Today marks the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Princeton during the American War for Independence. It was a calculated risk by General George Washington, and it resulted in a victory that was at first considered only a minor engagement but resulted in long-lasting strategic effects for the Patriot cause.
Washington repeatedly showed his military genius, and the Battle of Princeton was just one more example of it. He wisely sought to avoid confronting the full might of combined British military forces, preferring either to deal with and defeat isolated fractions of it or to make tactical retreats and to outmaneuver British troops to gain a greater strategic victory.
After having defeated the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton on Christmas night, Washington retreated and regrouped. With the Patriot forces taking a defensive position at Assunpink Creek on January 2, 1777, General Lord Cornwallis approached them with a force of around 8000 troops. His officers encouraged him to order an immediate attack, but because his troops were tired, he refused. It was a fateful decision.
Washington, meanwhile, recognized the peril that he would face if the full might of Cornwallis’s force were launched against him the next morning. He seized the initiative and slipped his army around the British flank toward Princeton. Leaving behind a handful of men to keep the campfires burning and to make camp noises as a ruse, and muffling the wheels of his wagons and cannons, Washington and his army slipped away under cover of darkness and cold. (Reports indicated that temperatures were 21 to 28 degrees that night, and the otherwise muddy roads were frozen, making travel easier.) By the time Cornwallis realized what had happened, fighting had already begun in Princeton.
Only a skeleton force of between 1200 and 1500 British soldiers defended Princeton, and even that was further weakened when part of them were ordered to reinforce Cornwallis. A small detachment of American troops under the command of General Hugh Mercer, making up the vanguard of Washington’s force, moved toward Princeton. Behind it came the main army of about 4500 men under Washington.
Meanwhile, the force that was to reinforce Cornwallis, which was led by Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood, made its way in the opposite direction on a parallel road. At dawn and on a field covered by shin-deep snow, the opposing forces spotted each other and engaged in combat, each thinking that the other force was only a patrol. The overly confident Mawhood (whom historian David Hackett Fischer says “delighted in the display of a highly developed air of nonchalance”), rode into the battle “atop his ‘brown pony’ and with a pair of his favorite spaniels bounding at his side.” The British fired a volley and then charged with bayonets. General Mercer was killed in the melee, and some British soldiers actually thought, because Mercer was better dressed than other officers and refused to surrender, that he was Washington, and they spread that false news.
The Americans were in full retreat when Washington arrived on the scene with the main army and rallied the frantic retreaters. He himself led their counterattack and was at one point only 30 yards from the British front line, easily within range of British musket fire. Providentially, however, Washington remained unscathed throughout the battle.
The British were forced to retreat onto the campus of the College of New Jersey at Princeton (now known as Princeton University), where they took a defensive position in Nassau Hall, the main building on the campus. American cannon fire, however, soon forced their surrender. Some people allege that an American cannon ball entered the building and decapitated a portrait of King George II that was hanging on the wall, signaling an evil omen to the British troops and encouraging their capitulation.
As is the case with casualty figures in not only the Revolution but also subsequent wars, the numbers range widely among various sources. One source that I read reported that the British lost about 40 soldiers killed, 58 wounded, and 187 missing, whereas American losses were 40 killed and wounded. Another source said that British casualties were 175 killed. Fischer says that the British suffered 232 killed and wounded with 200 to 300 captured. American losses, he says, amounted to 31 to 37 killed, about 37 wounded, and 1 captured.
What is not disputed, however, are the results that came from the aftermath of the battle. The morale of the Americans was boosted as they saw, yet again, the ability of the American troops to stand up to the British and win. That morale soared even more when, as a result of the British loss at Princeton, Cornwallis was ordered essentially to abandon New Jersey to the Patriots and move his operations northward. Politicians and citizens in England were shocked at the ability of the colonial rabble to defeat their professional armies and began to question the value of continued resistance to colonial independence. Moreover, foreign powers, especially France, took heart in the possibility that the Americans could win independence, and they began to look more positively on the Patriots’ requests for military intervention against Britain.
The colonists still had several more years of fighting to do before they would win the independence for which they longed, but the back-to-back victories that Washington won at Trenton and Princeton buoyed their spirits and rejuvenated their determination to continue the fight. And those victories underlined the military genius of George Washington.
[For more information on this important milestone in America’s struggle for independence and freedom, consider reading David Hackett Fischer’s book Washington’s Crossing.]