American Revolution: Battle of Trenton

American troops attacking at the Battle of Trenton
Battle of Trenton. US Army Center for Military History

The Battle of Trenton was fought December 26, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). General George Washington commanded 2,400 men against a garrison of about 1,500 Hessian mercenaries under the command of Colonel Johann Rall.


Having been defeated in the battles for New York City, General George Washington and the remnants of the Continental Army retreated across New Jersey in the late fall of 1776. Vigorously pursued by the British forces under Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, the American commander sought to gain the protection afforded by the Delaware River. As they retreated, Washington faced a crisis as his battered army began to disintegrate through desertions and expiring enlistments. Crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in early December, he made camp and attempted to reinvigorate his shrinking command.

Badly reduced, the Continental Army was poorly supplied and ill-equipped for winter, with many of the men still in summer uniforms or lacking shoes. In a stroke of luck for Washington, General Sir William Howe, the overall British commander, ordered a halt to the pursuit on December 14 and directed his army to enter winter quarters. In doing so, they established a series of outposts across northern New Jersey. Consolidating his forces in Pennsylvania, Washington was reinforced by around 2,700 men on December 20 when two columns, led by Major Generals John Sullivan and Horatio Gates, arrived.

Washington's Plan

With the morale of the army and public ebbing, Washington believed that an audacious act was required to restore confidence and help boost enlistments. Meeting with his officers, he proposed a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton for December 26. This decision was informed by a wealth of intelligence provided by spy John Honeyman, who had been posing as a Loyalist in Trenton. For the operation, he intended to cross the river with 2,400 men and march south against the town. This main body was to be supported by Brigadier General James Ewing and 700 Pennsylvania militia, which were to cross at Trenton and seize the bridge over Assunpink Creek to prevent enemy troops from escaping.

In addition to the strikes against Trenton, Brigadier General John Cadwalader and 1,900 men were to make a diversionary attack on Bordentown, NJ. If the overall operation proved a success, Washington hoped to make similar attacks against Princeton and New Brunswick.

At Trenton, the Hessian garrison of 1,500 men was commanded by Colonel Johann Rall. Having arrived at the town on December 14, Rall had rejected his officers' advice to build fortifications. Instead, he believed that his three regiments would be able to defeat any attack in open combat. Though he publicly dismissed intelligence reports that the Americans were planning an attack, Rall did request reinforcements and asked that a garrison be established at Maidenhead (Lawrenceville) to protect the approaches to Trenton.

Crossing the Delaware

Combating rain, sleet, and snow, Washington's army reached the river at McKonkey's Ferry on the evening of December 25. Behind schedule, they were ferried across by Colonel John Glover's Marblehead regiment using Durham boats for the men and larger barges for the horses and artillery. Crossing with Brigadier General Adam Stephen's brigade, Washington was among the first to reach the New Jersey shore. Here a perimeter was established around the bridgehead to protect the landing site. Having completed the crossing around 3 a.m., they began their march south toward Trenton. Unknown to Washington, Ewing was unable to make the crossing due to the weather and heavy ice on the river. In addition, Cadwalader had succeeded in moving his men across the water but returned to Pennsylvania when he was unable to move his artillery.

A Swift Victory

Sending out advance parties, the army moved south together until reaching Birmingham. Here Major General Nathanael Greene's division turned inland to attack Trenton from the north while Sullivan's division moved along the river road to strike from the west and south. Both columns approached the outskirts of Trenton shortly before 8 a.m. on December 26. Driving in the Hessian pickets, Greene's men opened the attack and drew enemy troops north from the river road. While Greene's men blocked the escape routes to Princeton, Colonel Henry Knox's artillery deployed at the heads of King and Queen Streets. As the fighting continued, Greene's division began to push the Hessians into the town.

Taking advantage of the open river road, Sullivan's men entered Trenton from the west and south and sealed off the bridge over Assunpink Creek. As the Americans attacked, Rall attempted to rally his regiments. This saw the Rall and Lossberg regiments form on lower King Street while the Knyphausen regiment occupied Lower Queen Street. Sending his regiment up King, Rall directed the Lossberg Regiment to advance up Queen toward the enemy. On King Street, the Hessian attack was defeated by Knox's guns and heavy fire from Brigadier General Hugh Mercer's brigade. An attempt to bring two three-pounder cannon into action quickly saw half the Hessian gun crews killed or wounded and the guns captured by Washington's men. A similar fate befell the Lossberg regiment during its assault up Queen Street.

Falling back to a field outside of town with the remnants of the Rall and Lossberg regiments, Rall began a counterattack against the American lines. Suffering heavy losses, the Hessians were defeated and their commander fell mortally wounded. Driving the enemy back into a nearby orchard, Washington surrounded the survivors and forced their surrender. The third Hessian formation, the Knyphausen regiment, attempted to escape over the Assunpink Creek bridge. Finding it blocked by the Americans, they were quickly surrounded by Sullivan's men. Following a failed breakout attempt, they surrendered shortly after their compatriots. Though Washington wished to immediately follow up the victory with an attack on Princeton, he elected to withdraw back across the river after learning that Cadwalader and Ewing had failed to make the crossing.


In the operation against Trenton, Washington's losses were four men killed and eight wounded, while the Hessians suffered 22 killed and 918 captured. Around 500 of Rall's command were able to escape during the fighting. Though a minor engagement relative to the size of the forces involved, the victory at Trenton had a massive effect on the colonial war effort. Instilling a new confidence in the army and the Continental Congress, the triumph at Trenton bolstered public morale and increased enlistments.

Stunned by the American victory, Howe ordered Cornwallis to advance on Washington with around 8,000 men. Re-crossing the river on December 30, Washington united his command and prepared to face the advancing enemy. The resulting campaign saw the armies square off at Assunpink Creek before culminating with an American triumph at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. Flush with victory, Washington wished to continue attacking up the chain of British outposts in New Jersey. After assessing his tired army's condition, Washington instead decided to move north and enter winter quarters at Morristown.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Trenton." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Battle of Trenton. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Trenton." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).