Battle of Trenton, 26 December 1776

Posted on June 21, 2016

Editor: Michael Spilling and Consultant Editor: Chris McNab

American Battles and Campaigns – The Battle of Trenton, 26 December 1776

A characteristic of Washington’s generalship was that he always left his army opportunities either to withdraw or attack. Winter’s onset added to the misery of the patriots’ retreat into Pennsylvania with depleted numbers after multiple defeats in the unsuccessful defense of New York City. Washington’s ability to flee or menace the British forces received tremendously valuable assistance from the general’s own intelligence network of spies and observers. Through these channels came the news across the Delaware that Col Johann Rall and 1600 Hessians held Trenton on the river’s far bank as part of a chain of outlying posts screening the British continental beachhead in Manhattan. The Battle of Trenton was on.

Battle of Trenton

George Washington at the Battle of Trenton engraving by the Illman Brothers in 1870. By Edward Lamson Henry. Image is in the public domain via

Some 6000 men remained to Washington, who felt any hope of prolonging the war rested upon a demonstration that the Continental Army could still prevail. The British had their own reports that Washington intended to attack New Jersey, but long quiescence and the previous defeats lulled Rall and his superiors into celebration of Christmas and their victories. Washington gathered boats capable of crossing the nearly frozen river and awaited his opportunity.

Battle of Trenton

Battle of Trenton, 26 December 1776. Image is taken from the book American Battles and Campaigns

A snowstorm blinded Hessian sentries and chilled Washington’s 2400 tattered soldiers as they crossed the Delaware. They sent out screening forces around Trenton and drew up in line before the barracks where the Hessians were digesting their Christmas dinner. Rall was killed trying to rally his befuddled men with a final spy’s warning left unread in his vest pocket. Of the Hessians, 900 surrendered and 106 died. Two colonials were wounded. Not the least reward of the victory were the warm winter uniforms of the captured Germans, but the resulting legend raised patriot spirits and forced the British to forfeit control of the New Jersey countryside.  The Battle of Trenton was over in a morning.

After the successful surprise attack, Washington again moved his forces to Trenton, withdrawing before the advance of British Gen Charles Cornwallis and his 5000 regulars and inflicting heavy casualties here on the road from Princeton a few days later.

Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere — an encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments — Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival. In his home country of Wales, UK, Chris provides instruction on wilderness hunting techniques and he is also an experienced martial arts instructor.

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