Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek

January 2, 1777

On January 2, 1777, British forces attacked George Washington at Trenton, along the banks of the Assunpink Creek. The two sides fought to a standstill. Under cover of darkness, Washington marched around the British forces and moved north to attack Princeton.

Washington Before the Battle of Trenton, Painting, Trumbull

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

Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek Summary

The Second Battle of Trenton was fought between the United States and Great Britain on January 2, 1777, along the bank of the Assunpink Creek, on the lower end of Trenton, New Jersey. Following the incredible events of December 25–26, where General George Washington and his army crossed the Delaware River in a blinding snowstorm and shocked the Hessians at Trenton, he moved his army back over the river to Pennsylvania. 

Despite the victory, Washington was faced with the stark reality. The enlistments for many of his men were set to expire on December 31, allowing the men to go home on January 1. In an effort to convince the men to stay, he offered the men a bounty of 10 dollars. Inspired by the events in Trenton, and lured by the promise of a significant bonus, many of the men agreed to stay for another six weeks. 

Washington responded by planning an attack on Princeton. On December 30, the army crossed over the Delaware River to New Jersey and occupied Trenton. Anticipating a British attack, Washington sent General Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy, Colonel Edward Hand, and a contingent of men up to Maidenhead, just south of Princeton, to guard the road and, if necessary, engage the British long enough to slow them down.

Just as Washington expected, British forces under the command of General Charles Cornwallis marched toward Trenton. Cornwallis left a contingent of men at Princeton and marched on to Maidenhead. When the British were close enough, the Americans engaged them at Shabakunk Creek. Cornwallis forced them to retreat and continued on to Trenton. However, the Americans harassed him the entire way, significantly slowing him down.

Around 5:00 in the afternoon, Cornwallis arrived and found the Americans in their defensive positions along the creek, opposite the town. Cornwallis would have to cross the creek in order to engage Washington. The British tried to cross over several times at Assunpink Bridge. Each time, the Americans pushed them back, inflicting serious casualties. 

As night fell, Cornwallis decided to call off the attack. Despite objections from his officers, he believed Washington was trapped. After the British settled into their camp for the night, Washington and his men planned another bold move. After midnight, the American army marched southeast and then around went around the flank of the British army — completely undetected. From there, Washington marched to Princeton where he struck another victorious blow against the British forces in New Jersey.

Assunpink Creek Battle Facts

  • Date Started: The Second Battle of Trenton was fought on Thursday, January 2, 1777.
  • Date Ended: The battle ended on January 2, 1777.
  • Location: It was fought on the lower end of Trenton, New Jersey, along the banks of the Assunpink Creek.
  • 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 battle was a draw, but the United States of America won an important tactical victory.
  • Also Known As: The Second Battle of Trenton is also known as the Battle of Assunpink Creek.
  • Fun Fact: After the First Battle of Trenton, George Washington agreed to pay many of his men a $10 bonus to stay and fight.

History of the Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek

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.

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

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.

British Forces in New Jersey

Once Washington was out of New Jersey, Howe set up a series of outposts throughout the state in order to maintain control throughout the winter and to protect Loyalists who pledged their allegiance to King George III. 

The outposts along the Delaware River were garrisoned by Hessian mercenaries, soldiers hired by Britain to help put down the rebellion in America. The Hessians were hated — and feared — by most Americans. They could also be arrogant. The commander at Trenton, Colonel Johann Rall, refused to build defensive works at Trenton. He called the Americans “nothing but a lot of farmers” and insisted his men would easily defeat any attack. He said, “Let them come! We want no trenches. We will go at them with the bayonet!”

Washington in Pennsylvania

During his retreat through New Jersey, Washington begged Congress, Governor William Livingston, and General Lee to send soldiers to help him stop the British advance. The further he was forced to fall back, the closer the British moved to Philadelphia — the capital of the new nation. In order to protect the city, Washington put gunboats on the Delaware River and sent raiding parties across the river to harass the Hessian positions.

