before Congress left Philadelphia, it made a critical decision — it gave Washington complete control of the Continental Army. He was given “…full power to order and direct all things relative to the department, and to the operations of war…”

December 13 — A Chance for Washington to Save America

On the heels of being given control of the army, two things happened on December 13th that gave Washington the time — and further authority — to make a bold move before the end of December.

First, General Charles Lee was captured by British forces at a tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Lee was writing a letter to General Horatio Gates, criticizing Washington, when a group of dragoons, under the command of Banastre Tarlton, raided the tavern and captured Lee. Lee’s capture freed Washington from the criticism of Lee. Major James Wilkinson was with Lee at the tavern and escaped the British. He ran back to the American camp at Pluckemin and told General John Sullivan. Sullivan wrote a letter to Washington, informing him of Lee’s capture, and also told him he would bring the army to join him as soon as possible. Then Sulivan took command of the troops and soon after started the march to Pennsylvania.

Banastre Tarleton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Second, with no boats available to cross the Delaware River — and no desire to build boats — General Howe announced his men were going to go into winter quarters. Howe’s order, ending the campaign, was as follows:

“Headquarters, December 14, 1776. The Campaign having closed with the Pursuit of the Enemies Army near ninety miles by Lieut. Gen. Cornwallis’s Corps, much to the honor of his Lordship and the Officers and Soldiers under his Command, the Approach of Winter putting a stop to any further Progress, the Troops will immediately march into Quarters and hold themselves in readiness to assemble on the shortest Notice.”

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Howe’s suspension of the campaign was followed by moving troops into their positions, all of which gave Washington valuable time to make his own plans.

British Defenses in New Jersey

Howe proceeded to set up a series of outposts throughout New Jersey. The line ran along the Delaware River, from Bordentown in the east to Trenton in the west. From Trenton, it went northeast to Princeton and then up to Brunswick. The entire line was about 100 miles long, but the line from Trenton down to Burlington was about 16 miles. 

Around 14,000 British and Hessian troops were stationed in the New Jersey outposts. Howe chose Hessians for the left of the British line, which included Trenton. General James Grant was in overall command of the forces in New Jersey because Howe planned to return to New York, and Cornwallis intended to sail to England to visit his wife. Grant’s headquarters were at Princeton, and he was joined there by General Alexander Leslie. 

After the work was done to organize the outposts, Howe and Cornwallis left Trenton and started their journey back to New York City.

Rall’s Defenses At Trenton

Howe put 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, Lossberg, and Knyphausen. His second-in-command was Major Friedrich von Dechow. Rall also had 50 Hessian Jaegers and 20 men from the British 16th Light Dragoons at Trenton.

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

December 12 — The Rall and Knyphausen Regiments arrived at Trenton.

December 14 — Lossberg arrived. Rall established his headquarters on King Street.

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 to build defenses in Trenton. Rall agreed, but simply never executed the plan. 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.”

December 14 — Washington Hints at an Attack and Rumors Spread

After Howe ended the campaign, Washington looked for ways to strike at the British before December 31. On the 14th, Colonel John Cadwalader informed Washington of the movements of the British forces. The Americans were concerned they could be preparing for an advance on Philadelphia, as soon as they could cross the Delaware River. Washington also learned that Howe and Cornwallis had left Trenton. That day, Washington wrote at least three letters that foreshadowed 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.”

Major John Armstrong, an aide-de-camp to General Hugh Mercer, remembered it this way,  “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.”

John Armstrong Jr, Illustration
John Armstrong Jr. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By December 18, there were rumors in Philadelphia that Washington intended to cross back into New Jersey and launch an attack. That same day, Wahington wrote a letter to his brother, John Augustine Washington. In that letter, he admitted he was at the end.

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“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…”

I think the game is pretty nearly up…

— George Washington to his brother, John Augustine Washington.

