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the Americans, but in reality it was a blessing. As Hawthorne
observes, it is one of the puzzles of history that this fellow who


was proved to be a coward as well as a traitor, should so long
have imposed upon Congress and even, though to a less extent,
upon Washington. r

In all the gloom of defeat, disappointment, and suffering
that surrounded him — even in the presence of the treachery of
Lee and Gates, who had gained popularity among the unthinking
people — Washington's great heart still maintained him. With
no thought of surrender or compromise of any kind, he resolved,
if no better course presented itself, to retreat through Pennsyl-
vania and over the Alleghenies if necessary, in order to carry on
the war. It was this indomitable spirit of Washington, rising
under difficulties and buoyant in the darkest moment, that kept
from sinking the tempest-tossed cause of American independence.

But brighter days were hovering around him and the God
of Battles was soon to reward his wonderful efforts with victory.



When the British first entered New Jersey in pursuit of
Washington they had honied words on their Hps for all rebels
who should lay down their arms, and full and ample protection
was offered in printed proclamations to those who should take
the oath of allegiance to the English King.

"These proclamations," writes Lossing, "were received by
the American people while their army was flying before the
British and general despondency was crushing every hope for the
success of the patriot cause. Their effect was, therefore, power-
ful and instantaneous, and hundreds, whose sympathies were with
the Americans, timid and hopeless, accepted the protection upon
the prescribed terms. They generally remained in their homes
while the belligerent armies were in motion. But they soon
found their hopes cruelly disappointed, and those who should
have been their protectors became their worst oppressors. The
Hessians, in particular, being entirely mercenary and influenced
by no feelings of sympathy, plundered, burned, and destroyed
everything that came in their way. The people of all parties were
insulted and abused in their own houses, their dwellings were
rifled, their women were oftentimes ravished by the brutal sol-
diers, and neither smiling infancy nor decrepit age possessed im-
munity from their outrages. The British soldiery sometimes par-
ticipated in these crimes, and upon the British Government prop-
erly rested the guilt, for the Hessians were its hired fighting ma-
chines. But these enormities proved favorable to the cause of the
Americans. Those who had received paper protection regarded
Sir William Howe as the perjured tool of oppression, and the
loyalty of vast numbers of the disaffected and lukewarm, that
burned so brightly when recording their oaths of allegiance, was
suddenly extinguished.

"Suffering and woe held terrible sway after Cornwallis and
his army swept over the plains of New Jersey. Like others of
the signers of the great Declaration, Richard Stockton was
marked for peculiar vengeance by the enemy. So suddenly did
the flying Americans pass by in the autumn of 1776, and so soon
were the Hessian vultures and their British companions on the
trail, that he had barely time to remove his family to a place of



safety before his beautiful mansion was filled with rude soldiery.
The house was pillaged, the horses and stock were driven away,
the furniture was converted into fuel, the choice old wines in the
cellar were drunk, the valuable library and all the papers of Mr.
Stockton were committed to the flames, and the estate was laid
waste. Mr. Stockton's place of concealment was discovered by
a party of loyalists, who entered the house at night, dragged him
from his bed, and, treating him with every indignity which malice
could invent, hurried him to New York, where he was confined
in the loathsome provost jail and treated with the utmost cruelty.
When, through the interposition of Congress, he was released,
his constitution was hopelessly shattered and he did not live to
see the independence of his country achieved. He died at his
home in Princeton, in February, 1781, blessed to the last with the
tender and affectionate attentions of his noble wife."

Many modern American historians, wishing, through prej-
udice or self-interest, to cultivate a friendly feeling for England
at the expense of America, pay no attention to these outrages, or
gloss over them as the inevitable consequences of war. Lecky,
however, is not silent upon them and condemns the British, as
well as the Hessians, for their shameful and inhuman conduct.

