The battle was going poorly for the Patriots. It was January 3, 1777 and after having been pinned against the banks of the Delaware River by a very large British army the day before, the Continental army made a risky night march around the British army’s flank to escape certain doom. General George Washington’s small ragged army had nearly reached the small village of Princeton, NJ when they noticed across some open fields British soldiers marching on a different road going the opposite way. The British soldiers were part of the larger army’s rearguard. The two forces immediately headed to clash in the open fields just south of the town. General Hugh Mercer led his Continental brigade to meet the British threat.
The morning was icy cold. The soldiers began the action in earnest. The British regulars made short work of Mercer’s brigade. After engaging in a firefight, the British lunged forward with a bayonet charge. The American troops were thrown back in confusion. General Mercer, thought by the British troops to be Washington, was surrounded and bayoneted seven times and left for dead. The fleeing men from Mercer’s brigade started to create a panic among other brigades in Washington’s army as they ran pell-mell through the reserves under General John Cadwalader. Many of Cadwalader’s men began to flee as well. At this moment, the victories at Trenton, the night march, and in many respects, the war itself, were all in the balance. If Washington’s small force were to be crushed here at Princeton, popular support for the Revolution could potentially be siphoned away, and the American cause could be lost. The stakes may have never been higher.
And it was at that moment when none other than General Washington arrived on the field personally. What an amazing sight it must have been to see. Washington, renowned as one of the country’s best horse riders, riding up to the front lines of battle to direct the movements of his men in a time period where generals of his rank were more properly positioned in the rear to direct movements. Washington saw the potential collapse and determined to personally appeal to the bravery of his men.
Washington also brought with him more troops that he immediately placed on the line. Then, as Continental artillery kept the British as bay, he rode into the panicking and retreating soldiers. Sergeant Nathaniel Root with the 20th Continental Regiment remembered this moment vividly: “At this moment Washington appeared in front of the American army, riding towards those of us who were retreating, and exclaimed, ‘Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.’” Inspired by his courage and reassured by his presence, the men halted their retreat and reformed their lines.
Washington then rode with the soldiers as he ordered an advance. The Continentals closed to within thirty yards of the British line. Washington, in the front line, gave the order to fire. At the same moment, the British soldiers unleashed a volley into the American line. Washington’s aides feared with the crossfire Washington would have assuredly been shot down, but he came through the smoke of battle unscathed. James Read, an officer with the Pennsylvania Associators remembered: “I shall never forget
what I felt at Princeton on his account, when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as if it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.”
The American line overlapped the British line, and the superior British soldiers were forced to retreat in the face of the American rebels. Washington spurred his horse after the retreating British exclaiming, “It is a fine fox hunt, my boys!”
After defeating the British at Princeton, the American army went into winter quarters in Morristown, NJ. The result of Washington’s brilliant victories at Trenton and Princeton was a huge boost to American morale. The militia in New Jersey rose up, enlistments in the army rose, and foreign powers took note as the vastly superior British army was forced back to the city of New York, showing they were unable to conquer New Jersey. The war would continue for another five bloody years, but Washington had saved the American Revolution from being killed in the crib.
The ground where this battle occurred truly should be remembered as some of America’s most hallowed ground. Some of it was saved and made into Princeton Battlefield State Park. To learn more about this momentous battle and the crucial ten day campaign it capped, check out one of the inaugural Emerging Revolutionary War books, “Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776 – January 3, 1777.”