American Raids on the Hessian Outposts

Starting around the 14th, Washington sent raiding parties to harass the Hessian outposts. Nearly every day, they raided the Hessians at various locations, including Trenton, Bordentown, Burlington, Moorestown, and Mount Holly. The persistent attacks wore the Hessians down. Rall’s men refused to ride too far outside of town, for fear of being attacked.

  • December 16 — Von Donop sent patrols out to try to catch an American raiding party of around 300 men, all on horses.
  • December 18 — Americans landed upriver from Trenton and attacked.
  • December 19 — Von Donop took a patrol to Mount Holly to scout the area.
  • December 20 — Von Donop returned to Bordentown and received Rall’s report of the attack at Trenton on the 18th. Rall expressed concern about the exposure of his right flank to the American forces.
  • December 21 — 3 men from the Lossberg Regiment were captured by Americans near Trenton.
  • December 21 — Americans fired on a Hessian patrol outside of Trenton.
  • December 20, 21, and 22 — Von Donop received information from Loyalists in Burlington County, New Jersey about the poor condition of the American army.
  • December 22 — There were skirmishes around Mount Holly.
  • December 22 — General Leslie had his patrol go as far south as Trenton.
  • December 24 — Skirmishes around Trenton.

December 19 — The American Crisis Published

By December 19th, Paine had finished writing the first pamphlet in “The American Crisis.” He took it to Philadelphia where he worked with Thomas Jefferson to find a printer. Paine’s famous words were printed in the Philadephia Journal on the 19th:

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“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.”

By the 22nd, copies were distributed throughout Washington’s camp, and he had it read to the men. By all accounts, it raised morale and provided inspiration which was desperately needed.

December 20 — Washington’s Reinforcements Arrive

In early December, as reinforcements started arriving in his camp, Washington started to believe the outposts along the Delaware River were vulnerable. On December 20th, the reinforcements led by Gates and Sullivan finally arrived. 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. 

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 8,000 men in the American camp, but only 6,000 were able to fight. The basic outline of the plan was as follows:

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  • 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.

December 23 — Victory or Death

Dr. Benjamin Rush visited Washington at his headquarters in Newtown. Rush found Washington scribbling a note on a piece of paper.

“While I was talking to him, I observed him to play with his pen and ink upon several small pieces of paper. One of them by accident fell upon the floor near my feet. I was struck with the inscription upon it. It was ‘Victory or Death.’”

The phrase would be used by American forces as the countersign — or password — during the expedition against Trenton.

December 24 — Grant and Rall are Warned

On December 24th, a Loyalist informed Grant the Americans had held a Council of War and were planning to attack soon. 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, he did not think the Americans were capable of a large-scale attack.

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December 25 — The First Christmas Day in the United States

On July 2, 1776, the 13 Colonies declared independence. Two days later, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. On September 9, Congress officially started using the name “United States of America.” December 25, 1776 — Christmas Day — was the first official Christmas in the new United States. The Hessians in Trenton woke to snow on the ground in Trenton. After the sun came up, the temperature rose above freezing.

Rall was informed that General Alexander and his men were in the area, but he was not worried. Rall went out to visit and talk to the sentries outside of town. 

Around 7:00 that night, there were shots fired outside of town. Rall’s own regiment was on duty, so they were in uniform and prepared to fight at a moment’s notice. In response to the shots, Rall marched his men to the intersection of the Pennington and Princeton roads on the north of town. When he arrived, he was told that 30-40 Americans had attacked the guards on Pennington Road and then ran off toward Johnson’s Ferry. Johnson’s Ferry was the New Jersey side of McConkey’s Ferry.

  • Rall sent a patrol after the Americans, but they found nothing.
  • Dechow suggested sending out more patrols, but Rall said there was no need.
  • Rall and his men marched back to Trenton.
  • Rall did not issue any special orders for the night, but Dechow posted extra guards outside the houses where his men were stationed.
  • Rall went to Abraham Hunt’s house.
  • Rall may have thought the attack was the one he and Grant had been warned about.

