240 years ago, British military leadership ignored common sense and the protestations of its officers in the field, and extended a defensive cordon along the Delaware River. Ostensibly designed to maintain pressure on Washington’s fleeing army, the new defensive line instead ensured that Britain’s forces were spread thinly and too distantly from one another for timely response to attack.
On the morning of 26 December, Washington crossed the Delaware with more than 2,400 troops and attacked a Hessian brigade quartered in Trenton. The Hessian outposts fought a fighting retreat to the town, where runners had already alerted the garrison. By the time the first of the enemy reached the treeline outside the town, the three Hessian regiments had formed for battle. Fortuitously, American riflemen dispatched the brigade commander, Colonel Johann Rall, and his XO with mortal wounds in the first minutes of engagement. In the ensuing confusion, the remaining Hessian officers realized too late that retreat was their only option. While some had managed to escape the town before encirclement, and brought news of the “Trenton Affaire” to the closest allied encampments, more than 900 Hessian troops fell into rebel captivity. It was the first major rebel victory of the war and, as the story goes, inspired countless soldiers to reenlist in the army for another year.
Victory had been made possible by Washington’s military acumen and the irresponsible overconfidence of British command in the wake of their victories in the New York – New Jersey Campaign. Contrary to popular belief, the Hessians (who, as Germans do, celebrated Christmas on the 24th) were not surprised in a hungover stupor. A Hessian court martial of the officers captured at Trenton was concerned foremost with what they thought was the most critical question of that fateful morning: why had these officers not recognized their situation more quickly and ordered an organized retreat?
Over the next few days, I will post more information about this fateful battle in commemoration of its 240th anniversary.