"Unfortunately these outrages were no new thing," he
writes. "An ardent American loyalist of New York complains
that one of the first acts of the soldiers of General Howe when
they entered that city was to break open and plunder the College
library, the Subscription library, and the Corporation library, and
to sell or destroy the books and philosophical apparatus ; and, he
adds, with much bitterness, that, during all the months that the
rebels were in possession of New York no such outrage was
perpetrated, that during a great part of the time the regular law
courts had been open, and that they had frequently convicted
American soldiers of petty larcenies and punished them with the
full approbation of their officers. In New Jersey the conduct
of the English was at least as bad as at New York. A public
library was burnt at Trenton. A college and a library were de-
stroyed at Princeton, together with an orrery made by the illus-
trious Rittenhouse and believed to be the finest in the world.
Whigs and Tories were indiscriminately plundered. Written
protections attesting the loyalty of the bearer were utterly disre-
garded and men who had exposed themselves for the sake of
England to complete ruin at the hands of their own countrymen,
found themselves plundered by the troops of the very power for
which they had risked and sacrificed so much."

When Washington crossed the Delaware the war was con-
sidered closed by the English. Cornwallis returned to New York


and was preparing to leave for England with all the conscious-
ness of a man who had well and truly performed his alloted task.
Three regiments of Hessians were left in Trenton under Colonel
Rail, and when the latter, fearing the return of Washington,
asked for reinforcements, he was informed by General Grant that
all Jersey could be held by a corporal's guard.

Julian Hawthorne truly says that between the camp of the
American leader on the banks of the Delaware and the head-
quarters of the English General in New York there was a dra-
matic contrast. He draws a graphic picture of the rejoicings of
the British as Christmas drew near, when nothing was thought
of but triumphant display, with the English colors flying every-
where, and banquets, balls,, and theaters, and describes Sir Will-
iam Howe, rolling in his luxurious carriage, with a shameless
courtesan beside him, as the modern Alexander and his Thais.

"Many a haughty Briton," he continues, "will be carried
drunk to bed to-night ; but Christmas comes but once a year, and
as the war is over we cannot look for such another a twelve-
month hence. Huzza for King George and for his heroic repre-
sentative! But who is this sorry-looking fellow being hurried
down a side street, with a soldier at each side of him and an-
other following behind, giving him a sly prick with his bayonet
now and then ? A spy, probably, on his way to the guard house ;
he will be hanged to-morrow. These pestilent rebels continue to
crop up every now and then, although their cause is lost; there
are a good many of them living here among us in New York,
though they keep out of sight as a rule. But time brings strange
revenges ; and the child is now born who shall see a handsome
monument erected to the memory of these fellows in Trinity
Churchyard. But will there be none in honor of Sir William
Howe and of this handsome lady with the jewels? — No; not
there. In one little century he and she will have been forgotten
except in the pages of dry-as-dust histories. 'Tis a mad world I"
In contradistinction to the English jubilations Hawthorne
paints with a master hand the sad condition of the terrorized
people of New Jersey, who were after feeling th« ruthless hand
of the invaders as they laid waste their peaceful homes and out-
raged their women and children. Of the brave soldiers who still
clung to Washington, of the awful condition of their cheerless
camps, and of the undying hopes of the great leader himself,
he speaks in words that should burn into the hearts of all Amer-

"The soldiers," he writes, "were partly naked, and the trail
of their marches was marked by blood upon the snow. They
lacked tents to lie under at night and blankets to cover them.


With a gloomy sky above them, a frozen and barren earth below,
the memory of defeat in their minds and no hope in their hearts,
they huddled about their forlorn fires in spiritless dejection. At
night their outposts along the ice-burdened river might have
heard the music and yelling of the mercenaries, making merry
with the substance which the industry of their robbed and slaugh-
tered fellow-countr>TTien had earned.

