At year’s end in 1776, George Washington was motivated to strike again against British positions in New Jersey. He had surprised his opponents at Trenton on December 26 and in the following days hoped to build on that momentum. Washington also was acutely aware that the enlistment terms of many of his soldiers would expire at midnight on the 31st. On December 30, Washington again led his forces across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into British-held territory in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, word of the American victory at Trenton reached Brigadier General William Howe, the British commander. He responded by canceling the leave planned for one of his most aggressive subordinates, Lord Charles Cornwallis, who was dispatched to the Delaware in search of Washington’s army; there Cornwallis would join General James Grant, who already had a small force in the area. Arriving in Princeton on January 1, Cornwallis left a rear guard of 1,200 men under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood and proceeded south toward Trenton with 5,500 soldiers. During this march, the British encountered resistance from American soldiers intent on slowing their progress. The Americans gradually fell back and in the late afternoon dug into a position along the banks of Assunpink Creek outside of Trenton, joining the main body of Washington’s army. Several British attempts to cross the creek were thwarted, but a confident Cornwallis believed that he had the Americans cornered and decided to wait until the next day “to bag the fox.”
During the night and into the early hours of January 3, Washington dealt another masterstroke. He left 400 men in the camp to stoke bonfires and make digging noises as if they were preparing earthwork defenses for the coming battle. In actuality, a mass evacuation was underway. The bulk of the force silently departed, made a wide arc around Cornwallis’s sleeping army and headed north toward Princeton. The movement of American cannon was silenced by wrapping the wheels in cloth, and both soldiers and artillery were aided during the night as the muddy roads froze.
At daybreak, Lieutenant Colonel Mawhood left a small force behind in Princeton and proceeded south to join Cornwallis. Along the road, he encountered American forces under Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, who had hoped to secure a bridge over Stony Creek and isolate Princeton. With any hope of surprise dashed, Mercer’s soldiers sought refuge in a nearby orchard. The British pursued with fixed bayonets and it appeared that a rout was imminent. However, Washington, who was with the main force advancing on Princeton, heard the exchanges and rode to the battle. In a remarkable display of courage and leadership, he headed directly toward the British lines, yelling at the soldiers to rally behind him. Surviving intense fire, Washington helped to turn the tide of battle and led his men in pursuit of the fleeing British, crying out, “It’s a fine fox hunt, boys!”
Limited fighting occurred within Princeton itself. General John Sullivan and his men followed a small British force that sought refuge in Nassau Hall, the principal building of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. Sullivan trained his cannon on the building and, as legend has it, his second shot entered the building and decapitated a portrait of George II. The British soldiers promptly surrendered.
Cornwallis missed these events. When he was alerted at dawn that the Americans had decamped, it was assumed that they had retreated southward and, being penned against the Delaware River, would become easy targets. Later, messengers arrived with word of events in the north. A livid Cornwallis and his soldiers immediately set out on the road to Princeton, where they faced the unpleasant task of fording the frigid and swollen waters of Stony Creek; the Americans had burned the bridge as they departed.
Washington was faced with a crucial decision. The aggressive side of his character wanted to march directly on the British regional headquarters at New Brunswick, which held ?70,000 in silver and a huge store of supplies. His more conservative side, however, realized that Cornwallis was in pursuit and that his own army was exhausted. The latter prevailed. He and the Continental Army headed for Morristown, arriving on January 5 and 6 to establish its winter quarters. Cornwallis retired to New Brunswick.
The Battle of Princeton resulted in 86 British casualties and around 200 soldiers captured; the Americans suffered 40 casualties, including Mercer's death. Beyond those numbers, Washington’s bold action embodied other meanings:
On January 1, 1777 the British had been in control of New Jersey and were in a position to take the prize of Philadelphia, if they so chose. Several days later, the seat of the Continental Congress, recently deserted by the delegates, was safe and the British presence in New Jersey was confined to a small area in the northeastern corner of the state. This remarkable turnaround greatly increased American morale.
The experience of the twin victories helped Washington to grasp how to fight the war most effectively. The main body of the British armies was to be avoided; attacks were to be made on smaller forces in outlying areas, a strategy that made it difficult for the British to extend their control over broad expanses of territory.
- The results of Trenton and Princeton were noted in France. Britain’s great international rival was not yet prepared to enter the war on the American side, but had been encouraged enough by the recent events to extend badly needed supplies to the rebels.
See also campaigns of 1776 and timeline of the War of Independence .
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