As Lord Charles Cornwallis confidently marched his 9,000 troops towards Trenton he believed that he had him. He would overwhelm the exhausted Continental Army 5,000 troops strong, and push them back. Even as he ordered his soldiers back for the evening he would arrogantly proclaim, “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” He would capture General Washington and deliver a deathblow to the colonial rebellion that had dared to proclaim its independence from the Empire not even half a year prior. Yes, he knew that the crafty American General would be too wise to face a force of regulars that outnumbered his forces almost 2 to 1, especially worn and weary from battle, and would more than likely seek to flee. Yet General Cornwallis would not be denied his victory or that swift end to hostilities. He would send soldiers to guard the Delaware, believing that Washington would once more cross where he had initially launched his winter campaign on the evening of the 25th/morning of the 26th.
Yet the 44-year-old Virginian would not be so easily caught, and he had grander designs. Leaving the tents up and the campfires burning he muffled the sound of the wheels of the wagons, and took his troops North to Princeton where the odds were more in his favor.
Running behind schedule on January 3rd, 1777, Washington had planned to attack the garrison under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood before dawn. Yet the city remained in the distance even as the sun broke. It wouldn’t be long before Lord Cornwallis charged on his camp to find it empty. Once he had, and not having received word that the Colonials marched in retreat at the Delaware he might begin to put two and two together. To prevent, or at least hinder Cornwallis from following, Washington would order Brigadier-General Hugh Mercer to take 350 men to destroy the bridge over the Stoney Brook stream. Had Washington remained on schedule they would have met little to no resistance as Cornwallis had ordered Mawhood’s troops to Trenton to meet him. But they would spot the American Forces. Knowing time was limited and that the British would charge on their position, Washington would order Mercer to confront the force before it had the chance to attack the main army. It would be on that field that the man who fled to America a fugitive from his home in Scotland after having served in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the veteran of the Battle of Culloden, would fall, stabbed repetitively by bayonets by the British soldiers who surrounded him for refusing to surrender. Nine days later, despite the care received by Dr. Benjamin Rush, he would die.
Still, it would not be enough, nor would the inexperience of the roughly 1,000 Pennsylvania troops under General John Cadwalader. “Parade with us my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we shall have them directly!” Washington would cry out as a small band of fresh troops from Rhode Island arrived under the command of Colonel Daniel Hitchcock. It would be the last battle of the brave commander of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment who had led his troops since the Siege of Boston in 1775. Within ten days he would be dead of tuberculous. Mawhood would still try. Moving out of the range of the American artillery they would attempt to break the American line. Lieutenant Colonel John Fitzgerald, the Irish Catholic who served as Washington’s Secretary, would cover his eyes with his hat, sure that as the smoke of battle overtook them, that General Washington had fallen. He could not bear to see it if he had. Yet as it settled, there Washington sat atop his horse, unscathed, unflinching in the face of fire or the threat of death.
The Continental Army would force the British from the field. Some would flee, others would retreat, while others yet would take refuge in Nassau Hall, what is now considered the oldest building at Princeton University, at that point though only 20 years old and the largest academic building in the Colonies. The Americans would push. Alexander Hamilton would set up the artillery and fire on the hall as the troops charged, forcing the British surrender. Washington would order the pursuit of fleeing soldiers. There wouldn’t even be enough time to save the Artillery as the Militia pursued. Even the Dragoons ordered to buy the British time to flee were pushed back. Despite claims by Loyalist Papers that greatly exaggerated the Revolutionary losses, Washington would report 31 to 37 dead on the field, while British Commander William Howe would report almost 20 dead, 58 wounded and 200 captured, though the numbers were more than likely higher, with some putting the British deaths at 375.
General Henry Knox, a man so trusted by Washington he would serve as the first Secretary of War, and General Nathaniel Greene, who began the Revolution enlisted as a private and quickly rose through the ranks, a gifted strategist, would talk the Commander-in-Chief from attacking New Brunswick, New Jersey. Yet it would mark the end of the New Jersey Winter Campaign that began with the crossing of the Delaware. Howe would abandon the state, the Hessian mercenaries would be forced out, and the Loyalists would be sent into exile.