December, 1776: Battle of Trenton Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the New York campaign of 1776, British redcoats inflicted a series of humiliating defeats on rebel forces. With his ragtag army demoralized and dwindling in number, General George Washington sought an opportunity to strike back. Intelligence reports showed that the dispersed British army was retiring to winter quarters. The Hessian soldiers at Trenton could not be easily reinforced, and the garrison’s commander failed to prepare its defenses. Washington therefore planned to lead 2,400 men across the Delaware River at McKonkey’s Ferry and march the nine miles to Trenton. Simultaneously, General James Ewing’s force would cross the river below the town, while Colonel John Cadwalader’s men would create a diversion at Bristol.

During the New York campaign of 1776, British redcoats inflicted a series of humiliating defeats on rebel forces. With his ragtag army demoralized and dwindling in number, General George Washington sought an opportunity to strike back. Intelligence reports showed that the dispersed British army was retiring to winter quarters. The Hessian soldiers at Trenton could not be easily reinforced, and the garrison’s commander failed to prepare its defenses. Washington therefore planned to lead 2,400 men across the Delaware River at McKonkey’s Ferry and march the nine miles to Trenton. Simultaneously, General James Ewing’s force would cross the river below the town, while Colonel John Cadwalader’s men would create a diversion at Bristol.

Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on his way to Trenton is one of the best-known pictures in American history. (National Archives)

During the night of December 25–26, Washington, his troops, and eighteen artillery pieces crossed the icy Delaware River. Heavy snow and ice prevented Ewing and Cadwalader from doing likewise. By 8:00 a.m., the continentals reached Trenton, pushed back enemy sentries, and stormed the town. Wet conditions silenced many American muskets, so artillery keyed the attack. Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall’s troops, recovering from a boisterous Christmas celebration, awoke to the sounds of battle and offered scattered resistance. The Hessian commander tried to rally his confused men, but by that time rebels had infiltrated the town with withering gunfire. Rall was fatally wounded. Leaderless and surrounded, the Hessians surrendered less than an hour after the fighting began.

Washington’s troops suffered 4 wounded, while inflicting 114 casualties, capturing 948 prisoners, and seizing six field pieces. The battle’s outcome severely compromised the redcoats’ image of invincibility, revitalized American support for the revolutionary cause, demonstrated the effectiveness of field artillery, and bolstered Washington’s reputation, which had suffered from the previous setbacks of 1776.

General Washington accepting the surrender of the Hessian troops after the Battle of Trenton. From an 1850 lithograph by Henry Hoff. (National Archives)

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