"Washington, in his Spartan headquarters, wrote letters to
Congress to provide a new army to take the place of that which
was dwindling away from him and planned some scheme of a
flank attack on Trenton. The English general, Grant, had ex-
amined the situation and did not believe that it was possible to
cross the river. The ice would make the return too dangerous.
But Washington felt that the time had come when everything
must be risked ; the more appalling the obstacles the better the
chance of taking Rail by surprise. Revolving his plans, he rode
from post to post, a tall figure in a dark cloak, recognized by all,
but hardly able to raise a cheer. He passed to and fro amid the
troops, as they squatted under the lee of their sodden piles of
baggage, or tried to find shelter from the storm under a piece of
ragged canvas stretched on two stakes. He marked their shivermg
bodies, their hungry looks ; here and there lay the body of one
who had perished of cold and starvation. His heart ached for
them, but in his countenance none could see anything but a com-
posed cheerfulness, as of one who counted the past reverses as
but preliminary to some glorious victory. He seemed all confi-
dence, hope, and resolution. It was impossible to look upon him
without a feeling that, so long as he lived, all could not be lost.
But, could he create a conquering army out of frost and famine,
disaffection and despair, and with it perform a feat which the
flower of the regular troops of Europe deemed impracticable,
even for themselves ? Did he keep that composed expression when
he was alone?"

The situation could not be more dark or hopeless for the
Americans, but in the midst of all the gloom hope was rising in
the heart of Washington and he resolved that a final effort should
be made to retrieve the losses of the past.

When the forces under the faithful Sullivan joined him and
reinforcements of the Pennsylvania militia had been sent to his
assistance he had in all about five thousand men at his disposal
to carry out his proposed movement. He planned a general at-
tack on all the British posts along the Delaware and arranged
that his army should cross that river in three detachments — one
under General Cadwalader, near Bristol, another under General
Ewing below Trenton Falls, and a third under General Washing-


ton himself, assisted by Generals Sullivan and Greene, with Col-
onel Henry Knox in charge of the artillery, which was to cross
the Delaware at McConkey's Ferry and march down upon the
enemy at Trenton, nine miles below.

Washington communicated his plans to General Gates and
asked him to take command of the forces under Cadwalader and
Ewing, but Gates, already a traitor in his heart, feigned sickness
and slunk away to Congress to mature his plots against Wash-
ington. Gates felt sure that Washington would be defeated in
his forlorn hope and desired to be present before Congress when
the disaster occurred, so that he could press his claims for sup-
planting the Commander-in-Chief. But God, in His goodness,
willed otherwise. He crowned Washington's noble efforts with
victory and left Gates, as he did Lee, in confusion and disgrace.

Christmas night was selected by Washington for the exe-
cution of his enterprise. He well knew the German habit of cele-
brating that day with drinking and reasoned wisely on the
probability of a large number of the Hessians being disabled by
overindulgence; the sequel proved he was right. Even Colonel
Rail, their commander, was so bent on his enjoyment that he paid
no attention to the warnings of danger he had received.

The division with which Washington was to cross the Del-
aware, consisting of 2,400 men and twenty pieces of artillery,
paraded at dusk and expected to reach Trenton by midnight. The
river was so full of floating ice that it was thought, at first, the
expedition would have to be abandoned, but Washington rose
superior to all difficulties. In the midst of his perplexities he
heard that Cadwalader and Ewing were forced to give up their
attempts to cross, but even that did not deter him and he sent
word to them to do the best they could to prevent the enemy from
aiding Rail at Trenton.

A storm of sleet and snow had just commenced and the night
became excessively dark and dreary. The perilous voyage began
early in the evening in boats and bateaux, but it was nearly 4
o'clock in the morning before Washington's little army was mus-
tered on the Jersey shore. Washington there separated his forces
into two divisions, with himself at the head of one and General
Sullivan in command of the other. Each division marched by a
different road to Trenton, drove in the outguards, and completely
surprised the Hessians.

The firing aroused Colonel Rail from his enjoyment, but
when he emerged into the street he found his forces in confusion.
He endeavored to rally them, but before he could restore order
he fell from his horse mortally wounded. Seing their commander
fall the Hessians fled in dismay, the main body attempting to es-


cape by the road to Princeton, Their retreat was cut off by
Colonel Hand and his brave riflemen and they were forced to lay
down their arms. At the first alarm, six hundred Hessians fled
to Bordentown and these, too, would have been captured had Cad-
walader been enabled to cross the Delaware as designed.

