The Battles of Trenton and Princeton: Turning Points of the American Revolution

Ron Marsico | December 24, 2019 | Winter 2019
Capt. Daniel Neil, a New Jersey merchant, crossed the icy Delaware with Washington and played a heroic role in changing the revolution’s course
Credit: Wikimedia
John Trumbull’s “The Death of General Mercer at the Battle Princeton, January 3, 1777,” also depicts the death of Capt. Daniel Neil at bottom left.

We’ll be on winter hiatus starting Dec. 23. While we’re recharging our batteries, we’ll be posting a series of stories about New Jersey history. We’ll be back delivering our unique coverage of politics and public policy on Jan. 2. Have a great holiday and a happy and safe New Year.

Commanding a small New Jersey artillery company, Capt. Daniel Neil spent the final 10 days of his life helping America turn the tide of the Revolutionary War, with stunning morale-boosting victories amid wintry conditions in the battles of Trenton and Princeton.

Prospects were grim for the ragged Continental Army before its Dec. 26, 1776, surprise attack on Trenton, which Neil and his two cannon units joined against Hessian troops defending the small town between Philadelphia and New York.

“I don’t think you can underestimate how much this victory was needed,’’ said Clay Craighead, a historian at Washington Crossing State Park Visitor Center Museum in Titusville. “I do believe it was the game-saving moment of the revolution.’’

American morale was sagging, not only among soldiers but also throughout the 13 colonies, less than six months after the Declaration of Independence was signed. A string of military losses to the British had left the U.S. army on the run and on the brink of complete defeat. Commanding Gen. George Washington was desperate to show the fledgling nation could survive and decided to gamble almost all on Trenton.

‘Dire necessity …’

“… Necessity, dire necessity, will, nay must! justify an attack …” asserted Washington in a letter to Col. Joseph Reed two days before the Continental Army took to boats from Pennsylvania to cross the Delaware River and arrive in Hopewell Township, about nine miles north of Trenton. The Americans were seeking to drive out Hessian soldiers guarding Trenton, improve morale and ultimately help retake New Jersey from the British.

“To call Trenton the ‘Crossroads of the Revolution’ was because everything went through there,’’ said William (Larry) Kidder, a retired New Jersey high school history teacher and author. His recent book, “Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds,” covers the victories from late December 1776 to early January 1777 at the battles of Trenton and Princeton.

“What it did was to breathe life into … the war for independence,’’ explained Kidder.

Washington, in a Dec. 14, 1776, letter to Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, wrote “a lucky blow’’ against the British would “most certainly rouse the spirits of the people, which are quite sunk by our misfortunes.’’

Nearly wiped out during the summer’s devastating defeat at the Battle of Long Island, Washington and his soldiers had escaped via an arduous but fortuitous retreat. From New York City, the backpedaling army went north before looping down southwest through New Jersey — where Capt. Neil and his artillery company served in 1776 — and across to Pennsylvania.

American ranks were perilously thin from surrenders at prior battles, numerous desertions and deaths from illness. Those remaining were downcast and ill equipped, with some even lacking shoes. Looming large was the expiration of many military enlistments at year’s end, with hopes bleak for reenlistments and new recruits.

‘Free and general pardon’

Sensing victory, British Commander Adm. Lord William Howe had issued a conciliatory Nov. 30, 1776, proclamation, offering a “free and general pardon’’ to all American supporters who pledged allegiance to King George III within 60 days. In New Jersey, thousands “flocked to the British camps to declare their loyalty,’’ historian David McCullough wrote in “1776,’’ his book on that pivotal year.

“In short, your imagination can scarce extend to a situation more distressing than mine,’’ Washington wrote on Dec. 10, 1776, to his cousin, Lund Washington.

“Our only dependence now is upon the speedy enlistment of a new army,’’ continued the general. “If this fails, I think the game will be pretty well up, as, from disaffection and want of spirit and fortitude, the inhabitants, instead of resistance, are offering submission …”

Political activist Thomas Paine was more succinct, famously penning just two days before Christmas 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls.’’

Trenton — and Washington’s Christmas miracle

Conditions remained dire in the days before Christmas 1776, with Capt. Neil and members of his Eastern Company New Jersey State Artillery encamped among Washington’s 2,400 soldiers at Buckingham Township, Pennsylvania.

On that bitterly cold Christmas Day, Capt. Neil, a 32-year-old North Jersey merchant with a wife and two young daughters, readied with the rest of Washington’s army for the dangerous trip of about 900 feet across the icy Delaware River and its currents.

The stakes were immense, symbolized by the operation’s password, “Victory or Death,” according to historian David Hackett Fischer’s book, “Washington’s Crossing.’’

Credit: Wikimedia
Barracks at Trenton, sometimes called the “Hessian Barracks”

The British held New York. Philadelphia, the nation’s birthplace, was under threat by the advancing army. Some 1,400 Hessian soldiers, serving England on rental loan from Germany, were guarding Trenton — key geographically between New York and Philadelphia.

