The Life of George Washington By David Ramsay Chapter Three
Chapter Three: The Campaign of 1776
The evacuation of Boston varied the scene, but did not lessen the labours of Washington. Henceforward he had a much more formidable enemy to contend with. The royal army in Boston was, on a small scale, calculated to awe the inhabitants of Massachusetts into obedience, but the campaign of 1776 was opened in New-York with a force far exceeding any thing hitherto seen in America. Including the navy and army, it amounted to 55,000 men and was calculated on the idea of reducing the whole United Colonies.
The operations contemplated could be best carried on from the nearly central province of New-York, and the army could be supplied with provisions from the adjacent islands, and easily defended by the British navy. For these reasons, the evacuation of Boston, and the concentration of the royal forces at New-York, had been for some time resolved upon in England.
The reasons that induced the British to gain possession of New-York, weighed with Washington to prevent or delay it. He had therefore detached largely from his army before Boston, and sent Gen. Lee to take the command, and after providing for the security of Boston, proceeded soon after the evacuation thereof with the main army to New-York, and made every preparation in his power for its defence. Considerable time was allowed for this purpose; for Gen. Howe, instead of pushing directly for New-York, retired to Halifax with the forces withdrawn from Boston. He there waited for the promised reinforcements from England; but, impatient of delay, sailed without them for New-York, and took possession of Staten Island in the latter end of June.
He was soon followed by his brother, Admiral Howe, and their whole force was assembled about the middle of July, and in apparent readiness for opening the campaign. Before hostilities were commenced, the British General and Admiral, in their quality of civil commissioners for effecting a re-union between Great Britain and the Colonies, made an attempt at negotiation. To introduce this business, they sent a flag ashore with a letter addressed to George Washington, Esq. This he refused to receive, as not being addressed to him with the title due to his rank, and at the same time wrote to Congress, "That he would not, on any occasion, sacrifice essentials to punctilio, but in this instance, deemed it a duty to his country to insist on that respect which, in any other than a public view, he would willingly have waved."
Some time after, Adjutant General Patterson was sent by Gen. Howe with a letter addressed to George Washington, &c.&c.&c. On an interview, the Adjutant General, after expressing his high esteem for the person and character of the American General, and declaring that it was not intended to derogate from the respect due to his rank, expressed his hopes, that the et ceteras would remove the impediments to their correspondence. Gen. Washington replied, "That a letter directed to any person in a public character, should have some description of it, otherwise it would appear a mere private letter; that it was true the et ceteras implied every thing, but they also implied any thing, and that he should therefore decline the receiving any letter directed to him as a private person, when it related to his private station."
A long conference ensued, in which the Adjutant General observed that "the Commissioners were armed with great powers, and would be very happy in effecting an accommodation." He received for answer, "that from what appeared, their powers were only to grant pardons; that they who had committed no fault wanted no pardon."
On the arrival of Gen. Howe at Staten Island, the American army did not exceed 10,000 men, but by sundry reinforcements before the end of August, they amounted to 27,000. Of these a great part were militia, and one-fourth of the whole was sick. The diseases incident to new troops prevailed extensively, and were aggravated by a great deficiency in tents. These troops were so judiciously distributed on York Island, Long Island, Governor's Island, Paulus Hook, and on the Sound towards New Rochelle, East and West Chester, that the enemy were very cautious in determining when or where to commence offensive operations. Every probable point of debarkation was watched, and guarded with a force sufficient to embarrass, though very insufficient to prevent, a landing.
From the arrival of the British army at Staten Island, the Americans were in daily expectation of being attacked. General Washington was therefore strenuous in preparing his troops for action. He tried every expedient to kindle in their breasts the love of their country, an high toned indignation against its invaders. In general orders he addressed them as follows: "The time is now near at hand, which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness, from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the conduct and courage of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy, leaves us only the choice of a brave resistance, or the most abject submission.
"We have therefore to resolve to conquer or to die. Our own, our country's honor, calls upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion; and if we now shameful fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us then rely on the goodness of our cause, and the aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions. The eyes of all our countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the tyranny mediated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a freeman contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth."
When the whole reinforcements of the enemy had arrived, Gen. Washington, in expectation of an immediate attack, again addressed his army, and called on them to remember that :liberty, property, life, and honour, were all at stake; that upon their courage and conduct, rested the hopes of their bleeding and insulted country; that their wives, children, and parents, expected safety from them only; and that they had every reason to believe that Heaven would crown with success so just a cause."
