The first of three Artillery Engagements at the Battle of Trenton: December 26, 1776

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William M. Welsch.

Part I

1770 drawing of Hessian three-pounder barrel
(Drawing of Hessian three-pounder gun, dated 1770, at Kriegskarten from Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg, Germany at http://www.digam.net/?str=177)

The Rall Artillery Detachment:

It is well known that the Battle of Trenton saved the American Revolution from defeat. What is not well known is the story of two of the three Hessian artillery detachments and the description of their field guns. This series of articles tells the story of the three Hessian artillery engagements at the First Battle of Trenton. These three fights largely determined the victory for the patriots.

The field guns used by the patriots in the artillery engagement at Trenton were fairly well documented. The Patriots used British Armstrong design M1736 six-pounders, British commercial iron four-pounder barrels on Patriot designed carriages, and the Common Pattern British designed three-pounders (looked like scaled down six-pounders).

The Hessian three-pounder field guns were primarily designed to be beautiful, symmetric and fill both the roles of field (light) artillery and garrison (medium) artillery. The “brass” barrel was one caliber (caliber was equal to 3.01 English inch) thick at the breech, one half caliber thick at the muzzle, and was twenty calibers long from breech ring to muzzle. This symmetry came at a price, namely, the barrel alone weighted over 700 pounds. As a comparison, the 1776 designed British Congreve three-pounder barrel had a weight of 212 pounds and was 12.4 calibers long while the “Common” pattern three-pounder barrel used by the Patriots was 287 pounds and 14.5 calibers long.[i] This flaw in the Hessian guns concerning the weight required four horses to pull each gun and made each gun more vulnerable to sinking in mud. Field guns were supposed to be” light,” something these Hessian guns were not.

The carriage iron work and spokes in the wheels were possibly painted red while the rest of the wood was painted white – the colors of Hesse-Kessel. In 1754 the field guns were painted these colors, and by 1800 the colors on the artillery changed to Prussian blue on the wood with the iron painted black, but it is not known when the colors were changed. The wheels had a diameter of 48 English inches.

The Hessian artillery at Trenton was divided into three two-gun detachments and each detachment averaged about 20 men and eight horses (exclusive of commissioned officers and ammunition wagons). Each detachment reported to an assigned regiment for tactical orders. The artillery men and horses were quartered together in Trenton for administrative and supply purposes and centered around the Methodist church, with the men in each detachment in its own house nearby.

Lieutenant Johannes Engelhardt was about 22 years old with almost one year of experience as a soldier and it was his detachment that was assigned to the Rall Regiment. At about 8:00 am on December 26 and with the distant sound of musket fire, cannon fire, and the beating of the kettle drums in town serving as the alarm, Lieutenant Jakob Piel, brigade adjutant, “ordered the artillery men belonging to the detached cannon also to go with the cannon to their regiment.”[ii] Obeying those orders, Lt. Engelhardt assembled his two field gun crews with their respective two teams of four horses. The horses were kept in harness so it was only necessary to hitch up the horses to the two designated limbers.

The teams and harness were at the Methodist log church built in 1772 on Queen Street and Fourth Street and very close to Church alley. The detachment likely formed in front of the church and went by way of Church alley to King Street where, across the street, his two three-pounder field guns were located. The Rall guns were at the alarm/chief guard house about 50 paces south from the Hessian headquarters. Engelhardt’s detachment limbered the guns and waited for orders from Colonel Rall. Eventually Col. Rall came out and said, “My God, Lt. Engelhardt, the detachment and pickets are already back, take the cannon forward.”[iii] The two guns headed north up King Street. The map below shows Trenton as it was with the buildings noted.[iv]

The guns did not go very far. Just after crossing the Petty’s Run bridge on King Street, they discovered that Patriot cannon were already in battery and firing from both straight ahead on King Street and across the fields at an angle NW from the Hessian position. Unlike any experience from his past, Lt. Engelhardt realized it was the Patriots who had the upper hand.

