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The Campaign of Princeton 1776-1777
By Alfred Hoyt Bill
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1975 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
General Washington Gives a Dinner
For those who called themselves patriots in the Independent States of America, the year 1776 had been drawing to a close in unmitigated gloom. Brilliant successes at its beginning — the British compelled to evacuate Boston, Sir Henry Clinton and a British fleet repulsed at Charleston — had been followed by an unbroken series of defeats and disasters. The American forces had been driven out of Canada; Arnold's flotilla had lost its battle on Lake Champlain. Washington's army had barely escaped capture on Long Island. New York had been abandoned, Manhattan Island traversed in a retreat that Washington called "disgraceful and dastardly." Fort Washington had been stormed, Fort Lee given up, the Hudson opened to the enemy as far as the Highlands. The Jerseys had been overrun, and only by the grace of God and the dilatory movements of General Howe had Washington succeeded in placing the Delaware between his army and its pursuers.
From Philadelphia the Continental Congress had departed in haste to the safer refuge of Baltimore, and each day saw increasing numbers of the more prudent citizens filling their carriages with wives and children, loading wagons with the most precious of their belongings, and driving off through the mud and frozen slush to seek asylum in the country. For so soon as the Delaware was frozen — and that was almost sure to happen on one of these late December nights — the British would cross it on the ice, and there would be nothing between them and the city but the half-starved, ragged, and barefoot remnants of what had been called, to distinguish it from other American forces, "the Grand Army." It is small wonder that Robert Morris, one of the Committee of Three that the Congress had left in Philadelphia to keep in close touch with the Commander-in-Chief, wrote to him on the first day of the New Year: "The year 1776 is over. I am heartily glad of it, and hope you nor America will ever be plagued with such another."
At its very end, however, it had brought a sudden gleam of hope, a victory that shone amid the encircling gloom like the first beam of the sunrise of a new and better day. On December 27th Washington had been able to write to the President of the Congress: "I have the pleasure of congratulating you on the success of an enterprise, which I had formed against a detachment of the enemy lying in Trenton, and which was executed yesterday morning." With only twenty-four hundred of his tattered ill-armed soldiers he had recrossed the Delaware and smashed a brigade of Hessian mercenaries who were reputed to be among the finest troops in Europe, killing twenty or thirty of them, mortally wounding their commander and the officer acting as second-in-command, capturing more than half of them, and putting the rest to ignominious flight. Two days later he was entertaining his captives of the higher ranks at dinner at his headquarters.
Those who wished to minimize the exploit — and the British dearly wished to do so — by calling it a mere raid might do so. But its consequences, the prisoners, and the booty belied the imputation of that phrase. Lord Stirling, writing to Governor Livingston at Washington's request on the day of the dinner, said: "The effect is amazing: the enemy have deserted Borden Town, Black Horse, Burlington, Mount Holly and are fled to South Amboy." At American headquarters in the Widow Harris's house on the west side of the common at Newtown in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, four captured field officers sat at the table of the Commander-in-Chief, while at the Sign of the Red Lion in the village nineteen officers of lower rank dined with Brigadier General Lord Stirling, who had been kindly treated by the Hessian General von Heister when he had been made prisoner at the battle of Long Island.
The guests wore the black coats of the Knyphausen Regiment or the scarlet of the Lossbergs — both excellent organizations — or the dark blue of Rail's, which, though it had been hastily recruited, had behaved with conspicuous gallantry in the assault on Fort Washington. Placed tactfully out of sight doubtless but securely in possession of the victors were the enemy's regimental standards and company guidons. That of the Lossbergs was a white four-foot square with a crown and monogram, an eagle and Pro Principe et Patria worked in gold on its silken folds. Another bore on a green field a lion rampant in a gilded circle and the motto, Nescit Pericula. Six double fortified brass three-pounders, three ammunition wagons, forty horses, and a thousand muskets were also among the spoil, and snugly lodged in the Newtown Presbyterian church and the Bucks County jail were 888 more prisoners, the rank and file of the three defeated and routed regiments.
In the warm candle-light of the pleasant room Washington listened with grave urbanity to the Hessian officers seated around his table. The hardship, danger, and grinding anxiety of his venture were behind him; his troops, prisoners, and spoil back safe across the river. The Madeira circulated, loosening the tongues of his guests in halting English and copious German poured forth to an interpreter. For war was still the business of gentlemen. It was only thirty years since Fontenoy, where an officer of the English Guards had requested the French King's Guards to fire first. And both parties on this occasion understood what was fitting between gentlemen, though they had been doing their best to kill each other not many hours before.
