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

The German Principalities that Contributed Soldiers

When I was in elementary school, my father who worked for the Department of Defense was tasked with a job in Wiesbaden, Germany. Located in the central part of the country, the town was located in the German province of Hesse. Never thought much of the connection between this province and the founding of the country whose government my father was actively employed with at the time. To cut myself some slack I was nine years old when we moved to Deutschland.

Fast-forward to graduate school and my studies focused on the social and military world of the Maryland Line and the American Revolutionary War in general. One does not have to do too much research to find “Hessian” in a publication about battles and campaigns from the conflict. Furthermore, one always hears a line similar to the following…

“Although known generally as Hessians, soldiers under this label actually hailed from multiple German principalities”

“Grouped together as ‘Hessians’ the mercenaries hailed from other German states besides Hesse-Kassel”

To be honest, never thought more of it, then a trip in December to Mount Vernon where a display in their museum showing the various German states brought the idea back to the forefront where the question lingered. With a few other projects, interruptions that 2020 brought, and my curiosity was subdued for the last nine months.

Hessian soldiers
(courtesy of Hessian State Archive)

Until the term “Hessians” popped up again, fortunately, on a weekend, when I had time to go down the proverbial research rabbit hole.

Approximately 34,000 German soldiers were hired by King George III to augment the British army in their subduing of the rebellious colonies. Numbers range from 12,000 on the low-end to 18,000 on the high-end of that number consisting of soldiers from the Landgraviate (or Principality) of Hesse-Kassel. Chief among the reasons that this principality furnished 35% to 53% of the total soldiery could be attributed to the fact that Frederick II, ruler of Hesse-Kassel was an uncle to the British monarch. Secondly, 7% of the adult male population this small principality was already under arms and was ready for deployment; being well-supplied and equipped for foreign service.

Sharing a name with the larger landgraviate, was Hesse-Hanau, a semi-autonomous principality that did not wait for the British government to come calling for troops. After news reached the German state of the bloody engagement at Bunker Hill, the rule of Hesse-Hanau Landgrave William offered King George III a regiment of infantry. Volunteers also flocked to the chance of service in America, with many relocating permanently at the end of hostilities, rather than returning. Numbers from Hanau list 2,422 men who served the British in the American Revolution.

Continuing the familial connection, Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, with King George III’s sister, Augusta married to the heir of Duke Charles I, the use of soldiers from this German principality was another guarantee. As early as 1775, the duke sent an offer of troops to King George III and 4,000 sons of Wolfenbuttel would cross the Atlantic.

In a controversial clause, the British government agreed to pay a certain fee for every soldier of Duke Charles’s killed in battle, with three wounded Wolfenbuttel soldiers equaling one killed. In return, King George III and his forces would be repaid for any soldier that deserted or fell ill outside what was listed as an “uncommon malady.”

When he heard news of this stipulation, Frederick the Great of Prussia, supposedly snickered that “cattle tax” on all the soldiers passing through Prussia en-route to British service “because though human beings they had been sold as beasts.”

Ansbach-Bayreuth under Margrave Charles Alexander, deeply in debt, gave the British cause 2,361 soldiers to subdue the rebellion in North America to help rescue his finances. This proved unsuccessful in the long run as he would eventually sell his dual margraviates to Prussia in 1791 and life off the sale in England.

Waldeck, under Prince Frederich Karl August had three standing regiments ready for foreign service as part of their governing structure. One of these regiments helped in the defense of Pensacola, along with companies being stationed in Mobile and Baton Rouge, probably the move diverse, geographically, of any of the German regiments in the American war. Waldeckers, numbering 1,225, served in the various theaters of the American Revolution.

Five battalions from Hanover, the ancestral lands of King George III’s family saw service in Minorca and Gibraltar which freed British troops in those duty stations for service in North America.

Anhalt-Zerbst, in 1777, agreed to send 1,160 men to buttress British forces in North America, including garrisoning New York City in 1780.

From Saratoga to Yorktown, from Quebec to New York City, these German mercenaries aided the cause of the British, providing much-needed manpower in an attempt to recover the rebellious American colonies. However, the cause of freedom from King George III that prompted the rebellion resonated with thousands of these German soldiers, who decided to stay after the war or after exchange when captured, or walked away in service. In fact, slightly over 50%, around 17,300 actually returned to their German home principalities upon the conclusion of the war in 1783.