He further added-- "The enemy will endeavor to intimidate by show and appearance, but remember they have been repulsed on various occasions by a few brave Americans. Their cause is bad-- their men are conscious of it, and if opposed with firmness and coolness on their first onset, with our advantage of works, and knowledge of the ground, the victory is most assuredly ours. Every good soldier will be silent and attentive-- wait for orders-- and reserve his fire until he is sure of doing execution: of this the officers are to be particularly careful."
He then gave the most explicit orders that any soldier who should attempt to conceal himself, or retreat without orders, should instantly be shot down, as an example of the punishment of cowardice, and desired every officer to be particularly attentive to the conduct of his men, and report those who should distinguish themselves by brave and noble actions. These he solemnly promised to notice and reward.
On the 22d of August, the greatest part of the British troops landed on Long Island. Washington immediately made a farther effort to rouse his troops to deeds of valour. "The enemy," said he,"have landed, and the hour is fast approaching on which the honour and success of this army, and the safety of our bleeding country, depends. Remember, officers and soldiers, that you are freemen, fighting for the blessings of Liberty; that slavery will be your portion and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men. Remember how your courage has been despised and traduced by your cruel invaders, though they have found by dear experience at Boston, Charles-town, and other places, what a few brave men, contending in their own land, and in the best of causes, can do against hirelings and mercenaries. Be cool, but determined. Do not fire at a distance, but wait for orders from your officers."
He repeated his injunctions, "to shoot down any person who should misbehave in action," and his hope "that none so infamous would be found, but that, on the contrary, each for himself resolving to conquer or die, and trusting to the smiles of heaven on so just a cause, would behave with bravery and resolution."
His assurance of rewards to those who should distinguish themselves, were repeated; and he declared his confidence, that if the army would but emulate and imitate their brave countrymen in other parts of America, they would, by a glorious victory, save their country, and acquire to themselves immortal honour."
On the 5th day after their landing, the British attacked the Americans on Long Island, commanded by Gen. Sullivan. The variety of ground and the different parties employed in different places, both in the attack and defence, occasioned a succession of small engagements, pursuits, and slaughter, which lasted for many hours.
The Americans were defeated in all directions. The circumstances which eminently contributed to this, were the superior discipline of the assailants, and the want of early intelligence of their movements. There was not a single corps of Cavalry in the American army. The transmission of intelligence was of course always slow, and often impracticable. From the want of it, some of their detachments, while retreating before one portion of the enemy, were advancing towards another, of whose movements they were ignorant.
In the height of the engagement Washington passed over to Long Island, and with infinite regret saw the slaughter of his best troops, but had not the power to prevent it; for had he drawn his whole force to their support, he must have risked every thing on a single engagement. He adopted the wiser plan of evacuating the island, with all the forces he could bring off. In superintending this necessary, but difficult and dangerous movement, and the events of the preceding day, Washington was indefatigable. For forty-eight hours he never closed his eyes, and was almost constantly on horse-back. In less than thirteen hours, the field artillery, tents, baggage, and about 9000 men, were conveyed from Long Island to the city of New-York, over East River, and without the knowledge of the British, though not 600 yards distant. The darkness of the night and a heavy fog in the morning, together with a fair wind after midnight, favoured this retreat. It was completed without interruption some time after the dawning of the day.
The unsuccessful termination of the late action, led to consequences more seriously alarming to the Americans, than the loss of their men. Hitherto they had had such confidence in themselves, as engaged in the cause of liberty and their country, that it outweighed all their apprehensions from the exact discipline of the British troops; but now finding that many of them had been encircled in inextricable difficulties from the superior military skill of their adversaries, they went to the opposite extreme, and began to think but very indifferently of themselves and their leaders, when opposed to disciplined troops. As often as they saw the enemy approaching, they suspected a military maneuvre, from which they supposed nothing could save them but immediate flight. Apprehensions of this kind might naturally be expected from citizen soldiers, lately taken from agricultural pursuits, who expected to lay aside the military character at the end of the current year.
