American Revolution: Battle of Princeton

Battle of Princeton
The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777. Public Domain

Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Princeton was fought January 3, 1777, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders:

Americans

British

Background:

Following his stunning Christmas 1776 victory over the Hessians at Trenton, General George Washington withdrew back across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

On December 26, Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader's Pennsylvania militia re-crossed the river at Trenton and reported that the enemy was gone. Reinforced, Washington moved back into New Jersey with the bulk of his army and assumed a strong defensive position. Anticipating a swift British reaction to the Hessians' defeat, Washington placed his army in a defensive line behind Assunpink Creek to the south of Trenton.

Sitting atop a low string of hills, the American left was anchored on the Delaware while the right ran east. To slow any British counterattack, Washington directed Brigadier General Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy to take his brigade, which included a large number of riflemen, north to Five Mile Run and block the road to Princeton. At Assunpink Creek, Washington faced a crisis as the enlistments of many of his men were set to expire on December 31. By making a personal appeal and offering a ten dollar bounty, he was able to convince many to extend their service by one month.

Assunpink Creek

In New York, Washington's concerns about a strong British reaction proved well-founded. Angered over the defeat at Trenton, General William Howe cancelled Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis' leave and directed him to advance against the Americans with around 8,000 men. Moving southwest, Cornwallis left 1,200 men under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood at Princeton and another 1,200 men under Brigadier General Alexander Leslie at Maidenhead (Lawrenceville), before encountering the American skirmishers at Five Mile Run.

As de Fermoy had become drunk and wandered away from his command, leadership of the Americans fell to Colonel Edward Hand.

Forced back from Five Mile Run, Hand's men made several stands and delayed the British advance through the afternoon of January 2, 1777. After conducting a fighting retreat through the streets of Trenton, they rejoined Washington's army on the heights behind Assunpink Creek. Surveying Washington's position, Cornwallis launched three unsuccessful attacks in an attempt to take the bridge over the creek before halting due to growing darkness. Though warned by his staff that Washington may escape in the night, Cornwallis rebuffed their concerns as he believed the Americans had no line of retreat. On the heights, Washington convened a council of war to discuss the situation and asked his officers if they should stay and fight, withdraw across the river, or make a strike against Mawhood at Princeton. Electing for the bold option of attacking Princeton, Washington ordered the army's baggage sent to Burlington and his officers to commence preparation for moving out.

Washington Escapes:

To pin Cornwallis in place, Washington directed that 400-500 men and two cannon remain on the Assunpink Creek line to tend campfires and make digging sounds.

These men were to retire before dawn and rejoin the army. By 2:00 AM the bulk of the army was quietly in motion and moving away from Assunpink Creek. Proceeding east to Sandtown, Washington then turned northwest and advanced on Princeton via the Quaker Bridge Road. As dawn broke, the American troops were crossing Stony Brook approximately two miles from Princeton. Wishing to trap Mawhood's command in the town, Washington detached Brigadier General Hugh Mercer's brigade with orders to slip west and then secure and advance up the Post Road. Unknown to Washington, Mawhood was departing Princeton for Trenton with 800 men.

The Armies Collide:

Marching down the Post Road, Mawhood saw Mercer's men emerge from the woods and moved to attack. Mercer quickly formed his men for battle in a nearby orchard to meet the British assault.

Charging the tired American troops, Mawhood was able to drive them back. In the process, Mercer became separated from his men and was quickly surrounded by the British who mistook his for Washington. Refusing an order to surrender, Mercer drew his sword and charged. In the resulting melee, he was severely beaten, run through by bayonets, and left for dead.

As the battle continued, Cadwalader's men entered the fray and met a fate similar to Mercer's brigade. Finally, Washington arrived on the scene, and with the support of Major General John Sullivan's division stabilized the American line. Rallying his troops, Washington turned to the offensive and began pressing Mawhood's men. As more American troops arrived on the field, they began to threaten the British flanks. Seeing his position deteriorating, Mawhood ordered a bayonet charge with the goal of breaking through the American lines and allowing his men to escape towards Trenton.

Surging forward, they succeeded in penetrating Washington's position and fled down the Post Road, with American troops in pursuit. In Princeton, the majority of the remaining British troops fled towards New Brunswick, however 194 took refuge in Nassau Hall believing that the building's thick walls would provide protection. Nearing the structure, Washington assigned Captain Alexander Hamilton to lead the assault. Opening fire with artillery, American troops charged and forced those inside to surrender ending the battle.

Aftermath:

Flush with victory, Washington wished to continue attacking up the chain of British outposts in New Jersey.

After assessing his tired army's condition, and knowing that Cornwallis was in his rear, Washington elected instead to move north and enter winter quarters at Morristown. The victory at Princeton, coupled with the triumph at Trenton, helped bolster American spirits after a disastrous year which saw New York fall to the British. In the fighting, Washington lost 23 killed, including Mercer, and 20 wounded. British casualties were heavier and numbered 28 killed, 58 wounded, and 323 captured.

Selected Sources

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Princeton." ThoughtCo, Aug. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/battle-of-princeton-2360652. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, August 2). American Revolution: Battle of Princeton. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-princeton-2360652 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Princeton." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-princeton-2360652 (accessed November 23, 2017).