The cold winter winds howled through the streets of New York, but the houses were filled with warmth, good cheer and the merry crackle of hearth fires. It was late in December of 1776. Six months earlier the city had been the headquarters of General Washington’s ragged army of patriots. Now it was in the hands of the British and they were in a mood to celebrate.
Some redcoats were making ready for Christmas. Others were writing long letters home to England, saying that the war was almost over. They told how Washington had been driven out of New York, how the British had stormed Fort Washington just north of the city and captured 2,600 American troops and large stores of military supplies. They told how Washington’s army had crossed the Hudson River and how General Cornwallis, with a large force of redcoats and Hessians, had chased him across the state of New Jersey.
At his headquarters in New York, General Howe was preparing to spend a pleasant winter among his loyalist friends. He had many reasons for being cheerful. On December 13th, he had captured General Charles Lee, second in command of the American forces under Washington. The British had met with little resistance as they chased Washington through New Jersey and now some British units were as deep into New Jersey as Bordentown, only twenty-five miles from Philadelphia. Howe was particularly pleased by the fact that thousands of colonists in New Jersey had welcomed the British and had taken advantage of his offer to pardon all who renewed their oaths of allegiance to King George.
What was left of Washington’s army had escaped across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Howe knew that most of the troops under Washington would be free to go home after their term of enlistment ran out at the end of the year. This would leave Washington with almost no army at all and Howe was convinced that the rebellion was almost over. He ordered his troops to find winter quarters for themselves in various towns of New Jersey. He also gave General Cornwallis leave to return to England for a few months of vacation.
In Pennsylvania, camped in the frozen hills not far from the Delaware River, Washington was preparing for action. In the last twelve weeks he had suffered one defeat after another, lost five thousand of his best troops‚ most of his cannon and large stores of ammunition. Unless he acted quickly, most of his troops would be returning to their homes, for their enlistments came to an end on December 3lst. After that date the American army would be reduced to about 1,400 troops.
CROSSING THE DELAWARE
The Americans broke camp late in the afternoon of Christmas Day, for a surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton. They reached the Delaware river just before nightfall, then began the slow work of crossing the ice-choked river to the New Jersey side under cover of darkness. There were not nearly enough boats. Many trips had to be made back and forth and horses and cannon had to be ferried across on clumsy barges. Sleet began to fall an hour before midnight and with it came strong gusts of wind that threatened to upset the troops’ overloaded boats. In the darkness it was impossible to avoid the floating cakes of ice. They thumped against the bows and frail sides of the boats, showering the men with icy spray. The crossing was completed just as the first streaks of dawn brightened the eastern sky.
Washington sent some of his troops under General Sullivan along the river road, while he and General Nathanael Greene and their divisions followed the Pennington Road, approaching the town of Trenton from the north. Washington knew the success of his attack depended upon complete surprise. If the Hessians were prepared, they could easily hold the town for several hours. That would be long enough to bring up Hessians from other towns and Washington’s army would then find itself trapped on the New Jersey side of the river.
The Hessians in Trenton had celebrated Christmas in the hearty German fashion, with much eating and drinking, just as Washington had hoped. Their commander, Colonel Rall and most of his troops were still in bed when the Americans struck at Trenton from two sides. At the sound of gunfire the Hessians leaped out of bed, dressed, snatched up their weapons and stumbled out to defend the town. They were still struggling to get into their coats as they fell into formation. They tried to advance northward on the two main streets, but were scattered by screaming round shot from American cannon.
Then Colonel Rall mounted his horse and led an advance up Broad Street, but now the Americans had come up between the houses and were firing from both sides of the street. At the same time General Sullivan’s American troops swept in between the Hessians, making retreat impossible. The one-sided battle soon came to an end. The Hessians lost 970 men, including 920 prisoners. Four Americans were wounded.
News of the American victory stunned General Howe in New York. He canceled General Cornwallis’ trip to England and sent him to take command of the troops in New Jersey. Cornwallis moved swiftly. He arrived at Princeton on January l, 1777, and marched toward Trenton the following day. He reached Washington’s main line of defense along the south bank of the Assunpink Creek just before dark. Cornwallis decided to hold up his attack on the American position until the following morning. As he saw it, there was no great need to hurry, since the Americans were hopelessly trapped, with their backs to the Delaware River.
Washington and his officers knew that they could not defend their position along the creek. The Americans were greatly outnumbered and any attempt to retreat across the river in the few boats available would have resulted in the capture of most of their troops. There was only one thing they could do. They could slip around the right side of the British forces during the night, strike at Princeton in the morning and then go on to attack the main British supply base at New Brunswick.
THE BATTLE OF PRINCETON
To fool the British, Washington left a detail of four hundred men behind to dig trenches, make all the usual camp noises and keep the campfires burning brightly. These men were ordered to follow the main army just before dawn. Washington’s troops slipped silently out of camp before midnight, with the wheels of their gun carriages wrapped in rags to keep them from making any noise on the frozen roads that might alert the British.