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

Howe Ends the Pursuit of Washington

On December 13, Howe issued orders for his men to go into their winter quarters. Although it ended further pursuit of the American army in Pennsylvania, Washington believed it was nothing more than a trick. He fully expected the British to march across the Delaware River as soon as it was frozen over and the ice was thick enough.

Washington Plans the Attack on Trenton

As early as December 14, Washington was considering an attack on the British. However, he was short on men, and the ones he had were going to be able to go home soon. For many of them, their enlistments expired on December 31. On January 1, 1777, those men would go home and Washington was likely to have no army.

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.

Around December 22, Washington met with a group of officers at his headquarters near Newtown. Together, they devised the plan to attack Trenton, however, crossing the Delaware River was a concern. However, Colonel Glover, from Marblehead, Massachusetts said his men would be able to move the boats across. Glover and his men were experienced boatmen and had already shown Washington what they were capable of. They rowed the army across the East River from Long Island to Manhattan Island during the escape after the Battle of Long Island.

Crossing the Delaware and the First Battle of Trenton

Despite benign warned ahead of time by several sources that an attack was imminent, the Hessians in Trenton were not prepared. On Christmas Night, despite a terrible snowstorm, Washington and his men crossed the Delaware River, about 10 miles upriver from Trenton. Under cover of the storm, the Americans arrived on the outskirts of Trenton undetected. The first shots were fired at 8:00 in the morning. Within moments, American troops swept into Trenton, pushed the Hessians into fields on the east side, and took control of the town. With the escape routes cut off, the Hessians tried to retake the town. All three Hessian regiments — Rall, Lossberg, and Knyphausen — were forced to surrender after Rall and his second-in-command, Major Friedrich von Dechow, were mortally wounded. Afterward, Washington and his men returned to their camps in Pennsylvania. They took 900 prisoners with them. The victory at Trenton was significant. It likely saved the war for the Americans, and likely convinced some of the men to continue the fight. Over time, it has become recognized as one of the major turning points of the American Revolutionary War.

Battle of Trenton, Painting, McBarron
The Battle of Trenton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Cadwalader In New Jersey

In the original plan for the attack on Trenton, three columns of American troops were supposed to cross the river. Washington was the only one that was successful. The other two, under the command of General James Ewing and General James Cadwalader, failed due in large part to the weather.

The day after the First Battle of Trenton, Cadwalader mistakenly assumed Washington had not been able to cross. When he learned of the American victory, he was embarrassed that he had failed to make the crossing. After the British and Hessians broke up their camps near Trenton along the Delaware River and moved north to Princeton, Cadwalader crossed over the river and occupied Burlington. 

On December 27, he sent word to Washington that he had been reinforced by militia from Pennsylvania, under the command of General Thomas Mifflin. He was also able to obtain detailed information about the British positions in Princeton, which he passed on to Washington. Cadwalader also told Washington the enemy was retreating and that as the American forces moved through towns the people were removing the red rags nailed to their doors, which indicated they were Loyalists.

Cadwalader suggested Washington cross back over to New Jersey so they could join together and carry out the rest of the original plan — defeat the British at Princeton and Brunswick.

Washington Offers a Bounty

On December 30, Washington moved his army back to Trenton and stationed his men on the south side of the Assunpink Creek. With one day left before his men — many who were from New England — left, Washington made another bold move. Without permission from Congress, he offered them a bounty of ten dollars to stay for another month. At first, no one responded, then he rode in front on them and said:

“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than can be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.”

Eventually, one soldier stepped forward and was followed by most of the others, leaving only a few in the original line. Among those who decided to leave were John Glover and the Marblehead Regiment.

In order to pay the bounties, Washington borrowed $50,000 from Robert Morris. Washington himself promised to pay Morris back. On New Year’s Day, 1777, the money from Morris arrived at Trenton. Along with the money came a series of resolutions, one of which granted Washington complete command of the army.

American Reinforcements and Defenses

Washington was determined to stand his ground and fight at Trenton, so he called for Cadwalader and Mifflin to join him at Trenton. They arrived by the end of the day, giving Washington close to 5,000 men and 40 pieces of artillery.