Washington, tremblingly alive to the state of his army, wrote to Congress on the sixth day after the defeat on Long Island, as follows: "Our situation is truly distressing. The check our detachment lately sustained has dispirited too great a proportion of our troops, and filled their minds with apprehension and despair. The militia, instead of calling forth their utmost efforts to a brave and manly opposition, in order to repair our losses, are dismayed, intractable, and impatient to return. Great numbers of them have gone off; in some instances, almost by whole regiments, in many by half ones, and by companies at a time. The circumstance of itself, independent of others, when fronted by a well appointed enemy, superior in number to our whole collected force, would be sufficiently disagreeable; but when it is added, that their example has infected another part of the army; that their want of discipline and refusal of almost every kind of restraint and government, have rendered a like conduct but too common in the whole, and have produced an entire disregard of that order and subordination which is necessary for an army, our condition is still more alarming; and with the deepest concern I am obliged to confess my want of confidence in the generality of the troops.
"All these circumstances fully confirm the opinion I ever entertained, and which I more than once in my letters took the liberty of mentioning to Congress, that no dependence could be put in a militia, or other troops than those enlisted and embodied for a longer period than our regulations have hitherto prescribed. I am fully convinced that our liberties must of necessity be greatly hazarded, if not entirely lost, if their defence be left to any but a permanent army.
"Nor would the expense incident to the support of such a body of troops as would be competent to every exigency, far exceed that which is incurred by calling in daily succours and new enlistments, which, when effected, are not attended with any good consequences. Men who have been free and subject to no control, cannot be reduced to order in an instant; and the privileges and exemptions they claim, and will have, influence the conduct of others in such a manner, that the aid derived from them is nearly counterbalanced by the disorder, irregularity, and confusion they occasion."
In fourteen days after this serious remonstrance, Congress resolved to raise 88 battalions to serve during the war. Under these circumstances, to wear away the campaign with as little loss as possible, so as to gain time to raise a permanent army against the next year, was to the Americans an object of the greatest importance.
Gen. Washington, after much deliberation, determined on a war of posts. Recent events confirmed him in the policy of defending his country by retreating, when he could no longer stand his ground without risking his army. He well knew that by adopting it he would subject himself to the imputation of wanting energy and decision; but with him the love of country was paramount to all other considerations.
In conformity to these principles, the evacuation of New-York was about this time resolved upon, whensoever it could no longer be maintained without risking the army. Arrangements were accordingly made for a temporary defence, and an ultimate retreat when necessity required. The British, now in possession of Long Island, could at pleasure pass over to York Island or the main. Washington was apprehensive that they would land above him, cut off his retreat, and force him to a general action on York Island. He therefore moved his public stores to Dobbs' ferry, and stationed 12,000 men at the northern end of York Island. With the remainder he kept up the semblance of defending New-York, though he had determined to abandon it, rather than risk his army for its preservation.
While Washington was making arrangements to save his troops and stores by evacuating and retreating, the British commander was prosecuting his favourite scheme of forcing the Americans to a general action, or breaking the communication between their posts. With this view he landed about 4000 men at Kipp's Bay, three miles above New-York, under cover of five men of war. Works had been thrown up at this place, which were capable of being defended for some time, and troops were stationed in them for that purpose; but they fled with precipitation without waiting for the approach of the enemy. Two brigades were put in motion to support them. Gen. Washington rode to the scene of action, and to his great mortification met the whole party retreating. While he was exerting himself to rally them, on the appearance of a small corps of the enemy, they again broke, and ran off in disorder.
Such dastardly conduct raised a tempest in the usually tranquil mind of Gen. Washington. Having embarked in the American cause from the purest principles, he viewed with infinite concern this shameful behaviour, as threatening ruin to his country. He recollected the many declarations of Congress, of the army, and of the inhabitants, preferring liberty to life, and death to dishonour, and contrasted them with their present scandalous flight. His soul was harrowed up with apprehensions that his country would be conquered, her army disgraced, and her liberties destroyed. He anticipated, in imagination, that the Americans would appear to posterity in the light of high sounding boasters, who blustered when danger was at a distance, but shrunk at the shadow of opposition.
