Once George Washington positioned his cannons at the top of King and Queen Streets in Trenton, the Hessians soldiers never could get their footing. This much was apparent to visitors and local residents who witnessed “living history” in the form of re-enactment ceremonies that retraced the two Battles of Trenton, which rejuvenated the American Revolution.
That’s right, there were two battles. After crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776, Washington’s Continental Army surprised the Hessians who were staying in what is now the Old Barracks Museum and in other homes throughout Trenton. He re-crossed again four days later to confront the full brunt of the British Army led by General Charles Cornwallis. That’s the part that’s not so widely known.
The first battle resulted in a major victory for Washington’s Army. Almost 900 Hessians were taken prisoner, 83 were wounded, and 22 were killed. All told, there were about 1,400 Hessians under the command of Johann Rall who was fatally wounded in the battle and is still buried in Trenton. On the American side, casualties were very light. Two soldiers died from exposure and five others were wounded including Lt. James Monroe, the future president, and William Washington, who was the general’s cousin.
“The street patterns in Trenton are same today as they were during the time of the battle,” Richard Patterson, executive director of the Old Barracks Museum, explained. “The people who are here visiting for the re-enactment are seeing the same streets Washington did, but with taller buildings.”
What was then King Street is now Warren Street and what was Queen Street is now Broad Street. At the time, Trenton was a small town with about 100 homes. The re-enactments, which took place on Saturday, began at the Battle Monument positioned at the top of modern-day Warren (King) Street and cut a path down toward Mill Hill Park where the Hessians surrendered.
The “Ten Crucial Days” that turned the tide in the Revolutionary War began with Washington’s Crossing on Christmas night, continued with the two Battles of Trenton, and culminated in the Battle of Princeton. These events are all recognized during “Patriots Week,” but it is the re-enactment of the Trenton battles that have grown in size and scope in the past few years.
The attack on Trenton did not unfold as originally planned. In addition to Washington’s main assault force, which crossed nine miles north of Trenton, General John Cadwalader and General James Ewing were set to cross from points further south. But large chunks of ice prevented Ewing from crossing over from what is now Morrisville, Pa., and Cadwalader from another point further south that would have landed close to Bordentown.
But that’s just as well. If the other crossings were successful, the Hessians would have been put on alert before Washington’s force arrived says David Emerson, who played the part of the Trenton town crier.
“Washington turned out to be fortunate in so many ways,” Emerson observed. “He arrived in Trenton well-past daybreak, but since the others didn’t cross this was still a surprise. There was sleet and snow, it was terrible weather. In that era, there was typically no fighting in the winter.”
Colonel Rall did send out a patrol that was supposed to go out 10 miles, but only made it two before turning back because of the weather.
“If the patrol went just one mile further, it would have encountered Washington’s army,” Emerson said.
Since the other crossings had failed, Washington’s Continental Army was reduced to just 2,400 soldiers, but he did have 18 cannons.
“That’s an enormous amount of artillery and Washington put his cannons on the high ground,” Patterson, the Old Barracks executive director, said. “Cannons can fire in the bad weather but the muskets and rifles cannot. During the battle, the continentals switched from cannon balls to musket balls and this essentially gave them what you would call a big shot gun so they could clear the streets. They were also able to break into the homes and dry off the artillery so they could use the muskets and rifles and fire at the Hessians in the streets.”
The irony of having the New Jersey Division of Taxation located just across the street from the Old Barracks is not lost on T.C. Nelson, the owner of Trenton Social, located on South Broad Street. The state that was once the scene of the crucial battles fought against burdensome levels of taxation and other abusive government practices is today one highest-taxed states in the nation. Nelson pins the blame on failed political leadership.
“You cannot have a strong Mercer County without a strong Trenton,” he said. “As Trenton goes, so goes the county. We have the highest property taxes in the county here in Trenton. The city also gets more than its fair share of low income housing money. But our leadership spends its tax money in very inefficient ways. The other problem is that over 50 percent of our real estate is not taxable because they’re government buildings or churches or something else.”
Yet, Nelson insists, Trenton does have assets.
“With a little imagination, we could become the new Gettysburg,” he said. “Our leadership needs to do a better job of leveraging what it has. There are the arenas, the sports stadiums, and the arts and entertainment and the history. The Battles of Trenton were the key battles, they turned everything around. Let’s not forget the Trenton could have become the nation’s capital.”
What about that Second Battle of Trenton?
That was fought on Jan. 2, 1777 down by the Assunpink Creek. After repelling three separate charges against his position from Cornwallis’s troops, Washington slipped past the British in Trenton under the cover of dark along a route that lead into Princeton. It was there that his army attacked and defeated a smaller British garrison the next day.
The American Revolution, which had been dead and dormant before the crossing, was back on in full force.
Business owners like Nelson are hoping for a similar revitalization that moves Trenton back to a position that is closer to the Spirit of 1776. He knows that’s a tall order, but events may yet intervene.
For the first time in 100 years, a New Jersey governor is a serious contender for the presidency. What this means for Trenton and for the state as a whole is an open question. But the fact that union leaders who have been dominating New Jersey politics at expense of self-government have been put back on their heels does suggest that we live in interesting times. Revolutions begin in unlikely places.