Unlike Rall and the Hessians before him, Washington ordered his men to build earthworks along the south bank of the Assunpink Creek. The American line stretched for about three miles downstream. 

Washington positioned his men along the creek and defended four potential crossing points. 

  1. The primary one was across from Trenton at the Assunpink Creek bridge, where Washington placed the majority of his artillery. 
  2. The largest concentration of infantry forces was assigned to defend the Philip’s Mill ford upstream of the bridge, which was passable despite the fast-flowing water. 
  3. A second ford further upstream was closest to the approaching British, but the swift current made it nearly impassable, and Washington only assigned a small force to defend it. 
  4. The last crossing point, downstream of the bridge, was the easiest to cross due to shallow water, but also farthest from where the British were expected to attack.

In order to slow down the British advance, Washington sent General Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy, Colonel Edward Hand, 1,000 men, and two fieldpieces up the road to Maidenhead, just a few miles south of Princeton.

General Edward Hand, American Revolution
Edward Hand. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Cornwallis Marches Toward Trenton

General Cornwallis, who had previously been planning to return to Britain, had his leave canceled by General Howe when the news arrived of the American victory at Trenton. Howe ordered him to rejoin his army in New Jersey, march back to Trenton, and engage Washington. 

Cornwallis left New York City and went to Brunswick. There, he joined with General James Grant and collected roughly 8,000 men for his operation. His force included some of the Hessians who had been stationed along the Delaware River, at the other outposts. By January 1, Cornwallis had made his way to Princeton, roughly 20 miles northeast of Trenton.

At the head of the column were Colonel Carl von Donop and his Hessians, leading the way. The survivors of the Rall Brigade from Trenton were with von Donop Cornwallis, who expected Washington and his men to scatter when he marched into Trenton with 7,000 men and instructed the Hessians to take no prisoners.

Charles Cornwallis, Portrait
Lord Charles Cornwallis.

The Second Battle of Trenton Begins with American Delaying Actions

On January 2, Cornwallis moved out of Princeton, He left around 1,400 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood in Princeton to serve as the rear guard.

As the British approached Maidenhead, General Roche de Fermoy saw them coming, inexplicably abandoned his men, and rode back to Trenton. In his absence, Colonel Edward Hand of Pennsylvania took command of the men, many of who were riflemen. The Americans engaged the British long enough to keep them from reaching Trenton until late in the afternoon. Hand did not engage Cornwallis head-on. Instead, he had his men carry out hit-and-run attacks as the British marched. The tactic forced Cornwallis to stop and send contingents of men out to protect the flanks.

Shabakunk Creek Fight

Hand took up a position on the south bank of Shabakunk Creek, a heavily wooded area where the British could not see the Americans as they crossed the bridge. As the British started to cross the bridge, the riflemen fired at them from point-blank range, leading the British to believe that the entire American army was attacking them. Cornwallis responded by forming his battle lines, but no army appeared. 

Stockton Hollow Fight

Around 3:00 p.m., the British reached Stockton Hollow, a ravine about half a mile from Trenton, where Hand and the Americans were waiting. The British attacked Hand’s new position with their artillery, causing him to fall back slowly toward Trenton. Along the way, Hand had his troops fire from behind houses. As Hand’s troops approached the Assunpink Creek, the Hessians charged at them with bayonets fixed, causing chaos among the Americans. Washington rode out through the crowd of men crossing the bridge and shouted for Hand’s rear guard to withdraw and regroup under the cover of American artillery.

British Forces Try to Cross the Assunpink Bridge

As the British prepared to attack, the two sides exchanged fire with muskets and cannons. Around 5:00 p.m. Cornwallis ordered several attacks that were all beaten back due to heavy fire from the American forces. The British and Hessians suffered heavy casualties each time.

In the first attack, the Americans were ordered to fire at the legs of the Hessians who were rushing across the Assunpink Bridge. The injuries forced the Hessians to help evacuate their wounded or leave them behind. As their casualties mounted, the Hessians broke off their attack, and British Redcoats took their place.

