Victory or death
Men and boys of the Continental Army shivered in the bitter, biting cold. The snow had changed to rain and then sleet. The men were badly clothed. Some were with no shoes or shoes falling apart. Rags were wrapped around their bleeding and frostbitten feet. Most had no gloves, heavy coats or scarves. They were about to join 2,000 other troops in an attempt to cross an ice-clogged river.
When? Christmas Day, 1776
Who? Generals Washington, Greene and Sullivan with approximately 2,400 men, including many Rhode Islanders, and 13 cannons.
Why? To try for a desperately needed victory over the Hessians entrenched at Trenton, New Jersey.
In December of 1776, the future of Rhode Island and of all the colonies was very bleak. George Washington had suffered a terrible defeat on Long Island. Newport was firmly controlled by the British and raids were being made all along the Rhode Island coast. Many American troops had deserted. Of the 20,000 men Washington had when he left Boston, only 10,000 remained. Of that number, 5,400 were ill. He could count on little more than 4,000 fighting men. To add to the problem, the term of enlistment for most of his troops was up at the end of the year. Many Rhode Islanders, upset by the success of the British in their home state, wanted to go home. It took all the persuasive powers of General Nathanael Greene to convince them to stay on a little while longer.
On December 17 Washington received a report from the American spy, John Honeyman. His news was to change the course of events. Honeyman was well known to many Rhode Islanders as one of the heroic group that accompanied Wolfe to Quebec in the French and Indian War. Now, Honeyman was a butcher and cattle dealer. He used this profession as an excuse to get into the Hessian camp at Trenton. His report of the positions and weaknesses of the enemy greatly aided Washington in making his plans. These foreign mercenaries that the British had hired to fight against the Americans numbered about 1,900. They were joined by a detachment of British light cavalry (dragoons). The man in charge was the Hessian colonel Johann Ralls, who held nothing but contempt for the Americans, whom he called “country clowns.”
Honeyman had reported that the Hessians had purchased large quantities of food and drink in preparation for Christmas Day. The Hessians, like other Germanic peoples, carried on the old Teutonic traditions of the Yule log, the decorating of an evergreen tree, and the hearty eating and drinking during the winter holiday. These soldiers, far away from home and with a low opinion of American troops, were greatly pleased when Ralls ordered extra provisions for them. He allowed them to bring in a large evergreen tree to be decorated with lighted candles, and he made no attempt to stop the heavy drinking that went on. In spite of reports of American movements across the river, he dismissed his usual guard. Ralls stationed but one officer and 30 men on the river road and two officers and 100 men on the "upper" road.
Washington felt that the time was right for an attack. On Christmas Eve, Washington, Greene and Sullivan met in Greene's headquarters to outline the strategy. If the Americans could surprise the Hessians, the moral victory would be great. The Hessians, mercenary troops hired by the British, had a reputation unmatched in Europe. They were reputed to be the greatest soldiers and were feared by many of the colonists.
Washington organized his men into 30 small regiments, making up eight brigades and two divisions. One of the divisions would be commanded by General Greene and the other by General Sullivan. These divisions were to cross the Delaware at McKonkey's Ferry (now Taylorsville) about nine miles north of Trenton. General Ewing, with his troops, was to cross at Trenton to cut off any retreat.
The Americans reached the river late on Christmas day. Each man was given three days of provisions, a new flint and 40 rounds of ammunition. Washington's selection of the countersign, "Victory or Death," was a good indication of his desperation. By the time they started to cross, the sun had set and it was bitter cold. The river at McKonkey's Ferry was full of block-ice driven in heaps by the incoming tide. The hope of a full moon to light the way had disappeared with the heavy clouds. By 11 o'clock it had started to snow. At daybreak, a violent northeast storm battered the troops with rain, sleet and snow.
The job of getting Washington and his 2,400 troops and 13 cannons across the river fell upon Captain John Glover's Marblehead, Massachusetts fishermen and Rhode Island seamen. The rowboats had been captured on December 7 and hastily repaired. Some of them still leaked. The crossing was a feat in itself. Washington had hoped to cross by midnight, but it was closer to 3 a.m. when they reached the other side on the morning of December 26. By 4 a.m., Washington received the news that General Ewing couldn't cross the river as the wind was too great. Other troops under Colonel Cadwalader were going to be very late. Washington decided he couldn't turn back now and gave the order to proceed. The troops marched the long nine miles to Trenton spreading the password, "Victory of Death." General Greene's troops took the "upper" or Pennington Road, while the division under General Sullivan proceeded along the “river” road.
While all this was going on, the Hessians were celebrating and many were drinking very heavily. Two deserters and a Tory farmer had warned Colonel Ralls that the Americans were coming. Ralls ignored the warning and actually sat up late Christmas night playing cards and drinking until he fell into a drunken sleep. He was so confident that his men could outfight the Americans under any conditions that he neglected his basic duties.
At 7:30 a.m. on December 26, the Americans reached the camp. One of the Hessian commanders, Lieutenant Wiederhold, staggered from his quarters and stood there dumbfounded as about 200 men of Greene's advance guard came out of the woods. A sentry shouted a warning but it was too late. Deadly fire filled the air. Within three minutes, Sullivan's men appeared from the "river" toad. Hessians ran for their lives. Lieutenant Piel, Ralls’ adjutant, reported that he rushed in and shook his commander and gave him the news. To Piel's surprise, he found Ralls minutes later still sitting on his bed, too drunk to comprehend what was happening immediately.
General Nathanael Greene, quick to assess the situation, extended his two leading brigades, drove the Hessians in, and formed a continuous line with Sullivan. The American sharpshooters took a heavy toll of the Hessians as they ran from their barracks.
Many Americans, finding that their firearms were too wet from the snow and rain to fire, fixed bayonets and with a cheer, charged the enemy. The artillery, under the very capable Henry Knox, opened fire. The enemy camp was confused and disorganized. The air was filled with shouts and curses in two languages. By this time Colonel Ralls was fully awake and rushed out into the street in an attempt to wheel his artillery into position. Greene's Rhode Islanders, under the command of 18-year-old James Monroe (who 40 years later would be president), shot the horses and captured the cannons. Ralls was struck by two bullets and was mortally wounded.
Within 45 minutes the battle was over. The Hessian losses were high. Over 40 Hessians were killed or wounded. Twenty-three officers and 886 men were captured, including three regiments of crack Hessian grenadiers and fusiliers (musket-carrying troops). The American losses were two dead and four wounded. The Hessian losses would have been even higher, but as General Ewing was unable to cross the Delaware in time and a number of Hessians and British dragoons escaped. Washington wisely decided not to pursue the enemy as his men were worn out after the many hours in the freezing rain and snow. Two men had actually frozen to death in the ordeal.
Along with the 100 prisoners, the Americans also took six cannons, over 1,000 muskets, 12 drums of gunpowder and several hogsheads (large casks or barrels containing over 63 gallons) of rum. The generals allowed for liberal amounts of the rum to be passed to the troops. Cheered by the victory and warmed by the rum, the Americans returned to their camp the same day.
The victory was significant. Washington had proven that the Americans were far from being beaten. They had fought against seasoned troops and won. There were to be many more difficult times before the war would be over, but Trenton ranks as one of the most crucial of the battles of the Revolutionary War.