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The Battle of Princeton (January 3, 1777) was a battle in which
General Washington's revolutionary forces defeated
British forces near
Jersey. The site is administered as a
park operated and maintained by the
New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry.
On the night of January 2, General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief
Continental Army, repulsed a British attack at the
Battle of the Assunpink Creek. That night, he evacuated his position and
went to attack the British garrison at
Mercer, of the Continental Army, clashed with two Regiments under the
command of Lieutenant Colonel
Charles Mawhood of the
British Army. Mercer and his troops were overrun and Washington sent
some Militia under General
John Cadwalader to help him. The Militia, on seeing the flight of
Mercer's men, also began to flee. Washington rode up with reinforcements and
rallied the fleeing Militia. He led the attack on Mawhood's troops, driving
them back. Mawhood gave the order to retreat and most of the troops tried to
flee to Cornwallis in Trenton.
In Princeton itself, General
John Sullivan forced some British troops who had taken refuge in
Nassau Hall to surrender, ending the battle. Washington moved his army
Morristown, and with their third defeat in 10 days, the British
evacuated New Jersey. With the victory at Princeton, morale rose in the
ranks and more men began to enlist in the army. The battle was the last
major action of Washington's winter New Jersey Campaign.
On the night of December 25, 1776 General George Washington,
Commander-in-chief of the
Continental Army, led 2,400 men across the
After a nine mile march, they seized the town of
killing or wounding over 100
Hessians and capturing 900 more. Soon after capturing the town,
Washington led the army back across the Delaware into
On the 29, Washington once again led the army across the river, and
established a defensive position at Trenton. On the 31, Washington appealed
to his men, whose enlistments expired at the end of the year, to stay for
just six more weeks for an extra bounty of ten dollars. His appeal worked,
and most of the men agreed to stay.
Also, that day, Washington learned that Congress had voted to give him
dictatorial powers for six months.
Lord Cornwallis left Princeton in command of 8,000 men who were sent to
attack Washington's army of 6,000 troops.
Washington sent troops to skirmish with the approaching British and delay
their advance. Indeed, it was almost nightfall by the time the British
After three failed attempts to cross the bridge over the
Assunpink Creek, beyond which were the American defenses, Cornwallis
called off the attack until the next day.
During the night, Washington called a council of war and asked his
officers whether they should stand and fight, attempt to cross the river
somewhere, or take the backroads to attack Princeton.
Although the idea had already occurred to Washington, he learned from
Arthur St. Clair and
John Cadwalader that his plan to attack Princeton was indeed possible.
After consulting with his officers, they agreed that the best option was to
Washington ordered that the excess baggage be taken to
Burlington where it could be sent to Pennsylvania.
Because there was a drop in temperature, the ground had frozen making it
possible to move the artillery without it sinking into the ground. By
midnight, the plan was complete, with the baggage on its way to Burlington
and the guns were wrapped in heavy cloth to make less noise and prevent the
British from learning of the evacuation.
Washington left 500 men behind with two cannon to patrol, keep the fires
burning, and to work with the picks and shovels to make the British think
that they were digging in. Before dawn, these men were to join up with the
By 2:00 Am the entire army was in motion and the men were ordered to
march with absolute silence.
Along the way, a rumor was spread that they were surrounded and some
frightened militiamen fled for
Philadelphia. The march was difficult, as some of the route ran through
thick woods and it was icy, causing horses to slip and men broke through ice
As dawn came, the army approached a stream called
The road the army had been following followed along Stony Brook for a mile
farther where it intersected with the Post Road, which ran from Trenton to
Princeton. However, off to the right of the road there was an unused road
which went across the farmland of a man named
The road was concealed from the Post Road and ran through cleared land to
the back of Princeton from which the town could be entered at any point
because the British had left it undefended.
However, Washington was running behind schedule as he had planned to
attack and capture the British outposts before dawn and capture the garrison
By the time dawn broke he was still two miles from the town.
Washington sent 350 men under the command of
Mercer to destroy the bridge over Stony Creek in order to delay
Cornwallis' army when he found out that Washington had escaped. Shortly
before 8:00 Am, Washington wheeled the rest of the army to the right down
the unused road.
First in the column went General
John Sullivan's division consisting of
Arthur St. Clair's and Isaac Sherman's brigades. Following them were
John Cadwalader's brigade and then Daniel Hitchcock's.
Charles Mawhood was following orders from Cornwallis to bring the 17th
and 55th British regiments to join Cornwallis' army when they climbed the
hill south of Stony Brook and sighted the main American army.
Unable to figure out the size of the American army due to the wooded hills,
he sent a rider to warn the 40th British Regiment which he had left in
Princeton and then wheeled the 17th and 55th Regiments around and headed
back to Princeton. That day, Mawhood had called off the patrol which was to
patrol the area from which Washington was approaching.
Mercer received word that Mawhood was leading his troops back across the
bridge and back to Princeton.
Mercer, on orders from Washington, moved his column to the right in order to
hit the British before they confronted Washington's main army.
Mercer moved towards Mawhood's rear but when he realized he would not be
able to cut off Mawhood in time, he decided to join Sullivan. When Mawhood
learned that Mercer was in his rear and moving to join Sullivan, Mawhood
detached part of the 55th Regiment to join the 40th Regiment in the town and
then moved the rest of the 55th, the 17th, fifty cavalry and two artillery
pieces to attack Mercer.
Mawhood ordered his light troops to delay Mercer, while he brought up the
Mercer was walking through
William Clark's orchard when the British light troops appeared. The
British light troops' volley went high which gave time for Mercer to wheel
his troops around into battle line. Mercer's troops advanced, pushing back
the British light troops.