Historians consider Trenton, a relatively small 18th century town of merchants, iron furnaces and grist and textile mills, of outsize importance. That is due to the timing of the American victory, as well as its strategic location for moving military, civilians and goods between New England and the new nation’s Middle Atlantic and Southern states.

“Trenton became a major supply depot, especially when Washington was in New Jersey,’’ explained Kidder, the New Jersey historian. “It was not a huge place by any means, and it was surrounded by farms.’’

Under cover of darkness, during rain, sleet, snow and hail on Christmas evening and the next morning, it took far longer than expected for the Continental Army to achieve the crossing. The goal was to finish by midnight, but it was not done until nearly 4 a.m.

‘Almost infinite difficulty’

Col. Henry Knox, who directed the risky crossing and commanded the Continental Army’s artillery, wrote “the army … passed the river on Christmas night, with almost infinite difficulty” to the banks of New Jersey, about nine miles north of Trenton.

“The floating ice in the river made the labor almost incredible,’’ continued Knox, who would become the nation’s first Secretary of War. “However, perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible.’’

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Unknown to Washington, two other U.S. forces totaling more than 2,000 soldiers could not cross the ice-clogged Delaware further south. Washington and his 2,400 soldiers would be on their own against the Hessians.

Ironically, aside from Neil and his company, there were few other New Jersey soldiers at the Battle of Trenton. Some state militiamen were among those unable to cross the Delaware. And weeks earlier, about 2,000 New Jersey and Maryland militiamen left abruptly from Central Jersey with their enlistments up and the enemy advancing, McCullough noted in “1776.”

Washington hoped to attack before dawn, but the long and frigid march to Trenton lasted until about 8 a.m. — well past daybreak.

Early into the trek, the force split: Gen. Nathanael Greene, joined by Washington, took his division south on interior roads. Gen. John Sullivan’s troops, which included Capt. Neil’s company, took the road along the Delaware and attacked from the west.

Washington’s advantage: artillery firepower

In an account titled, “Thunder in New Jersey: Washington’s Artillery During the Ten Crucial Days,’’ the American Battlefield Trust outlined how superior cannon power helped the Americans win at Trenton and Princeton, while also describing Capt. Neil’s role.

“Washington knew that his inexperienced troops and militia were unequal to a fight against the British, or their Hessian allies, so his strategy hinged on bringing overwhelming firepower to the battlefield,’’ according to the trust, which works to preserve American battlefields.

Alexander Hamilton, 21, who would become the nation’s first Treasury secretary, headed a New York artillery company at the Battle of Trenton.

Washington’s element of surprise — intact despite having to attack in daylight — was enhanced with the superior artillery he brought across the Delaware: 18 cannons against six for the Hessians.

Due to the wet conditions, soldiers on both sides had issues keeping their gunpowder dry. According to Kidder, “The big deal at Trenton was the weather. Artillery was known as the foul-weather weapon. It was much easier to keep powder dry for the artillery.”

Kidder estimated the two cannons under Capt. Neil’s command would have been staffed by up to 30 soldiers, including those maneuvering the heavy equipment on the battlefield and the soldiers loading, packing, lighting and firing.

Capt. Neil and his New Jersey “guns supported Sullivan’s attack on the Hessians’ Knyphausen Regiment and then helped secure Assunpink Bridge,’’ explained the American Battlefield Trust. “(Capt.) Neil’s finest hour, however, was to come a week later.’’

Credit: Wikimedia
John Trumbull’s “The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776 celebrates Washington’s victory at the Battle of Trenton. The severely wounded Lt. James Monroe is on the left.

The Americans lost only two soldiers, who froze on the march to Trenton, and sustained a handful of battle casualties, including future President James Monroe, who was shot and survived a severed shoulder artery.

Fighting was over in just an hour or two.

The Hessians’ commander, Col. Johann Rall, was killed along with a reported 21 of his men. More than 80 Hessians were wounded and in all about 900 captured, with the remainder escaping. Vital supplies, including roughly 1,000 muskets and rifles, the enemy’s six cannons, six wagons and some 40 horses also were taken.

Return to Trenton — and on to Princeton

Following the victory at Trenton, Washington and his exhausted troops returned to Pennsylvania with their Hessian prisoners to ponder the next move. Washington soon gambled again, returning to Trenton — this time to engage the British.

Craighead, the Washington Crossing park historian, said Washington first had to offer a Dec. 31 bonus of “ten dollars in hard currency’’ to compel soldiers whose enlistments were expiring that day to stay another six weeks.

On Jan. 2, 1777, the Second Battle of Trenton was waged at the Assunpink Creek Bridge, where American soldiers once more proved victorious. Throughout the day, the outmanned patriots delayed British troops from reaching the bridge by repeated skirmishes and retreats. American artillery again saved the day, thwarting three British attempts to cross the Assunpink.

A statue of Gen. George WashingtonCredit: Wikimedia
A statue of Gen. George Washington stands silhouetted against the sky at the top of the Trenton Battle Monument.