On the Patriot side. Captain-Lieutenant Forest led his two guns and two howitzers on the Pennington road and eventually stopped at the north end of Queen Street. Forest needed to link up with his assigned brigades (de Fermoy’s and Stephen’s). He was not involved in this first engagement. Behind Forest on the road came Captain Bauman with three three-pounders. His task was to provide flank protection to Mercer’s brigade. As Mercer formed his column into line to attack Trenton from the west, Bauman moved his three-pounder guns off Pennington road and onto a ridgeline, finding a position to both fire into the town and provide the flank protection for Mercer. (It is noteworthy that all three Hessian maps made describing the Trenton battle show Bauman’s gun position.) The patriot artillery was close together on the Pennington road because the infantry in this division had moved cross-country in column formation to their assigned positions.

Patriot Captain Alexander Hamilton might have thought he would not be used because of his being assigned to the reserve brigade and last in the artillery column on the road, but it turns out he was placed at the north end of King street, a great position in the first engagement. His two six-pounders faced directly at the two Hessian guns.

At ranges from 400 to 900 yards a three-pounder gun and a six-pounder gun were about equal in effectiveness while using solid shot. The six-pounder gun would be twice as effective as a three-pounder using either canister (case shot) at ranges up to 300 yards or grape shot at ranges from 300 yards to 500 yards. Lastly, the six-pounder could reach out further with solid shot than a three-pounder.

The first engagement was now set, five Patriot guns against two Hessian guns. The range was roughly 400 yards between Hamilton and Englehardt. The Hessian guns quickly unlimbered and placed the horses behind the guns. The Hessians fired six times with both cannons firing at the same time. Firing together maximizes the time for the smoke to clear. It was likely one cannon fired up King street whilst the other fired at Bauman’s guns. With aimed shots, the artillery likely took three minutes or less to fire those six shots per gun. Lt. Engelhardt testified that, “the shots had been fired quickly one after the other.”[i] In addition to the Patriot artillery, the Hessian guns were also under some pressure from infantry coming both from the north down King Street and from due west.

Lt. Engelhardt realized he and his men were in a killing zone. During those few minutes he had eight crew members and five horses killed or maimed (two horses on one team and three horses on the other team). The loss of horses meant his guns were now immobile. The loss of crew left him with four men on one gun and six on the other. A gun could keep firing with a crew of only three men, but it would be slow. Engelhardt realized if he did nothing, he would lose his entire command in, at most, a few minutes.

Lt. Engelhardt then did something unexpected. He ordered one gun to fire a grape shot at the infantry approaching from the west and then ordered his men to withdraw, leaving their guns behind. In his words, he “was obliged to call back the rest of the men … and to retire …”[ii]  Engelhardt led his men down King Street seeking Col. Rall. Finding Col. Rall, Engelhardt reported to the brigade commander that the Rall regiment’s guns had been lost. While Engelhardt was reporting to Col. Rall with the attendant chaos, the surviving gun crew members disappeared. With his men gone, Engelhardt went to retrieve his horse from his quarters; however, both his servant and horse were gone.

Eventually Lt. Engelhardt was re-united with two bombardiers and 14 men from his detachment – all had left the field of battle, crossed Assunpink creek bridge, and proceeded to British lines in Bordentown. Had the Hessian gunners left their positions during the battle it was a capital offense and they would have been hanged. Because they were led away from their guns by an officer, all was “forgiven.”

Timing of this first engagement and the artillerymen leaving the battlefield was important in understanding the timing of the battle. The Assunpink creek bridge was still under Hessian control, the English Light cavalry had passed earlier, and the Jagers had not yet appeared.  

The first artillery fight was over quickly with a clear victory for the Patriots. Lieutenant Fischer, the overall Hessian artillery officer, wrote on his sketch-map: “Rall cannon which were at once silenced.”

Sources:


[i]Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 511

[ii]Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 512

[i] Adrian B. Caruana, Grasshoppers and Butterflies: The Light 3 Pounders of Pattison and Townshend (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1999), 5.

[ii] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 93

[iii] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 511

[iv] Information taken from The Trenton Mapping Project located at www.trentonhistory.org/Documents/Trentonin1775.pdf  With the information available it is likely more buildings are shown rather than less.

This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Common Soldier, Continental Leadership, Emerging Revolutionary War, Hessian (German), Memory, Revolutionary War and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The first of three Artillery Engagements at the Battle of Trenton: December 26, 1776

  1. grego says:

    great article!

    Like

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