Battle of Princeton


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Battle of Princeton

Princeton, BATTLE AT. Alarmed by the blow at Trenton (see TRENTON, BATTLE AT), the British broke up their encampments along the Delaware, and retired to Princeton. George Washington then reoccupied Trenton, where he was speedily joined by 3,600 Pennsylvania militia. At that time the term of enlistment of the New England regiments expired, but the persuasions of their officers and a bounty of $10 induced them to remain for six weeks longer. Howe detained Cornwallis (who was about to sail for England), and sent him to take command of the concentrated troops at Princeton, about 10 miles northeast of Trenton. Reinforced by troops from New Brunswick, he marched on Trenton (January 2, 1777), where Washington was encamped on high ground east of a small stream, near where it enters the Delaware. After a sharp cannonade at a bridge and a ford, the British encamped, feeling sure of capturing the whole of Washington's army in the morning. The position of the latter was a perilous one. He had 5,000 men, half of them militia who had been only a few days in camp. To fight the veterans before him would be madness; to attempt to recross the Delaware in the face of the enemy would be futile. Washington called a council of war, and it was decided to attempt to gain the rear of the enemy during the night, beat up his quarters at Princeton, and, if possible, fall on his stores at New Brunswick. Washington kept his campfires brightly burning, sent his baggage silently down the river to Burlington, had small parties throwing up entrenchments within hearing of the British sentinels, and at about midnight, the weather having suddenly become very cold and the ground hard frozen, the whole American army marched away unobserved by the enemy. By a circuitous route, they reached Princeton (January 3) before sunrise. Two or three British regiments lying at Princeton had just begun their march to join Cornwallis at Trenton. Their commander, Colonel Mawhood, first discovered the approaching Americans, under General Mercer, and a sharp engagement ensued, each having two field-pieces.

Princeton Battle Map

Original 1777 Map of the Battle of Princeton

Meanwhile the British at Trenton were greatly surprised, in the morning, to find their expected prey had escaped. The American campfires were still burning, but the little army had mysteriously disappeared. Faint sounds of cannonading at Princeton reached the ear of Cornwallis at Trenton. Although it was a keen winter morning, he thought it the rumbling of distant thunder. General Erskine more readily comprehended the matter, and exclaimed, "Thunder? To arms, general! Washington has outgeneralled us! Let us fly to the rescue at Princeton!" The army was soon on the move in that direction. In the mean time the battle at Princeton was sharp and decisive. Mercer's forces were furiously attacked with the deadly bayonet, and they fled in disorder. The enemy pursued until, on the brow of a hill, they discovered the American regulars and Pennsylvania militia, under Washington, marching to the support of Mercer, who, in trying to rally his men, had his horse disabled under him, and was finally knocked down by a clubbed musket, and mortally wounded. Just then Washington appeared, checked the flight of the fugitives, and, with the help of Moulder's artillery, intercepted the other British regiment.

Mawhood saw Washington bringing order out of confusion, and, charging with his artillery, tried in vain to seize Moulder's cannon. At this onset the Pennsylvanians, first in line, began to waver, when Washington, to encourage them, rode to the forefront of danger. For a moment he was hidden in the battlesmoke, and a shiver of dread lest he had fallen ran through the army. When he appeared, unhurt, a shout of joy rent the air. A fresh force of Americans, under Colonel Hitchcock, came up, and, with Hand's riflemen, were turning the British left, when Mawhood ordered a retreat. His force (the 70th Regiment) fled across the snow-covered fields, leaving two brass cannon behind them. The 55th Regiment, which had attempted to reinforce them, were pressed by the New England troops, under Stark, Poor, Patterson, Reed, and others, and were joined in their flight towards New Brunswick by the 40th, who had not taken part in the action. A British regiment in the strong stonebuilt Nassau Hall, of the College of New Jersey, was cannonaded, and soon surrendered.

Princeton Battlefield

Battlefield at Princeton

In this short but sharp battle the British lost; in killed, wounded, and prisoners, about 430 men. The American loss was about 100, including Colonels Haslet and Potter, Major Morris, and Captains Shippen, Fleming, and Neal. Mercer died nine days after the battle. When Cornwallis arrived at Princeton, Washington and his little army and prisoners were far on their way towards the Millstone River, in hot pursuit of the 40th and 55th regiments. Washington relinquished the chase because of the great fatigue of his soldiers; and moving on to MORRISTOWN, in east Jersey, there established the winter quarters of the army. He was universally applauded. It is said that Frederick the Great, of Prussia, declared that the achievements of Washington and his little band of patriots, between December 25, 1776, and January 4, 1777, were the most brilliant of any recorded in military history.



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