Washington's victory was complete. He killed twenty of the
enemy and captured one thousand prisoners, six field pieces, one
thousand stands of arms and a large quantity of much needed
provisions and supplies. The American losses were only two
men frozen to death on the river and two wounded in the fighting
at Trenton.

Washington intended to follow up the advantage thus
gained, but on the 27th of December, in order to give his men
some rest and collect his scattered forces, he recrossed the
Delaware. On the 29th he himself was back again in Trenton,
with all his forces following him as rapidly as possible. Wash-
ington placed his main army on the east side of the Assunpink,
a little creek entering the Delaware at Trenton, fordable in many
places, but crossed only by a narrow bridge, against which the fire
of the American artillery was directed. His situation here was
more desperate than ever, as the English forces, in great num-
bers, hearing of the defeat at Trenton, were rapidly advancing
upon him. Cornwallis was ordered back to the front and General
Howe, with a thousand picked men, was also on the march from
New York. In all, an army of over eight thousand would soon
confront him. But, calling in all his outlying forces, he resolved
to hold his ground and await attack.

On the morning of January 2 it was learned for certain that
Cornwallis was advancing from Princeton. He intended to reach
Trenton early in the day, but he received so many checks from the
American outposts, especially from Hand's corps of riflemen,
that he did not arrive until sunset. Without even resting his
men he made repeated attempts to cross the bridge over the As-
sunpink, but was as many times driven back by the American
artillery, each repulse being accompanied by ringing cheers from
the Americans. At length he drew off his troops, lighted his
campfires, and settled down for the night on the opposite bank
of the creek.

Sir William Erskine, who was with Cornwallis, urged him
to attack Washington in his camp, but he declined. He felt sure
of his game, which so often escaped him; he had at length, he
thought, got Washington into a situation from which he could
not escape, but where he might make a desperate stand, and he
was willing to give his wearied troops a night's repose to pre-


pare them for the closing struggle of the morrow. He would be
sure, he said, to ""bag the old fox in the morning."

When night closed in the two camps lay in sight of each
other's fires. Washington Irving says that it was the most gloomy
and anxious night yet experienced by the Americans, for their
grave danger was apparent to all. But what must have been the
feelings of the Commander-in-Chief, as he anxiously patrolled
his camp and considered his desperate position? A small stream
was all that separated his raw, inexperienced army from an enemy
vastly superior in numbers and discipline and stung to action
by the mortification of a late defeat. A general action with them,
Washhigton well knew, would be ruinous, but how was he to
retreat? Behind him lay the Delaware, impassable from floating
ice, and even if he could cross it the consequences would be
equally fatal. No real check would be administered to the enemy.
Philadelphia would still be in peril and the general despair would
be increased rather than lessened.

In the darkest of these hours of painful meditation a bril-
liant thought flashed across the mind of Washington which not
only extricated him from all his present troubles but brought
about the abandonment of New Jersey by the British and threw
a damper on their cause from which it never recovered.

He resolved to slip away in the dead of night while the
British army slept, make a forced march by an unfrequented road
to Princeton, and thence proceed to capture New Brunswick,
where the British had left their baggage and principal stores only
weakly guarded.

This idea being unanimously concurred in by a council of
war, Washington immediately proceeded to carry out the tactics
which he so successfully practiced on Long Island. To deceive
the enemy, men were employed to dig trenches near the bridge
within hearing of the British sentries, with orders to continue
noisily at work until daybreak ; others were to go the rounds, re-
lieve guards at the bridge and fords, keep up the camp fires, and
maintain all the appearance of a regular encampment. At day-
light they were to hasten after the army.

At I o'clock in the morning the American army drew noise-
lessly out of the encampment and began its march. Washington
expected to reach Princeton before dawn, but at sunrise he was
yet within three miles of it, at the bridge over Stony Brook.

