Victory or Death

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Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.  Washington had crossed the Delaware River on the night of December 25 to attack Trenton. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Early on the morning of December 26, 1776, George Washington and his 2,400 man army went running into the Hessian occupied village of Trenton, New Jersey.  It was snowing hard that morning and the one American soldier recalled that “we advanced, and although there was not more than one bayonet to five men, orders were given to ‘Charge bayonets and rush on!’ And rush on we did.”

Washington at the battle of Trenton

The fighting in the village would last no more than hour, but it would still prove to be some tough, bitter, close quarters combat.  Washington had gambled everything in this move and made the password for this operation: “Victory or Death.”  The conduct of his troops fighting against the feared Hessians would determine if America was to be crushed under the British crown or be free.  With the stakes so high, Washington, himself, would be in some of the hottest parts of the battle.  Major George Johnston in the 5th Virginia Regiment remembered, “Our noble countryman . . . at the head of the Virginia brigades, exposed to the utmost danger, bid us follow.”

Near the beginning of the fighting, Washington’s men occupied a strategic position at the head of the town where the prominent King and Queen Streets intersected.  Colonel Henry Knox unlimbered 9 cannons here and began shelling the Hessians in town. “Here succeeded a scene of war of which I had often conceived but never saw before. The hurry, fright, and confusion of the enemy was [not] unlike that which will be when the last trump shall sound,” Knox remembered.

Contrary to popular belief, the Hessians were not drunk.  They were quite the opposite, exhausted from continuously reacting to alarms from small bands of militia in the New Jersey countryside.  They would fight at Trenton, but nonetheless were caught by surprise and overwhelmed by the American forces.

In some of the fiercest fighting near the Stacy Potts House in Trenton, two Americans were wounded: Captain William Washington (a distant cousin of the General) and a young lieutenant in the 3rd Virginia Regiment, fresh from his studies at the College of William and Mary, James Monroe.

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The Hessian’s commander, Colonel Johann Rall was mortally wounded with two musket balls in his side.  Around 9 in the morning, the remaining Hessians threw down their weapons and surrendered.

The Hessians suffered 22 men killed, 84 wounded, and 868 captured prisoners.  The Continental Army, on the other hand, lost two men who froze to death on the march to Trenton plus four men wounded in the course of the battle.  In addition to the nine hundred prisoners, the Continentals secured blankets, muskets, cannon, powder, food, and the musical instruments of the Hessian band. They also captured three prized sets of Hessian colors.  It was an unprecedented day in American military history and a victory necessary to continue the cause of American independence.

If you are near Trenton, New Jersey this week, be sure to visit and catch one of the many events happening as part of “Patriots Week.”  Included in the events is a reenactment of the battle of Trenton that occurs on the very same streets where the fighting actually happened in 1776.

To read more about this battle and this campaign, be sure to check out my new book: “Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton.”

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