Map of German states 1789 yet one can see the various German principalities and their respective sizes that contributed soldiers to the British effort to subdue their rebellious colonies.

An introduction to another aspect of how the American Revolution had far reaching international complications and commitments.

The Post Script

At 3:00 in the afternoon on April 21, 1781 Virginia militia Colonel James Innes sat down to write a letter near Hickory Neck Church, just shy of the halfway point between Virginia’s old colonial capitol at Williamsburg and its new capitol at Richmond. Perhaps with a heavy heart and a weary hand, Innes picked up his pen to scrawl a letter to Governor Thomas Jefferson. The situation in Virginia was bleak. It had only been a year since, in apprehension of a British attack, the Virginia Assembly voted to move the seat of government from the Peninsula west to Richmond, and along with it the public stores for outfitting, equipping, and otherwise supporting Virginia’s patriot forces in the fifth and sixth years of the war with the British. The gamble hadn’t paid off. January 1781 saw Benedict Arnold’s forces sacking Richmond. Everywhere they went, it seems, a new combined force of British, Hessian, and Loyalist forces left destruction in its wake.

he approximate landing site of the the main body of British soldiers with Col. Simcoe’s detachment landing further downstream in an effort to catch the Virginians by surprise. “…On a signal given, they all, except the gun-boat turned and rowed rapidly towards the point where the landing was to take place…” (author collection)
Continue reading “The Post Script”

From Campaign 1776: Ten Crucial Days

Emerging Revolutionary War is pleased to share the following information from our friends at Campaign 1776 managed by the Civil War Trust. 

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“As many of you may know, this winter marks the 241st anniversary of the American victories at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. The Continental Army’s triumphs in the Ten Crucial Days campaign proved instrumental to rekindling Patriot morale and keeping the cause for American independence alive in the wake of early defeats. Continue reading “From Campaign 1776: Ten Crucial Days”

Review: The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, An Untold Story of the American Revolution by Robert P. Watson

ERW Book Reviews (1)

Andersonville. Bataan. Auschwitz. All conjure up images of disillusion, devastation, and death.

All are infamously known as harsh prisoner-of-war camps. When those words are read, images flash through your mind and memory of hollow faces attached to gaunt bodies staring blankly in the direction of the cameraman.GhostShip_300x456

With Robert P. Watson’s new history, The Ghost Ship of Brookly, An Untold Story of the American Revolution, one can add another word to the lexicon of prison camp vernacular.

Jersey.

Or a few more words specifically, the HMS Jersey.  Continue reading “Review: The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, An Untold Story of the American Revolution by Robert P. Watson”

The Battle of Groton Heights, September 6, 1781: The Fort Griswold Massacre

Part One

Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold

After turning coat, Benedict Arnold received a commission as a brigadier general in the British army as part of the deal that he made in order to betray his country.

In August 1781, George Washington decided to shift forces in order to attack the army of Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis in Virginia. Washington began pulling troops from the New York area. Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief in America, realized on September 2 that Washington’s tactics had deceived him, leaving him unable to mobilize quickly enough to help Cornwallis. Further, there was still a significant force of Continentals facing him in front of New York, and Clinton did not feel that he could detach troops to reinforce Cornwallis as a result.

Sir Henry ClintonInstead, Clinton decided to launch a raid into Connecticut in the hope of forcing Washington to respond. Clinton intended that this be a raid, but he also recognized that New London could be used as a permanent base of operations into the interior of New England. Clinton appointed Arnold to command the raid because he was from Connecticut and knew the terrain.

Arnold commanded about 1,700 British solders, divided into two battalions. Lt. Col. Edmund Eyre commanded a battalion consisting of the 40th and 54th Regiments of Foot and Cortland Skinner’s New Jersey Volunteers, a Loyalist unit. Arnold himself commanded the other battalion, made up of the 38th Regiment of Foot and various Loyalist units, including the Loyal American Regiment and Arnold’s American Legion. Arnold also had about 100 Hessian Jägers, and three six-pound guns. This was a formidable force anchored by the three Regular regiments. Continue reading “The Battle of Groton Heights, September 6, 1781: The Fort Griswold Massacre”