Extensive confiscations, and numerous attainders, presented themselves in full view to his agitated mind. He saw in imagination new formed states, with the means of defence in their hands, and the glorious prospects of liberty before them, levelled to the dust; and such constitutions imposed on them, as were likely to crush the vigor of the human mind; while the unsuccessful issue of the present struggle would, for ages to come, deter posterity from the bold design of asserting their rights. Impressed with these ideas, he hazarded his person for some for considerable time in rear of his own men, and in front of the enemy, with his horse's head towards the latter, as if in expectation that, by an honourable death, he might escape the infamy he dreaded from the dastardly conduct of troops on whom he could place no dependence. His aids, and the confidential friends around his person, by indirect violence, compelled him to retire. In consequences of their address and importunity, a life was saved for public service, which, otherwise, from a sense of honour and a gust of passion, seemed to be devoted to almost certain destruction.
The shameful events of this day, hastened the evacuation of New-York. This was effected with very little loss of men, but all the heavy artillery and a large portion of the baggage, provisions, military stores, and particularly the tents, were unavoidably left behind. The loss of the last mentioned article was severely felt in that season, when cold weather was rapidly approaching.
The British having got possession of the city of New York, advanced in front of it, and stretched their encampments across York Island; while their shipping defended their flanks. Washington had made his strongest post at Kingsbridge, as that preserved his communication with the country. In front of this, and near to the British, he had a strong detachment posted in an entrenched camp. This position of the two armies was particularly agreeable to him; for he wished to accustom his raw troops to face their enemies, hoping that by frequent skirmishes they would grow so familiar with the dangers incident to war, as to fear them less.
Opportunities of making the experiment soon occurred. On the day after the retreat from New-York, a skirmish took place between an advanced detachment of the British army and some American troops, commanded by Col. Knowlton, of Connecticut, and Major Leitch, of Virginia. Both these officers fell, bravely fighting at the head of their troops. The Captains with their men kept the ground, and fairly beat their adversaries from the field. This was the first advantage the army under the command of Washington had gained in the campaign. Its influence on the army was great. To increase its effects, the parole the next day was "Leitch," and the General gave public thanks to the troops engaged therein. He contrasted their conduct with the late shameful flight of the troops from the works on Kipp's Bay, and observed-- "That the result proved what might be done, where officers and men exerted themselves;" and again called on all "so to act as not to disgrace the noble cause in which they were engaged."
General Howe continued to prosecute his scheme for cutting off Washington's communication with the eastern states, and enclosing him so as to compel a general engagement. With this view the royal army landed on Frog's Neck in West-Chester county, and soon after advanced to New Rochelle, and made sundry successive movements, all calculated to effect this purpose.
A few skirmishes took place, but a general action was carefully avoided by Washington, except in one case, in which he had such a manifest advantage from his position on hills near the White Plains, that Gen. Howe declined it. The project of getting in the rear of the American army was in like manner frustrated by frequent and judicious changes of its position. Gen. Howe failing in his first design, adopted a new plan of operations. His efforts were henceforward directed to an invasion of New Jersey. Washington, penetrating his designs, crossed the North River. He wrote to William Livingston, governor of New Jersey, urging him to put the militia of that State in the best state of preparation to defend their country, and also recommending the removal of stock and provisions from the sea coast.
About this time Fort Washington was taken by storm, and the garrison, consisting of more than 2000 men, with their commander, Col. Magaw, surrendered prisoners of war. This was the only post held by the Americans on York Island; and was exception to the general plan of evacuating and retreating. Hopes had been indulged that it might be defended, and, in conjunction with Fort Lee, on the opposite Jersey shore, made useful in embarrassing the passage of British vessels up and down the North River. This post having fallen, orders for the evacuation of Fort Lee were immediately given; But before the stores could be removed, Lord Cornwallis crossed the North River with 6000 men. Washington, retreating before him, took post along the Hackensack.
His situation there was nearly similar to that which he had abandoned; for he was liable to be enclosed between the Hackensack and the Pasaic rivers. He therefore, on the approach of the enemy, passed over to Newark. He stood his ground there for some days, as if determined on resistance; but being incapable of any effectual opposition, retreated to Brunswick, on the day Lord Cornwallis entered Newark.
At Brunswick Washington kept his troops in motion, and even advanced a small detachment, as if intending to engage the enemy. Nor did he quit this position till their advanced guards were in sight. Lord Stirling was left at Princeton with 1200 men, to watch the British; and Washington proceeded with the residue to Trenton. There he meant to make a stand.