In the afternoon Washington had received all twenty-three of the captured officers and encouraged them to talk. They were now comfortably quartered in the inns and private houses of the village. But defeat and the first night of their captivity, which had been spent in the ferry house at McKonkey's ferry after some of them had been compelled to wade ashore through breast-deep icy water, had chastened their arrogant Teutonic spirits. Apparently they found their present situation sehr angenehm and basked in the condescension of their captor. They were free, especially the younger ones, of their criticisms of the conduct of Colonel Rail, their late commander, making the most of the liberty of speech that their captivity had conferred upon them, and Washington listened to them with a flattering interest equal to their interest in him.
He impressed them as courteous and polite but very cautious and reserved, and since they were probably still rather at a loss to account for the defeat of their fine battalions by his ragged rabble, it is not astonishing that they thought his physiognomy "crafty." Had they been aware of the operation that he was even then considering they might have found it more so.
Only ten days before, Washington had written to his brother John Augustine that "the game" was "pretty nearly up" unless every nerve was strained to create a new army. His men were daily slipping away, and two days before his advance on Trenton he had written to his Adjutant General, Colonel Joseph Reed, that "necessity, dire necessity will, nay, must, justify my attack." For unless he made the venture, desperate though it was, cold, nakedness, disease, and despair would destroy his army, as General Howe was evidently confident that they would do. And on the existence of that army alone depended the American cause.
Until the fall of Fort Washington in mid-November the American Commander-in-Chief had preserved some hopes of winning the campaign. But the loss of that stronghold, which he had attempted to defend only because the Congress had ordered him to do so, had cost him 3000 of his best drilled and best equipped troops, a great many cannon, and quantities of invaluable supplies. He had stood on the ramparts of Fort Lee on the opposite bank of the Hudson and wept tears of helpless rage and pity to see his men bayoneted by some of the very Hessians who were now his prisoners. Four days later the energetic thirty-eight-year-old Cornwallis had crossed the Hudson, climbed the Palisades with 4000 men and heavy guns, and so nearly surprised Major General Nathanael Greene's 2000 at Fort Lee that in their retreat they left behind them thirty-two pieces of artillery, a thousand barrels of flour, many tents, their baggage, and even their blankets. They had reached the bridge over the Hackensack with nothing but their muskets and two twelve-pounders.
Washington, with his actual strength reduced to about 4000 effectives — nearly 5000 of his troops had been made prisoner in the past twelve weeks — could only retreat, and he could do that only with difficulty. He narrowly escaped being trapped between the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, and the British entered Newark as he was leaving it. At New Brunswick he placed the Raritan between him and his enemy and demolished a portion of the bridge. But Cornwallis was quick to follow, marching twenty miles in one day over the terrible roads of the time and season, though the British infantryman, with full equipment, carried a load of a hundred pounds and on this maneuver the troops had so far outrun their supply train that they had to subsist on nothing but flour.
At New Brunswick, too, the Maryland and New Jersey militia, their terms of service having expired, left for home, with the enemy only two hours march away. The British artillery opened fire across the river, and the American guns answered them in a cannonade that did little damage to either side. But desertion had become epidemic; no fresh troops joined the army from the country roundabout; to attempt to hold the line of the Raritan with those that remained was not to be thought of, and Washington fell back to the Delaware.
Had Howe not sent Cornwallis orders to wait for him and reinforcements before advancing farther it seems impossible that Washington could have escaped destruction. His army now numbered barely 3000, his men lacked shoes and stockings and even shirts. Regiments that still had tents were ordered to burn them to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy, since there were no wagons to move them, and for the same reason large stocks of supplies had to be abandoned at New Brunswick. To keep from freezing in the bleak December nights the soldiers lay close together on the bare ground with their feet toward their campfires. For want of camp kettles they cooked their scanty rations on their ramrods. But when Howe's conduct of the war was investigated by a committee of the House of Commons some years later, Cornwallis testified that the fatigue of his troops and lack of supplies had prevented him from making a more vigorous pursuit. He knew right well, moreover, that he was not hunting a harmless quarry. Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense had sold 120,000 copies in the first three months after its publication and set the revolutionary spirit flaming throughout the country, bore witness to that fact. He rode in this campaign as an aide to General Greene and pointed out afterwards that Washington's men, though defeated, were not beaten, and Paine was not the man to gloss things over. When ordered to stand for a fight, they never failed to obey, and such was Washington's confidence in them that he sent a detachment of them off to Monmouth County to quell a Loyalist insurrection.
Nevertheless, the week that Howe allowed to pass before he joined Cornwallis with reinforcements was a godsend to Washington. He placed Lord Stirling at Princeton with five Virginia regiments and one from Delaware to observe the enemy, and retired with the rest of his army to Trenton, where he caused the banks of the Delaware to be scoured for miles up and down its course until he had secured not only enough boats to ferry his troops across the river but had made sure that not one remained in which the enemy could follow him. He then returned to Princeton and, as Stirling's command fell back on Trenton, accompanied the pioneers of its rear-guard, personally supervising the felling of trees across the road and the destruction of every bridge in order to retard the British pursuit.
