Battle of Princeton
3 January 1777
January 2016, CMH
by Glenn Williams
The Battle That Saved the Revolution
Less than a half year after the thirteen colonies declared independence, the American Revolution nearly ended in disaster. A massive British army, including regiments of German auxiliaries, had driven General George Washington's Continental Army out of New York City and across New Jersey in retreat. With the army's numbers dwindling, American independence appeared to be a lost cause. From 25 December 1776 to 3 January 1777, however, Washington led his Continentals, reinforced by militia, to win two stunning victories in what many historians call "the ten crucial days that saved the American Revolution." The Battle of Princeton, the second major engagement in less than two weeks, marked the first time Washington's army defeated British regulars in open combat. The resounding victory restored confidence in the soldiers and renewed the fight for independence.
Washington Crosses the Delaware
Just weeks earlier, General William Howe, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, ordered his troops to halt their advance at the Delaware River and take winter quarters, confident they would finish off the rebel army in the spring. As Howe retired to New York City and his trusted subordinate, Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, prepared to sail home to England for a well-deserved leave, Washington developed an audacious plan. On Christmas night he boldly led the remnants of his battered army, about 2,400 men, out of their camps and crossed the Delaware. Early the next morning they attacked and forced nearly the entire German garrison stationed at Trenton, New Jersey, to surrender, then quickly returned to Pennsylvania with their prisoners and captured supplies. The American commander then decided to seek another victory before his soldiers went into winter quarters.
Parade With Us My Brave Fellows
Washington returned to the New Jersey side a few days later, with his army reinforced by militia to about 4,500 men, and took a fortified position along Assunpink Creek near Trenton. When General Howe learned of the move, he determined to avenge the loss at Trenton and crush the Continental Army once and for all. He cancelled General Cornwallis' leave and ordered him to march with approximately 8,000 troops. After leaving a rear-guard of 1,200 men in Princeton under the command of Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood, Cornwallis advanced against Washington's army. Slowed by heavy rains that made movement on the roads difficult, the lead units of Cornwallis' army encountered American skirmishers on 2 January. After fighting a delaying action most of the afternoon, the American covering force withdrew to the main line dug in on a low ridge behind Assunpink Creek. Following three unsuccessful attacks, Cornwallis decided to halt for the night and continue what is known as the Battle of Assunpink Creek – or the Second Battle of Trenton – the next day.
The Battle of Princeton, January 2–3, 1777
Washington, unwilling to risk the destruction of his army for little gain, had other plans. In the night, as a detachment of 400 men stayed to act as sentries and keep campfires burning to deceive his opponent that the army remained in place, the rest of Washington's men quietly evacuated the position. The Americans marched along side roads around the British flank and headed toward Princeton to attack the British post there before Cornwallis knew they were gone.
The American army approached Princeton in the early morning of 3 January as Colonel Mawhood moved with 1,000 men to join Cornwallis for the anticipated battle near Trenton. When he saw the men of Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer's Continental Brigade emerge from the woods to his left, Mawhood ordered his men to attack. The Battle of Princeton had begun.
Weary from the night march and the grueling events of the previous several days, the Continentals broke and fled after exchanging volleys of musketry. A brigade of Pennsylvania militia, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Cadwallader, with a few companies of marines attached, fared no better. The retreating American troops rallied when Washington appeared on the battlefield at the crucial moment. As he rode ahead to assume personal command of the battle, Washington called out to the retreating men, "Parade with us, my brave fellows. There are but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly." Other American units advancing to the sound of the guns moved against the British flanks. Nearly surrounded, Mawhood ordered a bayonet charge to help his now outnumbered force break the encirclement and retreated toward Princeton. By this time, Cornwallis' army was advancing from the direction of Trenton to catch Washington in a trap. The Americans pushed on to Princeton, where about 200 men of Mawhood's rear guard had taken refuge in Nassau Hall on the campus of the College of New Jersey – now Princeton University. A few rounds of artillery fired at the building convinced the Redcoats to capitulate.
Having achieved another unlikely victory, the Americans suffered 23 men killed, including General Mercer, and 20 wounded compared to the British losses of 28 dead, 58 wounded and 323 captured. Convinced that his men had accomplished all that he could expect, Washington headed to winter quarters in Morristown. The victory had raised the spirits of his army, spurred the recruitment of new soldiers to fill the depleted ranks and raised the hopes of Americans seeking independence.
Over the winter, the Continental Army used Morristown as a base from which it conducted partisan operations in conjunction with local Patriot militia, and threatened British installations and lines of communications. The defeats experienced by his army during the "ten crucial days" had angered General Howe, and convinced him to consolidate his forces. He ordered many of the British outposts in New Jersey abandoned and directed Cornwallis to withdraw back to New Brunswick and New York City. Washington's victory at Princeton ultimately forced the British to forfeit much of what they had won the previous autumn.
A New Battle at Princeton
Today, a good portion of the site of the Battle of Princeton is preserved as a New Jersey state park, although the most significant part of the battlefield, which sits on private property, is in danger of catastrophic destruction from residential development. The very site of Washington's counterattack, where he inspired his men "to parade with us, my brave fellows," and the climax of "the ten crucial days that saved the American Revolution," is being excavated to make way for several units of a housing project. Undeterred by the impassioned pleas of historic preservation, veterans, patriotic, civic and environmental groups, the Institute for Advanced Study, which owns the property, is moving forward with plans to destroy one of the most historic piece of real estate in the United States.
CMH Related Publications