The British attacked the bridge three times and suffered heavy casualties. One American soldier said, “the bridge looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and red coats.”

Cornwallis Decides to Wait to Catch the Old Fox

As darkness fell, Cornwallis called a council of war with his officers to decide whether to continue the attack. Some of the officers had noticed the fords that were upstream from Washington’s position and believed they could quickly cross over and mount a final attack. Quartermaster General William Erskine wanted to strike right away. He told Cornwallis, “If Washington is the General I take him to be, his army will not be found there in the morning.” 

William Erskine, British Officer, American Revolution
William Erskine. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

However, James Grant argued that the American army had no means of retreat. He also said the British troops were exhausted, suggesting that it would be better to attack in the morning after resting. Cornwallis was hesitant to wait, but the night was falling. It would be a dangerous maneuver in the dark. He decided to wait until the next day to launch the next attack at the fords, saying, “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” He pulled his men back and it camped on a hill north of Trenton.

The Second Battle of Trenton was over, although no one knew it at the time. Throughout the night, American artillery intermittently fired on the British camp.

Outcome of the Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek — Washington Escapes to Princeton

Washington called a council of war with his officers. He knew full well that if he stayed where he was, there was a very real danger Cornwallis would cross the creek and pin him between it and the Delaware River. The expectation would be that he would try to retreat toward Philadelphia, however, he proposed taking the little-known Quaker Road on the east side of Trenton up to Princeton. The road was open and unguarded by the British.

It meant the entire army would have to somehow march around the left flank of the British army. From there, the army would move up and attack Princeton, and, if possible, go on to Brunswick. Brunswick was the base of British operations in New Jersey, and the officers knew there were valuable provisions there that their men needed. The officers agreed to execute the bold plan to march to Princeton.

Washington issued orders for campfires to be kept burning high throughout the night in order to deceive the British into thinking his men were still camped along the Assunpink. Around midnight, the temperature dropped and the ground became frozen and hard. The baggage train and artillery were moved south toward Burlington. The wheels of the wagons and artillery carriages were wrapped in rags to help keep them quiet, similar to what the Americans had done prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill. 

It was close to 1:00 a.m. on the morning of January 3 when Washington and most of his men moved out. He left 400-500 men behind to make just enough noise in the night to go along with the burning fires to keep the British distracted. British sentries thought the Americans were digging entrenchments to defend themselves. By morning, the last of the men in the American camp followed the army and escaped.

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

Significance of the Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek

The Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek is important to United States history because it led to a second crucial victory for George Washington and the Continental Army at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. The fact that Washington was able to hold his ground in the face of a larger force was another instance where his men found they could fight with the British. The bold escape during the night was yet another moment where Washington’s decision-marking turned out for the best.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Second Battle of Trenton

Who won the Battle of Assunpink Creek?

The United States of America won a tactical victory at the Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek. American forces led by General George Washington were able to hold off British forces under the command of General Charles Cornwallis until darkness fell. Overnight, the Americans orchestrated a bold march past the left flank of the British forces and attacked Princeton on the morning of January 3, 1777.

Where did the Battle of Assunpink Creek take place?

The Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek took place on the road from Maidenhead to Trenton and then along the banks of the Assunpink Creek. The creek runs out of the Delaware River on the southwest side of Trenton, along the southern edge of the town, and then curves to the northeast on the east side of town.

Second Battle of Trenton AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

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

Second Battle of Trenton APUSH Definition

The definition of the Second Battle of Trenton for the AP US History (APUSH) exam is a battle that took place on January 2, 1777, between the United States of America and Great Britain. The United States of America, led by General George Washington, fought British forces to a statement at Trenton until darkness fell. Then, over the course of the night, the American army marched east, around the left flank of the British army. The Americans marched north to Princeton where they attacked the next morning.

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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  • Article Title Second Battle of Trenton at Assunpink Creek
  • Date January 2, 1777
  • Author
  • Keywords Second Battle of Trenton, Battle of Assunpink Creek, New York-New Jersey Campaign, 10 Crucial Days, American Revolutionary War, George Washington, Continental Army
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 2, 2024