The third Artillery Engagement at the Battle of Trenton: December 26, 1776

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William W. Welsch for the final installment of their three part series

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

The v. Lossberg Artillery detachment:

Bombardier Conrad Volprecht was about 44 years old with over 27 years of service. He led the v. Lossberg artillery detachment consisting of another bombardier, 13 gunners and 3 matrosses, with two three-pounder guns and associated horses, harness, and limber.[i]

Over two years after the battle and being a prisoner Bombardier Volprecht gave testimony that indicated the sequence of battle for his detachment was roughly as follows: First went to field, second fired north, third ordered south, and fourth got stuck in the mud till the end of the battle. There is a problem though, the sequence that better fits the data from the battle was as follows: first went to field, second ordered south, third fired west, and fourth got stuck in the mud.

 John Adams wrote “Facts are stubborn things. They cannot be altered by our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions.” In studying firsthand accounts of the battles in the Revolutionary War they are sometimes not correct or even true. For example, there is an enjoyable firsthand account (written many years later) by a patriot Sergeant White (The Good Soldier White) that is often quoted in accounts of the battle. Parts of his story are no doubt true. The problem is that when Sgt. White states he was with “Lieut. Munroe, our late President of the U. States” and “I was the first that reach them [cannons],” and “They had all left it, except one man tending vent,” those specific parts of the story cannot be true. Hessian Lt. Englehardt would not have time to do all that he did and then cross the Assunpink bridge before the Jagers if artillery men from Sullivan’s column were that far up King Street. Facts from the battle mean that part of that story does not work.

The most important place in all the 13 states fighting for independence on December 26, 1776 from 8:00 am to 9:00 am was the long, narrow bridge over the Assunpink creek. It was held by Hessian Sergeant Muller and 18 men. Sgt. Muller was about 50 years old with about 32 years of service. The importance of this place was not fully realized by the Hessians, but the Patriots knew it had to be closed, and General Washington had two full brigades, Sargent’s and Glover’s, tasked with taking, as quickly as possible, and then holding the bridge.

At about 8:03 am Patriot General Sullivan was about one mile from Trenton center along the River road when he attacked the outlying Jager pickets. General Sullivan had the artillery fire several canister shots at the Jagers. This firing also served as a signal to General Washington so he would know his other wing was attacking. It was to be recalled that General Washington started his attack about 8:00 am on the Pennington road and he also was about a mile from Trenton center. This cannon firing was also a signal to General Ewing so he knew when to start his distraction. General Ewing heard the three cannon shots and he quickly followed with his guns and howitzers firing ten shots from across the Delaware River. General Ewing kept up his firing until he could make out that Patriots were approaching. The v. Knyphausen regiment was forming on Second Street and was the logical unit to resist any attack coming from the River Road.

Volprecht’s detachment with its two guns followed Lt. Fischer’s detachment east on Fourth Street from the Methodist church into the field north and east of the Quaker lane. Lt. Fischer’s detachment was falling back from its earlier engagement and picked up the v. Lossberg detachment as it passed by. It took longer for the v. Lossberg artillery detachment to prepare for the battle because the horses had to be collected, harnessed, hitched, and the guns limbered. Fischer testified that the “cannon were unhorsed, and the horses unharnessed and brought back again into the stable” from the cancelled early morning patrol.[ii] For the morning patrol the horses had been hitched and guns limbered at 4:00 am but the patrol was cancelled so the men/horses/limber/guns were brought back to the Methodist church and waited for sunrise to unhorse.  

The infantry of the v. Lossberg and Rall regiments followed Volprecht’s detachment into the field. It was in this field that these two regiments would form a line for battle. While waiting for the v. Lossberg regiment to form Volprecht was ordered by Lt. Weiderhold, “Artillery men, come here with the cannon” meaning they were to join the v. Knyphausen regiment.[iii]  The v. Knyphausen regiment was on Second Street heading to the open field just east of Trenton and away from the Assunpink bridge. Volprecht and his v. Lossberg artillery detachment moved south on Quaker lane, linked up with the v. Knyphausen regiment, and set up his gun position facing threats coming from Trenton. The following map presents Trenton as it was in 1776.[iv]

While this was happening on the Hessian side, the right wing of the Patriot forces was moving east on River Road. General Sullivan rushed two of his brigades toward the Assunpink bridge. Neil’s battery with Sargent’s brigade and Sargent’s battery with Glover’s brigade made it to the bridge and across. Glover’s brigade with Sargent’s battery continued along the Assunpink creek to cut off possible exits for the v. Knyphausen regiment. St Clair’s brigade was moving east on Second Street with Moulder’s (three four-pounders) and Hugg’s artillery (two three-pounders).

Hessian Bombardier Volprecht testified that he fired his gun five times and the other gun fired one time.[v] One of those six shots hit the fore horse of one of Hugg’s three-pounder guns as they advanced in support of Patriot St. Clair‘s brigade. John Greenwood, a fifer in the 15th Continental, recorded that one of Hugg’s guns had the fore horse shot by a Hessian three-pounder gun, ”the ball from which struck the fore horse that was dragging our only piece of artillery, a 3-pounder. The animal, which was near me … was struck in its belly and knocked over on its back. While it lay there kicking the cannon was stopped.”[vi]  That was the only hit scored by the Hessian artillery that day. St. Clair’s brigade with Col. Stark’s infantry in the lead applied great pressure causing the v. Knyphausen regiment to pull back farther east. Volprecht’s artillery detachment pulled back with the regiment.

As the Hessian artillery detachment pulled back east disaster struck both guns. Volprecht had been ordered into a valley without the ground being checked. Both guns got stuck in the mud. The rest of the battle the men of the artillery, with some aid from nearby infantry, was spent trying to extract the guns from the mud. One gun was extracted just before the surrender, the other gun was extracted after the battle was over.

Mud ended the third artillery engagement. The battle at Trenton was over. The Patriots had a great victory. What is shocking was the limited number of shots from the Hessian artillery. The Rall artillery detachment fired twelve solid shot and one grape, the v. Knyphausen artillery detachment fired “seven or eight shots,” and the v. Lossberg artillery detachment fired six shots.[vii] These few shots lend support for how quickly the Patriots won the Battle of Trenton.

Sources:

[i] William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898), 388

[ii]Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 337

[iii] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 277

[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.

[v] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 277

[vi] John Greenwood, Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood of Boston and New York, 1775-1783, 40-41. “the first intimation I received of our going to fight was the firing of a 6- pound cannon at us, the ball from which struck the fore horse that was dragging our only piece of artillery a 3-pounder.” Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/revolutionaryser00gree/page/38/mode/2u

[vii] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 341

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

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