American Revolution: Battle of the Assunpink Creek

General George Washington. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of the Assunpink Creek - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of the Assunpink Creek was fought January 2, 1777, during the American Revolution (1775-1783)

Armies & Commanders



Battle of the Assunpink Creek - Background:

In the late summer of 1776, General George Washington's Continental Army made an attempt to defend New York City from attack by British forces led by General Sir William Howe.

Beginning with the Battle of Long Island in late August, Washington suffered a string of defeats which ultimately saw the British capture the city and American forces compelled to retreat southwest through New Jersey. Pursued by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis, Washington's men ultimately crossed the Delaware River in early December. Though Cornwallis was poised for a killing blow, Howe issued orders on December 14 directing British forces to move into winter quarters. As such, they established a string of outposts from Trenton to New York. Believing the campaign season over, Cornwallis made preparations to take leave in Britain.

Battle of the Assunpink Creek - Attack at Trenton:

With American morale shattered and his army melting away, Washington resolved to take decisive action to boost his men's spirits. Moving out on Christmas night, his troops crossed the ice-filled Delaware and mounted an audacious strike on the Hessian garrison at Trenton.

In the resulting Battle of Trenton, Washington's army captured the bulk of the enemy force. A stunning victory, the triumph at Trenton bolstered public morale and increased enlistments. Shortly after the victory, Washington withdrew back to Pennsylvania. Reinforced, the Americans re-crossed to New Jersey on December 30.

Anticipating a swift British reaction to the Hessians' defeat, Washington placed his army in a strong 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.

Battle of the Assunpink Creek - Washington Prepares:

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. As the men began fortifying the heights overlooking the creek, Washington consulted his officers. Though warned that the American line could be flanked to the east, he eased his subordinates' concerns by informing them that he intended to move from the creek shortly. In New York, Washington's concerns about a strong British reaction proved well-founded. Angered over the defeat at Trenton, Howe cancelled Cornwallis' leave and directed him to advance against the Americans with around 8,000 men.

Battle of the Assunpink Creek - The British Advance:

Reaching Princeton, Cornwallis directed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood to garrison the town with around 1,200 men. Moving south on January 2, he left a similar garrison under Brigadier General Alexander Leslie at Maidenhead. Continuing the advance, the lead elements of the British column soon encountered the American skirmishers along Five Mile Run. As Fermoy had become intoxicated and wandered back to Trenton, command of this force devolved to Colonel Edward Hand. Firing from cover, Hand's men stopped the British column and compelled Cornwallis to begin deploying his men into line of battle. Unable to hold at Five Mile Run, Hand fell back to the south bank of Shabbakonk Creek. Defending the bridge over the stream, his men further delayed the British.

Shortly before 3:00 PM, Hand occupied a ravine known as Stockton Hollow. Attacked by Cornwallis, who had brought up artillery, his men began fighting withdrawal back through the streets of Trenton.

Battle of the Assunpink Creek - Blood on the Bridge:

Meeting Hand's men, Washington ordered them to cross the bridge over Assunpink Creek and re-form with the rest of the army. Pushing forward, the British deployed south of Trenton and an artillery duel ensued. Though daylight was fading, Cornwallis elected to push forward with attacking Washington's lines. Charging forward, British troops attempted to storm the bridge over the creek. Largely defended by men from Major General Nathanael Greene's division, the bridge quickly began to fill with dead and wounded. Falling back, the British re-formed for a second attempt. Charging forward, they were again repulsed by heavy American fire. Eager to end the battle, Cornwallis directed his men to attack again. Approaching the bridge, the British troops were met with both musket fire from Greene's men as well as canister shot from Brigadier General Henry Knox's artillery.

After the third assault was repulsed, Cornwallis called a council of war to discuss the situation with his commanders. With the light fading and believing Washington to be trapped, Cornwallis elected to cease attacking and wait until morning when the situation could be fully assessed. As such, he commented, "We've got the old fox safe now. We'll go over and bag him in the morning." During the council, his quartermaster, Brigadier General Sir William Erskine, ardently argued in support of immediately striking stating, "If Washington is the General I take him to be, his army will not be found there in the morning." Erskine's concerns proved warranted as Washington had received intelligence that the roads to Princeton were open. As the British settled in for the night, the Americans made preparations to depart.

Battle of the Assunpink Creek - Aftermath:

In the fighting prior to and at the Battle of the Assunpink Creek, Washington sustained around 100 killed and wounded while the British incurred around 365 casualties.

During the night, Washington left around 500 men and two guns along Assunpink Creek to maintain the illusion that the army remained in place. While the guns fired through the night to keep the enemy on edge, the men tended the campfires. Prior to dawn, these forces withdrew towards Princeton. As sun started to rise, Cornwallis was stunned to find the American lines empty. To the northeast, Washington successfully attacked Mawhood's men at the Battle of Princeton. Though he wished to continue strikes against the British outposts in New Jersey, Washington recognized that the army was near a state of exhaustion and instead turned north for winter quarters at Morristown. Angered by the defeats in New Jersey, Howe elected to consolidate his forces. Abandoning many of the outposts in New Jersey, he directed Cornwallis to withdraw back to New Brunswick and New York City.

Selected Sources