Orders were previously given to collect and guard all the boats for 70 miles on the Delaware. The baggage and stores were also passed over. These being secured, Washington detached 1200 men to Princeton, to keep up the appearance of opposition, and soon followed with about 2000 militia men who had recently joined him. Before he reached Princeton, intelligence was received that Lord Cornwallis, strongly reinforced, was advancing from Brunswick in different directions, with the apparent design of getting in his rear. An immediate retreat over the Delaware became necessary. This was effected on the 8th of December.
Washington secured all his boats on the Pennsylvania side; broke down the bridges on roads leading to the opposite shores, and posted his troops at the different fording places. So keen was the pursuit, that as the rear guard of the retreating army embarked, the van of the enemy came in sight.
The British having driven the American army out of Jersey, posted themselves up and down the Delaware, and small parties passed and repassed from one to the other, without any interruption. They made some attempts to get boats, but failed. They also repaired some of the bridges that had been recently destroyed, and pushed forward a strong detachment to Bordenton. This was intended to increase their chances for crossing, and to embarrass Washington, who could not tell from which of their several positions they would make the attempt.
Gen. Putnam was in the meantime sent on to superintend the erection of lines of defence from the Schuylkill to the Delaware, for the security of Philadelphia. Small redoubts were hastily thrown up to guard the fording places; and Germantown was fixed upon as a place of rendezvous, in case the British should cross and drive the Americans from their extended encampments on the Delaware.
This retreat through the Jerseys was attended with almost every circumstance that could occasion embarrassment or depression. Washington was pressed with difficulties on all sides. In casting his eyes around, he could not promise himself adequate support from any quarter. His gloomy prospects were not brightened by any expectations, on the fulfillment of which he could depend. Distrusting, but not despairing, he asked Col. Reed-- "Should we retreat to the back parts of Pennsylvania, will the Pennsylvanians support us?"
The Colonel answered-- "If the lower counties are subdued and give up, the back counties will do the same."
Washington nobly replied-- "We must retire to Augusta county, in Virginia. Numbers will be obliged to repair to us for safety, and we must try what we can do, in carrying on a predatory war; and if overpowered, we must cross the Alleghany mountains."
Gen. Washington had no cavalry but a small corps of badly mounted Connecticut militia, and was almost equally destitute of artillery, while conducting this retreat. It commenced in a few days after the reduction of Fort Washington, in which the flower of the American army were made prisoners of war. A great part of the retreating troops consisted of those who had garrisoned Fort Lee. These had been compelled to abandon their post so suddenly, that they left behind them their tents, blankets, and cooking utensils.
In this situation they retreated, badly armed, worse clad, and in many instances barefooted, in the cold months of November and December, through a desponding country, more disposed to seek safety by submission than resistance. Under all these disadvantages, they performed a march of about ninety miles, and had the address to prolong it to a space of nineteen days, that as much time as possible might be gained for expected reinforcements to arrive. As they retreated through the country, scarcely one of the inhabitants joined them; while numbers daily flocked to the British army, and took the benefit of a royal proclamation issued at this critical time, for pardoning all who, within sixty days, would return to the condition of British subjects.
The small force which began this retreat was daily lessening, by the expiration of the term of service for which they were engaged. This terminated in November with many, and in December with nearly two-thirds of the residue. No persuasions were availing to induce their continuance. They abandoned their General, when the advancing enemy was nearly in sight. The Pennsylvania militia was engaged to the first day of January, but they deserted in such numbers that it became necessary to place guards at the ferries to stop them.
Two regiments had been ordered from Ticonderoga to join Gen. Washington, but their term of service expired on the first of December. They refused to re-enlist, and went off, to a man. Gen. Lee, who commanded the eastern troops, was repeatedly ordered by Washington to cross the North River, and join the retreating army; but these orders were not obeyed. While at a distance both from his troops and the enemy, he was surpassed and taken prisoner by the British.
This begat suspicions, that. despairing of the success of the Americans, he had chosen to abandon their service. Though these apprehensions were without foundation, they produced the same mischievous effects on the minds of the people as if they were realities. About the same time Congress thought it expedient to leave Philadelphia and retire to Baltimore.