The Americans took up a position behind a fence at the upper end of the
orchard. However, Mawhood had brought up his troops and his artillery up.
The American gunners opened fire first and for about ten minutes, the
outnumbered American infantry exchanged fire with the British. However, many
of the Americans had rifles which took longer to load than muskets.
Mawhood ordered a bayonet charge and because many of the Americans had
rifles, which could not be equipped with bayonets, they were overrun.
Both of the Americans cannon were captured, and the British turned them on
the fleeing troops.
Mercer was surrounded by British soldiers and they shouted at him "Surrender
you damn rebel!". The British, thinking they had caught Washington,
bayoneted him, smashed his head with a musket, and then left him for dead.
Mercer's second in command, Colonel
Haslet, was shot through the head and killed.
Fifty light infantrymen were in pursuit of Mercer's men when a fresh
brigade of 1,100 militiamen under the command of Cadwalader appeared.
Mawhood gathered his men who were all over the battlefield and put them into
battle line formation. Meanwhile, Sullivan was at a standoff with the
detachment of the 55th Regiment that had come to assist the 40th Regiment,
neither daring to move towards the main battle for risk of exposing their
Cadwalader attempted to move his men into a battle line but they had no
combat experience and did not know ever the most basic military maneuvers.
When his men reached the top of the hill and saw Mercer's men fleeing from
the British, most of the militia turned around and ran back down the hill.
As Cadwalader's men began to flee, the American guns opened fire onto the
British, who were preparing to charge, and the guns were able to hold them
off for several minutes.
Cadwalader was able to get one company to fire a volley but they fled
immediately afterwards. At this point, Washington arrived with the Virginia
Edward Hand's riflemen.
Washington ordered the riflemen and the Virginians to take up a position on
the right hand side of the hill and then Washington quickly rode over to
Cadwalader's fleeing men. Washington shouted, "Parade with us my brave
fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we shall have them
Cadwalader's men formed into battle formation at Washington's direction.
When Daniel Hitchcock's New England Continentals arrived, Washington sent
them to the right, where he had put the riflemen and the Virginians.
Washington, with his hat in his hand, rode forward and waved the
Americans forward, while he road ahead on his horse.
At this point, Mawhood had moved his troops slightly to the left to get out
of the range of the American artillery fire. Washington gave orders not to
fire until he gave them the signal, and when they were thirty yards away, he
turned around on his horse, facing his men and said "Halt!" and then
At this moment, the British also fired obscuring the field in a cloud of
smoke. One of Washington's officers, thinking he was dead, as he was in
between both lines, exposed from fire on both sides, pulled his hat over his
eyes, but when the smoke cleared, Washington appeared, unharmed, waving his
On the right, Hitchcock's New Englanders fired a volley and then advanced
again, threatening to turn the British flank.
The riflemen were slowly picking off British soldiers while the American
artillery was firing grapeshot at the British lines. At this point,
Hitchcock ordered his men to charge, and the British began to flee.
The British attempted to save their artillery but the militia also charged,
and Mawhood gave the order to retreat. The British fled towards the Post
Road followed by the Americans and Washington, who shouted "It's a fine fox
chase my boys!".
Some Americans had swarmed onto the Post Road in order to block to British
retreat across the bridge, but Mawhood ordered a bayonet charge, and broke
through the American lines, escaping across the bridge.
Some of the Americans, Hand's riflemen among them, continued to pursue the
British, and Mawhood ordered his Dragoons to buy them some time to retreat,
however, the Dragoons were pushed back. Some Americans continued to pursue
the fleeing British until nightfall, killing some and taking some prisoner.
After some time, Washington turned around and rode back to Princeton.
At the edge of town, the 55th Regiment received ordered from Mawhood to
fall back and join the 40th Regiment in town.
The 40th had taken up a position just outside of town, on the North side of
a ravine. The 55th formed up to the left of the 40th. The 55th sent a
platoon to flank the oncoming Americans, but were cut to pieces.
When Sullivan sent several regiments to scale the ravine, they fell back to
After making a brief stand, the British fell back again, some leaving
Princeton, and others taking up refuge in
Alexander Hamilton brought some guns up and had them blast away at the
building. Then some Americans rushed the front door, broke it down, and the
British put a white flag outside one of the windows.
The British walked out of the building and laid down their arms.
After entering Princeton, the Americans began to loot the abandoned
British supply wagons and the town itself.
With news that Cornwallis was approaching, Washington knew he had to leave
Princeton. Washington wanted to push onto New Brunswick and capture a
British pay chest of 70,000 pounds but
Nathanael Greene talked him out of it.
Instead, Washington moved his army to Somerset Courthouse and in the
following days, to
Morristown, arriving on January 6, at 5:00 Pm.
After the battle, Cornwallis abandoned many of his posts in New Jersey,
and ordered his army to retreat to New Brunswick. The battle at Princeton
cost the British some 100 men killed, 70 wounded and 280 captured and
greatly boosted the morale of the Continental troops.
The Americans, meanwhile, suffered just 25 killed and 40 wounded.
The British viewed Trenton and Princeton as just minor victories, but with
these victories, the Americans believed that they could win the war.
American historians often consider the Battle of Princeton a great
victory, on par with the battle of Trenton, due to the subsequent loss of
control of most of New Jersey by the Crown forces. Some other historians,
Edward G. Lengel consider it to be even more impressive than Trenton.
A century later, British historian
Sir George Otto Trevelyan would write in a study of the American
Revolution, when talking about the impact of the victories at Trenton and
Princeton, that "It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever
employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon
the history of the world."