Three regiments of the British, the Seventeenth, Fortieth,
and Fifty-fifth, with three troops of dragoons, had been quar-
tered all night at Princeton under marching orders to join Com-
wallis in the morning. The first of these regiments, already on
the march under Colonel Mawhood, encountered the American


advance under General Mercer, when a spirited action ensued.
At the first discharge Mercer was dismounted and one of his col-
onels mortally wounded. In the confusion which followed the
British made a desperate charge with the bayonet and the Ameri-
cans, having no such weapons, were thrown into disorder and re-
treat. Mercer, who was on foot, endeavored to rally them, when
a blow from a musket felled him to the ground. He rose and de-
fended himself with his sword, but was surrounded, bayonetted
repeatedly, and left for dead.

At this moment Washington himself galloped on the scene
and by the sound of his voice and the bravery of his action rallied
the American troops. Mawhood, who a moment before was sure
of victory, now found himself surrounded on every side and sep-
arated from the other British regiments. He fous^ht stubbornly
and for a while the conflict was desperate. Washington was in
the midst of it, equally endangered by the fire of the enemy and
his own men, but escaped without a scratch, and Mawhood was
soon in full retreat toward Trenton, with a remnant of his men.
Washington detached Major Kelly, with some Pennsylvania
troops, to destroy the bridge over which Mawhood retreated so
as to impede the advance of the British from that direction.

In the meantime, the Fifty-fifth regiment had been defeated
by the Americans and were now flying in a panic toward New
Brunswick. A part of the Fortieth regiment, which did not come
up in time for the fight, also fled in the same direction, while the
balance of them sought refuge in Princeton College, where they
were soon forced to surrender. This brief engagement at Prince-
ton was one of the most brilliant in the war as far as the Ameri-
cans were concerned, and resulted in one hundred of the British
being left dead upon the field while there hundred of them, were
tal<en prisoners. The American loss was only about thirty, but
among these were many valuable officers. General Mercer, a
brave Scotchman, died from his wounds soon after the battle,
and his loss was deeply felt by Washington, as were also the
deaths of Colonels Haslett and Potter and Captains Shippen,
Fleming, and Neal, who were killed upon the field while bravely

When Cornwallis awoke at Trenton on the morning of
January 3, he found the American camp fires still lighting, but
the "old fox" and his men had vanished and not a soul was any-
where to be seen. As he rubbed his eyes in chagrin and aston-
ishment the distant booming of cannon toward Princeton in-
formed him of Washington's whereabouts and he hastened with
all his forces in that direction. But he was too late. When he
arrived at Stony Brook he found the bridge so far demolished



with a body of 450 militia, across from Philadelphia into New Jer-
sey to make a diversion in favor of the Trenton expedition. Grif-
fith was instructed to proceed to Mount Holly for the purpose
of attracting the attention of Colonel Donop, at Bordentown. He
was ordered not to fight but to retreat down the river on the ap-
pearance of the enemy. The movement had the desired effect.
Donop, who should have been near enough to support Colonel
Rail, moved against Griffith with his whole force of two thousand
men, mostly Hessians, and it was two days before he returned to
his post. Thus Colonel Griffith rendered most valuable aid in
the capture of Trenton.

Colonel John Haslett, of the Delaware Regiment, who was
killed at Princeton, was a sore loss to the American forces and
was deeply mourned by Washington. He had already distin-
guished himself at Long Island and White Plains, and had he Uved
he would undoubtedly have risen to the highest rank. He was a
brave man and died at the head of his regiment. His son, Joseph
Haslett, was afterwards Governor of Delaware for three different

Thomas Reed, brother of George Reed, the signer of the
Declaration of Independence, rendered distinguished services at
Trenton. He was connected with the navy and had been as-
signed to the command of one of its four largest ships, the George
Washington, then building in the Delaware. While waiting for
the completion of his ship he volunteered for land service and
was sent as captain to join Washington. He gave valuable as-
sistance in the crossing of the Delaware, and at the battle of Tren-
ton commanded a battery, made up of guns from his frigate,
and with it raked the stone bridge across the Assunpink. For

Online LibraryJames HaltiganThe Irish in the American revolution, and their early influence in the colonies → online text (page 42 of 67)