Under all these trying circumstances, Washington was undismayed. He did not despair of the public safety. With unconquerable firmness and the most perfect self-possession, he was always the same, and constantly showed himself to his army with a serene and undisturbed countenance. Nothing was omitted by him that could embarrass the enemy, or animate his army or country. He forcibly pointed out to Congress the defective constitution of their army, without cavalry, without artillery and engineers; and enlarged upon the impolicy of short enlistments, and placing confidence in militia suddenly called out and frequently changed. He urged these matters with great warmth; but to prevent offence, added-- "A character to lose-- an estate to forfeit-- the inestimable blessing of liberty at stake-- and a life devoted, must be my excuse."
He also hinted at the propriety of enlarging his powers so as to enable him to act in cases of urgency, without application to Congress; but apologized for this liberty by declaring, "that he felt no lust of power, and wished with the greatest fervency for an opportunity of turning the sword into a ploughshare:" but added-- "his feelings as an officer and a man had been such as to force him to say, that no person ever had a greater choice of difficulties to contend with than himself."
In this very dangerous crisis, Washington made every exertion to procure reinforcements to supply the place of those who were daily leaving him. He sent Generals Mifflin and Armstrong to rouse the citizens of Pennsylvania. Col. Reed was dispatched to Governor Livingston, to urge on him the necessity of calling out the Jersey militia. These exertions were in a great measure unavailing, except in and near the city of Philadelphia. Fifteen hundred of the citizens of that metropolis associated together, and marched to the aid of Washington. Though most of these were accustomed to the habits of a city life, they slept in tents, barns, and sometimes in the open air, during the cold months of December and January.
On the capture of Gen. Lee, the command of his army devolved on Gen. Sullivan, who, in obedience to the orders formerly given, joined Gen. Washington. About the same time an addition was made to his force by the arrival of a part of the northern army. The Americans now amounted to about 7000 men, though during the retreat through the Jerseys, they were seldom equal to half that number. The two armies were separated from each other by the river Delaware. The British, in the security of conquest, cantoned their troops in Burlington, Bordenton, Trenton, and other towns of New-Jersey, in daily expectation of being enabled to cross into Pennsylvania by means of ice, which is generally formed about that time.
On receiving information of their numbers and different cantonments, Washington observed-- "Now is the time to clip their wings, when they are so spread." Yielding to his native spirit of enterprise which had hitherto been repressed, he formed the bold design of re-crossing the Delaware, and attacking the British posts on its eastern banks.
In the evening of Christmas day he made arrangements for passing over in three divisions; at M'Konkey's ferry, at Trenton, and at or near Bordentown. The troops which were to have crossed at the two last places exerted themselves to get over, but failed from the quantity of ice which obstructed their passage. The main body, about 2400 men, began to cross very early in the evening; but were so retarded by ice that it was nearly four o'clock in the morning before they were in a condition to take up their line of march on the Jersey side.
They were formed in two divisions. One was ordered to proceed on the lower or river road; the other on the upper or Pennington road. These having nearly the same distance to march, were ordered immediately on forcing the out guards, to push directly into Trenton, that they might charge the enemy before they had time to form. Though they marched different roads, yet they arrived within three minutes of each other. The out guards of the Hessian troops at Trenton soon fell back; but kept up a constant retreating fire. Their main body being hard pressed by the Americans, who had already got possession of half their artillery, attempted to file off by a road leading towards Princeton, but were checked by a body of troops thrown in their way. Finding they were surrounded, they laid down their arms.
The number that submitted was 23 officers and 886 men. Between 30 and 40 of the Hessians were killed and wounded. Col. Rahl was among the former, and seven of his officers among the latter. Captain Washington, of the Virginia troops, and five or six of the Americans, were wounded. Two were killed, and two or three were frozen to death. The detachment in Trenton consisted of the regiments of Rahl, Losberg, and Kniphausen, amounting in the whole to about 1500 men, and a troop of British light horse. All these were killed or captured, except about 600, who escaped by the road leading to Bordenton.
The British had a strong battalion of light infantry at Princeton, and a force yet remaining near the Delaware, superior to the American army. Washington, therefore, in the evening of the same day, thought it most prudent to cross into Pennsylvania with his prisoners. These being secured, he recrossed the Delaware, and took possession of Trenton. The detachments which had been distributed over New-Jersey previous to the capture of the Hessians, immediately after that event assembled at Princeton, and were joined by the army from Brunswick under Lord Cornwallis. From this position they came forward to Trenton in great force, hoping, by a vigorous onset, to repair the injury their cause had sustained by the late defeat.
