The Patriot Resource - American Revolution

Battle of Trenton
Battle of Trenton

Appraising the Situation: December 13-December 25, 1776
As Maj. General William Howe entered winter quarters on December 13, 1776, Lt. General Charles Cornwallis now received permission to halt his advance at the Delaware River. Howe, supported by Maj. General Henry Clinton, wanted to pull his line of defense to between Brunswick and Newark. However, Cornwallis convinced Howe to extend the lines for several reasons. Tthe Americans were considered a minimal threat to the distant garrisons and lines of communication. Pulling back would make the British appear weak and unable to maintain positions. Such a move would also deprive New Jersey Loyalists of military protection during the winter.

As the British Army settled in for the winter, garrisons of Hessians were established at Burlington and another at Trenton under Colonel Johann Rall. Garrisons of British troops were established at Bordentown, Pennington, Perth Amboy and Princeton, while Cornwallis set up his base of operations at Brunswick, twenty-five miles behind the forward garrisons. Meanwhile, General George Washington's army was receiving a boost with new arrivals. Pennsylvania and Maryland militia under Colonel John Cadwalader and Colonel Nicholas Haussegger had begun to arrive on December 5 and continued to stream in.

On December 20, 1776, Maj. General John Sullivan arrived in command of the remaining 2,000 men from the 5,000 that had been under Maj. General Charles Lee's command untl his capture. On the same day, Maj. General Horatio Gates arrived 800 men set down from Fort Ticonderoga by Northern Department Commander Maj. General Philip Schuyler. Even though the New Jersey militia had not come to General Washington's call, they were carrying out their own campaign. They had remained near their homes to protect them from the British and especially the Hessian troops, who had quickly developed a reputation among the rebels for brutality and theft. The militia were soon taking advantage of the stretched British lines across New Jersey by carrying out regular raids on British patrols, stealing supplies and interfering with communications.

On December 22, 1776, General Washington had about 6,000 men listed in his roles having lost men on November 30 when their enlistments ran out. Of those, about 4,700 were fit for duty. His fall campaign had been little more than a series of retreats and morale was very low with the successive defeats and the loss of New York City. On December 31, more enlistments would run out and reduce his force to under 1,500 men. Winter was coming fast and the British would be able to continue their pursuit once the Delaware River froze over.

General Washington decided to attack the unsuspecting British forces who had entered winter quarters and were celebrating the holidays. He hoped to salvage a victory at the end of a disappointing campaign. He first wanted to attack the Hessians at Bordentown, but the local militia in that area was too weak to offer support. He then chose the isolated Hessian garrison under the command of Colonel Johann Rall. Rall had not heeded orders to build fortifications and send out patrols. Even though he was a skilled soldier and able commander, Rall had a low estimation of the rebels, calling them "country clowns." Washington planned for for an early morning attack on December 26. He knew the Hessians would heartily celebrate Christmas on the evening of December 25, so he meant to attack when they were tired and probably hungover.

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