When Cornwallis awoke the following morning, he was puzzled by the silence in the American encampment. There seemed to be no sign of life at all. Moments later he heard a dull rumble in the north. Could it be thunder? The rumbling came again. This time he recognized it as the booming of cannon. The “old fox” had fooled him again.
To the north, at Stony Bridge near Princeton, two British regiments had suddenly come face to face with a column of Americans under General Mercer. In the fight that followed, Mercer was killed. Some of the British retreated to Princeton and were soon routed by Washington’s main army. In these two small battles each side lost about one hundred men as dead and wounded, but the Americans captured nearly three hundred prisoners.
Washington now realized that his hope of going on to strike at the British supply base in New Brunswick was out of the question. His men were too tired and hungry. They had gone without sleep for some forty hours. He gave them a hearty meal from British supplies and a short rest.
The British army reached Princeton just after the Americans had left, but Cornwallis gave up the chase and continued on to Brunswick to protect the main base. Washington headed for a high ridge of hills at Morristown. There he could defend ‚ himself against a stronger force and yet be in a position to threaten any move the British might make up the Hudson or into New Jersey.
The victories at Trenton and Princeton gave Americans new hope. They hailed Washington as a military genius. Patriots in New Jersey felt so certain of victory that they formed armed bands and attacked British outposts and wagon trains, forcing most of the redcoats and Hessians to concentrate in areas close to New York city. In Paris, news of the victories made it easier for Benjamin Franklin to obtain more loans‚ guns and ammunition from the French. Washington lost most of his experienced soldiers shortly after their enlistments ran out and he was faced with the slow and difficult task of building his army all over again. Fortunately, his victories marked the end of fighting for a number of months.
Long delays between battles were common during the war. The slow pace made it possible for Washington to rebuild his army time and again, for his troops deserted him by the thousands every winter. One of Washington’s disadvantages was that he did not have the support of a real government. The United States of America was nothing more than a shadowy association of free states. Congress had very limited powers. It could not tax the people. It had to beg the states for money in order to carry on the war. The states did as they pleased about these requests and usually paid only a small portion of what they were asked to give.
Some states were actually afraid of building up a strong American army. Such an army, they feared, might be tempted to set up a powerful military government that would have the states at its mercy. To protect themselves, the states organized small armies of militiamen over which they had complete control. Some of these units were loaned to Washington at times, but they were usually not very effective. As a result, Washington was never able to raise a large enough army to drive the British from American soil. Poor roads and long supply lines also slowed down the pace of the war. Washington spent many months waiting for military supplies from France. These had to be slipped into the country through the British naval blockade and some of them failed to get through.
THE STRENGTH OF AMERICA
The Americans also had certain advantages. They were on their native soil. They knew how to live off the land and how to fight in the wilderness. They could travel lighter and faster than could the British, who were usually slowed down by heavy guns and long wagon trains. Furthermore, they did not need to defeat the British. As long as they could keep an army in the field, the war would go on. The British, on the other hand, could not bring the rebellion to an end without defeating the Americans.
The Americans also had the great advantage of having George Washington as their military leader. True, his war experience was limited; he made a number of mistakes and was defeated in battle many times. Yet, even when everything went wrong and the American cause seemed all but lost, he never gave up hope. His patience seemed endless. He knew how to wait for just the right moment to strike and how to win the battles that counted most. It was Washington’s fighting spirit and rocklike character, more than anything else that kept the revolution alive.
As for the British, they had large, well-supplied armies with trained soldiers and experienced officers. Their navy controlled the sea and blockaded the Atlantic ports. They could move their armies on ships and strike swiftly at any point along the coast. Loyalists acted as spies and kept them informed of American movements. Thousands of loyalists joined the British army and fought against their own countrymen. The British, however, were three thousand miles away from home and supplies and troops were slow in coming. Furthermore, British officers had been trained in the European style of warfare. In Europe, a war could be won by capturing the large manufacturing centres, thus cutting the enemy off from its source of supply. In America, there were no large manufacturing centres. The strength of America lay in thousands of small farms and towns. An American army could be defeated at one point, only to reform and carry on the war again a hundred miles away. General Howe, the British commander, seemed to be in no hurry to end the war. He took his time between campaigns, believing that the Americans would soon become discouraged and lay down their arms. That was what he wanted — peace, on British terms, with as little bloodshed as possible.
Then the War Office in London drew up a plan to cut the troublesome New England states off from the rest of the country. To accomplish this, General John Burgoyne was to lead an army southward from Canada to Albany. General Howe in New York was to lead his army up the Hudson and join Burgoyne at Albany. Burgoyne received his orders and began moving southward in June of 1777, but, through some mistake in London, General Howe never did receive his instructions to move up the Hudson.