Take a walk up North Warren Street in Trenton, New Jersey, with a knowledgeable tour guide, and you can retrace the movements of Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army and his main line of attack against the German soldiers known as Hessians who were occupying the town in 1776.
That opportunity comes every year just after Christmas during Patriots Week, when Ralph Siegel, a Trenton-area historian who is also a licensed Civil War battlefield guide, serves as the narrator for a 10-block walk around town. He will tell you that what is now Warren Street was once King Street and what is now Broad Street was called Queen Street. With the exception of the Old Barracks Museum, almost all of the buildings standing during the time the battles were fought are gone. But the street patterns are much as they were in the 18th Century.
The tour begins on present-day Warren Street and extends up to an area known as the “Five Points” where Warren Street, Broad Street, Brunswick, Pennington and Princeton Avenues converge. This is the high point of town where Washington positioned his cannons and other artillery pieces, which proved to be decisive in the first Battle of Trenton. The battlefield walk then turns south down Broad Street and ends at Mill Hill Park near where the Second Battle of Trenton was fought.
“Having the high-ground in battle during that time was critically important,” Siegel explained during the 2017 tour, which took place on Dec. 27. “You also have to remember there was severe weather with sleet and snow and the muskets the German soldiers were using couldn’t fire, but Washington’s cannons could, and that turned out to make a critical difference.”
Historical records show Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 with 2,400 Continental soldiers, including two dozen Philadelphia Light Horsemen and 18 cannons, to confront about 1,500 Hessians armed with six cannons. The Hessians were under the command of Col. Johann Rall, who was fatally shot during the battle and remains buried at the First Presbyterian Church on East State Street with other Hessian soldiers.
Almost 900 Hessians were taken prisoner, 83 were wounded, and 22 were killed during the first Battle of Trenton. On the American side, two soldiers died from exposure, and five others were wounded, including Lt. James Monroe, the future president, and William Washington, the general’s cousin.
Washington’s Crossing marked the beginning of the 10 Crucial Days that turned the tide of the American Revolution. The Second Battle of Trenton, which is sometimes called the Battle of the Assunpink Creek, took place on Jan. 2, 1777, when British Gen. Charles Cornwallis marched about 5,000 of his men from Princeton down to Trenton to confront Washington who had re-crossed the Delaware after the first battle and placed his army of about 6,000 troops on the south side of the Assunpink Creek.
Cornwallis attempted to assault the American position three times across the Assunpink Creek Bridge, but the Americans repulsed the attacks each time with cannon and artillery fire. That night, Washington slipped behind Cornwallis’ position on densely wooded backroads that led into Quaker Bridge Road and, from there, into Princeton. It was Arthur St. Clair, an officer in the Continental Army, who recommended to Washington that it would be possible to move undetected onto the backroads and attack the British rear position in Princeton, according to Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.
“The Second Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton are inseparable because the Battle of Princeton really starts in Trenton,” Siegel said in an interview.
He expanded on this point in an email message:
In my opinion, the fight at the Assunpink Creek at nightfall Jan. 2 and the dawn Jan. 3 battle 12 miles away in Princeton are in the same sequence of events. One cannot be understood without the other. The Battle of Shiloh in the Civil War is understood as a single event despite occurring over two days: Confederate victory broken up by nightfall followed by Union counterattack. On Jan. 2-3, Washington avoided the head of the snake, swung around the flank and struck the tail of the same snake. In my opinion, it is three prongs of a single battle.
Although Cornwallis was somewhat outnumbered during the Second Battle of Trenton, he had troops that were “far superior to the Americans in terms training and armaments,” Jerry Hurwitz, president of the Princeton Battlefield Society, told me in a phone interview.
“Washington did not want to confront the full strength of the British army,” Hurwitz continued. “So, his approach was not to have a main battle, but to delay the British so that it would take all day for them to make their way down to Trenton.”
The key figure in this effort was Col. Edward Hand of the Pennsylvania Rife Regiment, who took command of American forces on the roadway south of Princeton in an area called Maidenhead, which is now Lawrenceville. Hand made his stand along creeks that cut near where Rider University and Notre Dame High School are now located.
“You have to remember that Jan. 2, 1777 was one of the shortest days of the year,” Hurwitz explained. “Every time [the] British would cross one of these creek areas, the Americans would force them to get out of their march and form into battle lines and all of this took time.”
That’s what Washington wanted, to delay and delay. The British did finally make it to Trenton, but it was not until near the end of the day. Washington was well prepared for a defensive battle with all his canons and fortifications. Cornwallis tried three times to make it across the bridge, but was repelled each time. In that era, it was very difficult to have night battles and Cornwallis thought he had Washington trapped on other side of the Assunpink so he waited till next day.
But, of course, Washington wouldn’t be there. He slipped behind Cornwallis at night to attack the rear of the British army in Princeton.
“It was a brilliant, Napoleonic maneuver,” Hurwitz said.
Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. who writes for several national publications.
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