Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26, 1776 – Washington's Disaster at Trenton

After successes in 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts Colony, and the taking of Fort Ticonderoga in New York, 1776 was a bleary year for the American Revolutionists. Their Continental Congress struggled to find money and support while the Continental Army faced a string of defeats across New York and New Jersey. Knowing that the cause was nearly lost, Commander-in-Chief General George Washington made a last-ditch effort at attacking Hessian soldiers already in winter quarters across the Delaware River at Trenton.

Colonel Johann Rall, a 56-year-old veteran with ample experience in battle as a mercenary, was to be placed in command at Trenton reluctantly by his superior Carl von Donop. Rall was loud, did not understand English, and, though he was known to fight well, did not thrive in the between-battle times of war. He avoided work and was lax on the discipline of his troops, inspiring little confidence. Donop, however, came down with a bitter cold and decided not to march with his soldiers rooting out New Jersey militia. He sent Rall instead, who fiercely pursued the rebels, scarcely stopping in Mount Holly as they pursued Samuel Griffin and his men.

In Trenton, despite his illness, Donop was vigorous in his orders for the men. He followed suggestions by his engineers at fortifying the town and ensured round-the-clock posts for guards despite the horrible weather. On the night of the 25th, rain turned to sleet, and guards were shocked to see initial American skirmishers on the morning of the 26th. Donop called out his men, and Washington was forced to attack the defended high ground. The Americans broke, and Donop took up pursuit, capturing Washington and many of his cannon. Few soldiers returned to ranks, the rest disappearing into the New Jersey wilderness.

With the harsh blow at Trenton, much of the fervor for independence died over the winter and into the spring. Horatio Gates succeeded Washington as Commander-in-Chief and led strong defenses against British General Burgoyne's campaign to separate New England from the rest of the colonies. On October 7, 1777, defeat at Saratoga sounded the death knell for the Revolutionary War. Gates claimed he could easily have won with more men, but the support for actual war was waning. It stood as the last major battle in the north, though backwoods rebels would string out the war for years with harrying attacks and withdraws laden with ambushes. The Southern Colonies would also cause continual frustration for the British Army, but the taking of Charleston on May 12, 1780, would end major battles there as well, but hardly the fighting. Nathanael Greene, Commander-in-Chief after Gates, carried his famous motto, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”

While the rebels continued to drag on the war, the question fell to Parliament of what to do with those they had captured. Washington had been shipped to London soon after Trenton and stripped of his land, though the government could not see fit to execute him and create a martyr like General Benedict Arnold, who had died leading his men in a charge at Saratoga. Offers were made to return him to status quo ante bellum, but the general refused. He, like his countrymen, simply refused to give up. Washington remained a prisoner for the duration of the war, though many others such as John Hancock, Thomas Paine, and Samuel Adams would be publicly hanged as treasonous instigators.

Gradually, the American leadership would destroy itself through infighting and abandonment. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would attempt to create a government-in-exile in Paris, but they simply became novelties at the French Court. Their writings and arguments would contribute to the French Revolution that would happen some years later. The Americans, meanwhile, slipped farther and farther west, and, in 1785, the Colonies came back under firm control.

Worn out politically, diplomatically, and economically by what seemed to become a war of attrition, Britain came under its own revolutions in the 1790s. King George III was blamed for the long-lasting and, being deemed unfit for the throne by act of Parliament, was removed. Britain again became a parliamentary republic, and Washington was sent back to Virginia to live out the rest of his life as a poor, though admired, man.

In reality, Rall stayed in Trenton while Donop took to the field. He viewed the Revolutionary army with contempt and did not bother building defenses. Not even posting guards, the Hessians were taken by surprise and their retreat cut off; Rall would be mortally wounded in the battle. While tactically a minor victory, the show of success by Washington's audacity to attack in an ice storm as well as the proving of American troops over regulars gave the Revolution much needed clout to go on toward victory at Saratoga, which would lead to a French alliance.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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