Retreat to the Raritan.—The fall of the forts had added greatly to the difficulty of the situation, for Washington's army was in danger of being enveloped. To avert disaster he determined to retreat into New Jersey. He accordingly crossed the Passaic and moved to Newark. The forces under Lee were ordered to join the retreating army, but that vain and conceited officer, who had visions of becoming commander-in-chief as soon as Washington was eliminated, refused to obey orders. On N
Expedition against Rhode Island.—A week later Howe came up with a single brigade. Instead of concentrating his troops to crush the remnant of Washington's army, the British commander decided to send two divisions to conquer Rhode Island. They easily occupied the island but it was a fruitless venture for "several thousand Royal troops were thenceforward locked up in a sea-girt strip of land no larger than the estate of many an English Lord-Lieutenant."
Retreat across the Delaware.—Washington's army was constantly reduced by desertion and sickness, and the New Jersey people failed to rally to his assistance. It has been estimated that not a hundred men enlisted during the retreat across the state. The people of New Jersey paid dearly for their indifference, for during the winter they were constantly subjected to indignities from the Hessians who were billeted upon them. Among the atrocious acts was the pillaging of Princeton College. Taking advantage of British inactivity, Washington prepared to retire beyond the Delaware, from New Brunswick having ordered the collection of boats for many miles along the river front. Covering his retreat with fourteen hundred of his best troops under Stirling, the army and stores were landed on the Pennsylvania shore. When the British troops arrived on the eastern bank, they were forced to halt, for not a boat was available and the short-sighted Howe had failed to provide his army with pontoons.
To the British commander the campaign was over and he prepared to go into winter quarters, fancying that the rebellion was practically crushed and that the spring campaign would be a mere parade. The Whig use appeared to be lost and gloomy forebodings and grumblings of discontent took the place of declamation and heroics. On December 10 Congress resolved to defend Philadelphia but two days later it adjourned and hied away to Baltimore. Washington's lack of authority had frequently hampered his military operations, but this difficulty was now removed, for before adjournment Congress resolved, that until otherwise ordered, Washington was to have full power to direct operations.
Washington's army reinforced.—The dispirited army which crossed the Delaware was soon strongly reinforced. After many days of inaction, General Lee had left his camp at White Plains with the intention, as he grandiloquently put it, of reconquering New Jersey. After the retreat of Carleton, Schuyler had sent seven battalions under Sullivan to assist Washington, but Lee succeeded in getting control of four of them. On December 13 he was captured at a tavern at Baskingridge. As soon as Sullivan heard of it, he started the troops for the Delaware and on the twentieth of December joined Washington. Four other battalions from Schuyler's army arrived shortly afterward and General Mifflin brought in a goodly body of Pennsylvania militia. Before Christmas the army numbered eight thousand.
Position of the Hessians.—To the east of the Delaware was a Hessian division under Colonel Von Donop, Colonel Rail being stationed at Trenton with three regiments. Rail had taken to measures to strengthen a naturally weak position; highways converged to the north of the village and artillery stationed at the junction could sweep the streets. Scouting parties and spies informed Washington that Rail's troops were scattered through the town and that the place was practically without defences.
Trenton.—Washington determined to strike. With the greatest secrecy he perfected his plans. One body of troops under Cadwalader was to attack Von Donop's position at Bordentown and Ewing with a thousand men was to strike at troops stationed on Assumpink Creek, while Washington with Greene and Sullivan in command of twenty-four hundred men and eighteen cannon were to advance against Trenton from the north. During a furious tempest on Christmas night Washington succeeded in crossing the Delaware, but Ewing failed to get over and Cadwalader crossed too late to coöperate. At four in the morning Washington's troops began the weary march toward Trenton. While the valiant army was toiling over the frozen roads, the Hessians were sleeping off the effects of their Christmas wassail. At 8:15 the American forces drove in the Hessian outposts. Aroused from his bed Rail tried to make a stand, but the streets were raked with round shot and the sharpshooters fired relentlessly into the huddled Hessians, several hundred of whom fled across the Assumpink Creek bridge and escaped to Bordentown. Rail tried to rally his men but fell mortally wounded. When Sullivan cut off the retreat to the south and Greene ordered up his reserves, resistance ended. Nine hundred prisoners, a thousand muskets, six field pieces, and a large quantity of stores fell into the hands of the successful commander. But not in terms of men and guns should the battle of Trenton be judged. Its importance lies in the fact that Washington had won a clean cut victory when the Whig cause was tottering and by that victory had raised the drooping spirits of a despairing nation.
Movements of the armies.—When the news of Trenton reached New York, it roused the British from their fancied security. Lord Cornwallis at the head of eight thousand men proceeded by forced marches toward the west. Washington had determined to hold a position east of the Delaware, and on December 30 he again crossed the river and by January 2, 1777, had assembled five thousand men and forty pieces of artillery just below Trenton. As Cornwallis approached the American position, he realized the costliness of a frontal attack, and decided that as soon as his forces assembled he would attempt a flanking movement from Allentown.
Princeton, January 3, 1777.—Washington saw the danger and decided on a daring plan. On the night of January 2 all was activity in the American camp. Sentinels challenged, infantry moved about in the light of the camp fires, and the sound of pick and shovel was plainly audible to the British. But in the darkness to the rear another kind of activity was in progress. Cannon, stores, and baggage were being silently moved to Bordentown and Burlington, and at one in the morning the bulk of the army began a stealthy march which at daybreak brought them out within a mile and a half of Princeton. Three of Cornwallis's regiments had remained there during the night and were now under way. Suddenly the first of these troops under Colonel Mawhood found themselves confronted by the American advance guard. The British charged bravely, scoring an initial success, but Washington's presence in front of his lines steadied the troops and they soon forced a retreat. Sullivan then led the advance against the two remaining regiments, which were driven through and beyond Princeton, leaving three hundred prisoners in Washington's hands. The roar of the guns brought the unwelcome tidings to Cornwallis that the American army had escaped, had cut across his rear, and had defeated three of his crack regiments.
Morristown.—Five miles beyond Princeton Washington turned to the north and soon established his army in a powerful position at Morristown where they remained in security the rest of the winter. Howe made no attempt to dislodge his opponent, but concentrated ten thousand troops in camps at New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. The Jersey people had been cured of their Toryism; supplies poured into the American camp, while the British experienced the greatest difficulty in securing fuel and food, and by March 1 were reduced to a ration of salt provisions and "ammunition bread." When Washington reached Morristown he had about four thousand men and during the winter his army did not increase, but he made the most of the opportunity to drill his men and perfect his organization. Throughout the country men were drilling for the spring campaign, powder mills were being built, and lead mines were being opened. The greatest shortage was in muskets, but fortunately these were obtained from France.
Middlebrook.—In May, 1777, everything was in readiness and Washington led his army to a powerful position at Middlebrook, only a few miles from the British camp at New Brunswick. On June 13 Howe transferred large forces to the southern bank of the Raritan, but he failed to draw Washington from his point of vantage and on the nineteenth he began the withdrawal of his army to Staten Island, having had the satisfaction only of a rear guard action with Stirling's division.