On Sunday morning, December 8th, the last of the American troops were ferried across to the Pennsylvania shore, and when the British advance-guard marched into Trenton, with bands playing and colors flying, just a little later, a salvo of grapeshot greeted them from the opposite bank. It seemed, sneered a British officer, as if General Howe had calculated with the greatest accuracy the exact time for his enemy to escape. Cornwallis promptly led a strong force up the river and occupied Pennington — Penny Town to him and to Washington as well — but, search where he would, not one boat could he find. And a search down stream was equally fruitless.
So Washington's army — all that remained of it — was saved at least for the time being. That was the best that could be said for it. "You can form no idea of the perplexity of my situation," he wrote to his brother. "No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties, and less means to extricate himself from them." Only a few of his regiments were now two hundred strong. Some were down to between forty and ninety. The 3rd Virginia had 160 enlisted men with the colors, 450 sick, or on extra duty or on furlough. The Delaware regiment reported ninety-two fit, twenty-eight on the sick list. His "little handful," Washington wrote, was "daily decreasing," and he begged the Congress repeatedly for "a respectable army" with long-term enlistments instead of "the destructive, expensive and disorderly mob" that resulted from dependence on the militia.
But militia was better than no army at all, and some sort of army had to be kept in the field while the new regiments were being raised, equipped, and organized. General Greene considered the Pennsylvania militia to be "disaffected," all but the Philadelphia organizations, which could be absolutely relied on, and Washington himself thought their loyalty so doubtful that he proposed to the Committee of Safety that they be disarmed. Nevertheless, he sent General Thomas Mifflin to Philadelphia and through the surrounding country, and General John Armstrong to various likely counties, to rouse them to action. General William Smallwood, whom wounds received at White Plains had rendered unfit for active service, went recruiting in Delaware and Maryland.
At the request of the Congress several of the city organizations had marched to Washington's support even before he entered their state. Commanded by General John Cadwalader, three battalions of "Associators" — citizens who had agreed to "defend with arms, their property, liberty and lives" — Captain Samuel Morris's troop of light horse, and Captain Thomas Forrest's battery, about iooo men in all, had joined Washington at Trenton along with a regiment composed of Pennsylvania and Maryland Germans and small detachments of the Hunterdon and Middlesex brigades of the militia of New Jersey. Although, as Captain Morris wrote home, the departure of the Congress only a few days after it had resolved that Philadelphia was to be defended "to the utmost extremity" had "struck a damp on ye feelings of many," a state bounty of ten dollars had induced the Pennsylvania troops to promise to remain in the field for six weeks, and each man who reported for duty had been promised a new pair of shoes and stockings. This promise was not kept. But, fresh from their homes, they were well clothed, well armed, and well equipped.
The plight of the regular troops, on the other hand, was only a little less wretched than it had been during the retreat. Posted at the ferries, of which there were nine in all to be guarded, they "crouched in the bushes," as one of them wrote, or behind the ramparts of the small redoubts erected to defend the landings. Later they built shanties, in which, Stirling reported cheerfully, "they lay compact and well covered with boards." They had enough to eat now, for supply wagons came out regularly from Philadelphia to Newtown, where the Commissary and Quartermaster were located. But their want of clothing and especially shoes continued to be deplorable. Advertisements asking for the donation of blankets for the army had been appearing in the newspapers for a month and had aroused the wonder and pity of humane British officers who chanced to see them. Collections of old clothes and shoes were made in Philadelphia and the surrounding towns, and amid Washington's innumerable preoccupations he found time to write an expression of his gratitude for what the Philadelphia people had "charitably contributed."
The Continental uniforms of buff and blue were close to becoming, as their wearers jested, "all buff." The Riflemen's shirts, which were hunting shirts of linen and were worn by most of the soldiers in the field, were filthy and ragged and often the sole covering of bodies infested with vermin. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was with the army, greatly regretted that the lack of woollen cloth made the use of these garments necessary. Perspiration, mixing with rain, in linen, he noted, caused the deposit of miasmata which was believed to produce fevers. Certainly fevers were prevalent among these troops. So were pneumonia and dysentery. Typhus made its dread appearance, and deserters spread it over the countryside. The condition of the sick and wounded was pitiable. Even in October one surgeon's mate was the sole medical man for five battalions. The supplies of bandages and drugs had long since been lost or exhausted, and the country apothecary shops generally contained nothing more than Ippecacuana, rhubarb, and Globar salts.
Excerpted from The Campaign of Princeton 1776-1777 by Alfred Hoyt Bill. Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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