. . . guerrilla warfare enters War of Movement phase . . . S.L.
On this day in 1776, General George Washington and the Continental Army attacked the British garrison at Trenton, New Jersey.
About 1,500 Hessians (German mercenaries working for the British) were stationed at Trenton. The Hessian officer in charge at Trenton, Johann Gottlieb Rall, dismissed two warnings he'd received that the Americans were coming. A small exchange of gunfire between some Hessian guards and an American patrol occurred on Christmas Day; Rall thought this incident was the attack of which he’d been warned. He did not believe the Americans capable of a larger attack, especially given the terrible weather.
The weather was both a blessing and a curse that day. The snow and ice made the crossing almost impossible, but it also kept the Hessians from realizing that an attack was under way.
Washington's troops arrived at Trenton at 8 a.m., one hour after sunrise, and immediately initiated combat. The original plan was to arrive at Trenton at 5 a.m., well before sunrise, to launch a surprise attack. To complicate things further, Washington had a smaller force than anticipated because two other parts of his army had decided that the Delaware crossing was too difficult to attempt. An American officer, Henry Knox, later wrote: “The storm continued with great violence, but was in our backs, and consequently in the faces of the enemy.” Thus, the Hessian guards couldn’t tell what was happening at first. Once they realized what was happening, they began an orderly retreat back into the city.
The Americans had been up all night; they were tired, wet, and cold, but they fought gallantly. They set up cannons and cleared the main streets quickly. Meanwhile, the side streets were full of Hessians and Americans engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Things were happening quickly. Snow and gunpowder smoke swirled around and added to the confusion. Before long, Rall ordered a retreat to a nearby orchard, but the Hessians found themselves surrounded. They laid down their arms and surrendered: 900 of them were taken prisoner; 500 escaped; 21 were killed; 90 were wounded.
The battle took less than 45 minutes. Washington won a significant victory just when it was needed most.
The Battle of Trenton was an overwhelming defeat for the British. Hessian casualties included Colonel Johan Rall, killed in action . . . only four Americans were wounded and none were killed.