Meanwhile, in the American camp, the men were organized and given three days’ worth of rations and 40 rounds of ammunition. At 2:00, they prepared to move down to the shore of the Delaware River. 

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December 25 — Washington’s Orders

“Each brigade to be furnished with two good guides. General Stephen’s brigade to form the advance party, and to have with them a detachment of the artillery without can- non, provided with spikes and hammers to spike up the enemies’ cannon in case of necessity, or to bring them off if it can be effected, the party to be provided with drag-ropes for the purpose of dragging off the cannon. General Stephen is to attack and force the enemy’s guards and seize such posts as may prevent them from forming in the streets, and in case they are annoyed from the houses to set them on fire. The brigades of Mercer and Lord Stirling, under the command of Major-General Greene, to support General Stephen. This is the 2d division or left wing of the army and to march by the way of the Pennington road.

General Arthur St Clair, Portrait, Peale
Arthur St. Clair. Image Source: Wikipedia.

St. Clair’s, Glover’s, and Sargent’s brigades, under Major-General Sullivan, to march by the River Road. This is the first division of the army, and to form the right wing. Lord Stirling’s brigade to form the reserve of the left wing, and General St. Clair’s brigade the reserve of the right wing. These reserves to form a second line in conjunction, or a second line to each division, as circumstances may require. Each brigadier to make the colonels acquainted with the posts of their respective regiments in the brigade, and the major-generals will inform them of the posts of the brigades in the line. Four pieces of artillery to march at the head of each column; three pieces at the head of the second brigade of each division; and two pieces with each of the reserves. The troops to be assembled one mile back of McKonkey’s Ferry, and as soon as it begins to grow dark the troops to be marched to McKonkey’s Ferry, and embark on board the boats in following order under the direction of Colonel Knox.

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General Stephen’s brigade, with the detachment of artillerymen, to embark first; General Mercer’s next; Lord Stirling’s next; General Fermoy’s next, who will march into the rear of the second division and file off from the Pennington to the Princeton road in such direction that he can with the greatest ease and safety secure the passes between Princeton and Trenton The guides will be the best judges of this. He is to take two pieces of artillery with him. St. Clair’s, Glover’s, and Sargent’s brigades to embark in order Immediately upon their debarkation, the whole to form and march in subdivisions from the right. The commanding officers of regiments to observe that the divisions be equal and that proper officers be appointed to each. A profound silence to be enjoined, and no man to quit his ranks on the pain of death Each brigadier to appoint flanking parties; the reserve brigades to appoint the rear-guards of the columns; the heads of the columns to be appointed to arrive at Trenton at five o’clock.

Captain Washington and Captain Flahaven, with a party of forty men each, to march before the divisions and post themselves on the road about three miles from Trenton, and make prisoners of all going in or coming out of town.

General Stephen will appoint a guard to form a chain of sentries round the landing-place at a sufficient distance from the river to permit the troops to form, this guard not to suffer any person to go in or come out, but to detain all persons who attempt either. This guard to join their brigade when the troops are all over.”

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.

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Henry Knox
Henry Knox.

Significance of the Retreat Through New Jersey

Washington’s retreat from Fort Lee, through New Jersey, and over the Delaware River, is important to United States history because it set the stage for some of the most historic moments of the American Revolutionary War. General George Washington was on the verge of losing his entire army, the Continental Congress had fled to Baltimore, and British forces were basically waiting for the right conditions to crush the Continental Army, capture Philadelphia, and bring an end to the war. Washington needed a miracle, and after he received reinforcements, he and his officers planned a daring attack that would become one of the major turning points of the American Revolutionary War.

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 George Washington's Retreat Through New Jersey in 1776
  • Coverage November 20, 1776—December 25, 1776
  • Author
  • Keywords George Washington, 10 Crucial Days, Retreat Through New Jersey
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date January 29, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 4, 2023

George Washington's Retreat Through New Jersey in 1776 is Part of the Following on AHC

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