Truly delicate was the situation of the feeble American army. To retreat was to hazard the city of Philadelphia, and to destroy every ray of hope which began to dawn from their late success. To risk an action with a superior force in front, and a river in rear, was dangerous in the extreme. To get round the advanced party of the British, and, by pushing forwards, to attack in their rear, was deemed preferable to either.
The British, on their advance from Princeton, attacked a body of Americans which were posted with four field pieces a little to the northward of Trenton, and compelled them to retreat. The pursuing British being checked at the bridge over Sanpink creek by some field pieces, fell back so far as to be out of their reach. The Americans were drawn up on the opposite side of the creek, and in that position remained till night, cannonading the enemy and receiving their fire.
In this critical hour, two armies, on which the success or failure of the American revolution materially depended, were crowded into the small village of Trenton, and only separated by a creek, in many places fordable.
The British, believing they had all the advantages they could wish for, and that they could use them when they pleased, discontinued all farther operations, and kept themselves in readiness to make the attack next morning. But the next morning presented a scene as brilliant on the one side, as it was unexpected on the other. Soon after it became dark, Washington ordered all his baggage to be silently removed, and having left guards for the purpose of deception, marched with his whole force by a circuitous route to Princeton. This maneuvre was determined upon in a council of war, from a conviction that it would avoid the appearance of a retreat, and at the same time the hazard of an action in a bad position, and that it was the most likely way to preserve the city of Philadelphia from falling into the hands of the British.
Washington also presumed, that, from an eagerness to efface the impressions made by the late capture of the Hessians at Trenton, the British commanders had pushed forward their principal force; and that the remainder in the rear at Princeton, was not more than equal to his own. The event more than verified this conjecture. The more effectually to disguise the departure of the Americans from Trenton, fires were lighted up in front of their camp. These not only gave the appearance of going to rest, but, as flame cannot be seen through, concealed from the British what was transacting behind them. In this relative position they were a pillar of fire to the one army, and the pillar of a cloud to the other.
Providence favoured this movement of the Americans. The weather had been for some time so warm and moist that the ground was soft, and the roads so deep as to be scarcely passable; but the wind suddenly changed to the northwest, and the ground in a short time was frozen so hard that when the Americans took up their line of march, they were no more retarded than if they had been upon a solid pavement.
Washington reached Princeton early in the morning, and would have completely surprised the British, had not a party which was on their way to Trenton descried his troops when they were about two miles distant, and sent back couriers to alarm their unsuspecting soldiers in their rear. These consisted of the 17th, the 40th, and 55th regiments of British infantry, and some of the royal artillery, with two field pieces, and three troops of light dragoons. The centre of the Americans, consisting of the Philadelphia militia, while on their line of march, was briskly charged by a party of the British, and gave way in disorder.
The moment was critical. Washington pushed forward, and placed himself between his own men and the British, with his horse's head fronting the latter. The Americans, encouraged by his example and exhortations, made a stand, and returned the British fire. The General, though between both parties, was providentially uninjured by either. A party of the British fled into the college, and were there attacked with field pieces, which were fired into it. The seat of the muses became for some time the scene of action.
The party which had taken refuge in the college, after receiving a few discharges from the American field pieces, came out and surrendered themselves prisoners of war. In the course of the engagement sixty of the British were killed, and a great number wounded, and about 300 of them taken prisoners. The rest made their escape, some by pushing on to Trenton; others by returning to Brunswick.
While they were fighting in Princeton, the British in Trenton were under arms, and on the point of making an assault on the evacuated camp of the Americans. With so much address had the movement to Princeton been conducted, that though from the critical situation of the two armies every ear may be supposed to have been open, and every watchfulness to have been employed, yet Washington moved completely off the ground with his whole force, stores, baggage, and artillery, unknown to and unsuspected by his adversaries. The British in Trenton were so entirely deceived, that when they heard the report of the artillery at Princeton, though it was in the depth of winter, they supposed it to be thunder.
The British, astonished at these bold movements of an enemy supposed to be vanquished, instantly fell back with their whole force, and abandoned every post they held to the southward of New-York, except Brunswick and Amboy.
End of Chapter Three. Continue to Chapter Four of The Life of Washington