With darkness upon them, the British waited until morning to resume the attack with their superior troop strength. But Washington outwitted them, leaving a small number of soldiers behind to tend campfires. The main army marched off as quietly as possible to surprise the enemy from behind, more than 12 miles away at Princeton.

On Jan. 3, 1777, Capt. Neil and his company were reassigned to General Hugh Mercer’s brigade as the Continental Army headed toward Princeton’s fateful battle.

“(Capt.) Neil’s battery began throwing round shot at the approaching British lines as quickly as they could load and fire,’’ according to the battlefield trust. “Mercer’s men could not withstand the onslaught, and began to waver.’’

Mercer’s horse was shot as he attempted to rally his men and the British repeatedly bayoneted the fallen general, who feigned death. Colonel John Haslet took command but was quickly killed.

The death of Capt. Neil

“(Capt.) Neil ordered one cannon to withdraw with the infantry, staying behind to help cover the retreat with his second gun,’’ continued the trust’s account. “Neil was unable to withdraw the second cannon, and was killed while he worked his gun. His sacrifice helped cover the withdraw of the remainder of Mercer’s men.”

Famed Revolutionary War painter John Trumbull, in his painting, “The Death of General Mercer at the Battle Princeton, January 3, 1777,” also depicts Neil’s bayoneting.

“He was right there in the middle of everything with Mercer,’’ said Kidder, noting Mercer urged Capt. Neil to retreat. Instead, he continued working his cannon. “That’s when he was bayoneted.”

Mercer, after whom Mercer County was named, would live nine more days. Neil died on the Princeton battlefield.

“He was a very brave and a very good officer,” added Kidder of Capt. Neil, who resided in now-defunct Acquackanonk Township, once part of Essex County and then Passaic County.

Fortunately for the Americans, Capt. Joseph Moulder and his Philadelphia artillery company intervened. They chose a well-situated ridge to rain “a withering hail of lead into the approaching British … buying enough time for more Continentals, and George Washington himself, to arrive,” said the trust’s report.

As the tide turned in the Americans’ favor, Washington rode onto the battlefield, and according to the book “1776” reportedly exhorted his soldiers: “Parade with us, my brave fellows. There is but a handful of the enemy, and we shall have them directly.’’

The Journal of the American Revolution website has chronicled letters between Neil’s widow, Elizabeth, and Washington in the months following her husband’s death.

On Feb. 19, 1777, Mrs. Neil wrote to Washington that she and her young daughters — Isabella and Maria — were “destitute of support’’ due to the “unhappy situation’’ of her husband’s death and asked whether Congress would act to support war widows.

Washington sent Mrs. Neil’s letter to Congress, recommending payment “for her great loss,’’ but was told no survivor-restitution funds had yet been appropriated. On April 27, 1777, Washington wrote back to the widow, explained the response from Congress and included $50 as a “small testimony of my inclination to serve you upon any future occasion.”

More than a half-century later, in a House of Representatives document dated Feb. 17, 1832, the Committee on Revolutionary Claims determined Neil’s one still-living daughter, Maria, was entitled to one-half of seven years pay for his service as per an August 1780 congressional resolution. In the New Jersey State Archives, Kidder located a payroll document for Neil’s company from March 1776 to March 1777 that showed Neil was paid $27 monthly as a captain. Under terms of the 1832 resolution, that would have meant Neil’s daughter was entitled to $1,134.

The congressional document indicates Neil’s wife was precluded from collecting because she “inter-married” in February 1780, which voided her payment and transferred it to her surviving children. The document also noted Maria and other heirs of Neil also were awarded a land warrant of 300 acres under an 1806 Act of Congress.

‘That unhappy affair at Trenton’

Following the Princeton victory, Washington and his troops headed to their winter encampment in Morristown. Fischer, in his book “Washington’s Crossing,’’ chronicles the Americans targeting the British and exacting devastating tolls on their officer corps as they foraged for food and supplies.

Fischer also quotes New Jersey Gov. William Livingston mocking the errors of British leadership, writing “their blunders, if possible, are equal to their cruelty.’’ Livingston attributed their defeats at Trenton and Princeton to the arrogance of a “prince and people” whom “God Almighty … seems destined to destroy.”

Though the war would drag on until the British formally conceded defeat in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, Trenton’s importance would not be forgotten — here and across the Atlantic in England.

“It was a turning point in that the British lost an opportunity to bring the war to a conclusion,’’ said Rutgers University History Professor Paul Clemens, crediting Fischer’s work for shaping his understanding of the Trenton and Princeton battles’ importance.

Mark Sirak, another historian at Washington Crossing State Park, said British General George Cornwallis, whose surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, foreshadowed the war’s end, considered Trenton the war’s real turning point.

Sirak quoted Cornwallis as saying; “Washington’s laurels will come from the banks of the Delaware, rather than the banks of the Chesapeake.”

And three years after Washington’s Christmas 1776 victory over the Hessians, Lord George Germain, the king’s colonial secretary, lamented to the British Parliament: “All our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton.”