Topic: Benjamin Huggins

Victory at Trenton

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
August 25, 2017

“The Hour of Victory,” painting by Edward Percy Moran (c. 1914). Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt.

“I have the pleasure of congratulating you upon the Success of an Enterprize, which I had formed against a Detachment of the Enemy lying in Trenton, and which was executed yesterday Morning.”

With these words, Washington announced to Congress his victory over three Hessian regiments posted at Trenton, N.J., on the morning of Dec. 26, 1776.1 For most of the previous two months the general and his army had gone from defeat to defeat, with the worst of these being the fall of Fort Washington (the subject of my last blog). Now, in one swift blow, Washington had restored his faltering reputation and lifted the army’s morale. With the British and Hessian forces in New Jersey and New York greatly outnumbering his own, Washington took a great risk in making his attack, but he felt he had to go on the offensive to restore confidence in the American cause and energize recruitment for the army.

In his report to Congress, the general outlined his attack. He had planned to assemble the army, which numbered between 2,500 and 3,000 men, at McKonkey’s Ferry on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River on the evening of December 25 and, after dark, cross them over to the New Jersey shore by midnight. His small army could then arrive in front of Trenton by dawn. “But,” Washington reported, “the quantity of Ice, made that Night, impeded the passage of Boats so much, that it was three OClock before the Artillery could all be got over, and near four, before the Troops took up their line of march.” He gave up hope of surprising the Hessians since the army could not reach the town before sunrise, “but as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events.”

Thereafter the attack proceeded swiftly. Washington formed the army into two divisions “one to march by the lower or River road, the other, by the upper or Pennington Road.” The general ordered each division, after pushing past the Hessian outpost guards, to march directly into Trenton and charge the enemy before they had time to form. “The upper division arrived at the Enemys advanced post, exactly at eight OClock, and in three Minutes after, I found from the fire on the lower Road that, that Division had also got up. The Out Guards made but small Opposition, tho’, for their Numbers, they behaved very well, keeping up a constant retreating fire from behind Houses. We presently saw their main Body formed, but from their Motions, they seem’d undetermined how to act.” The American troops quickly captured part of the Hessian artillery. When some of the Hessian troops attempted to escape by moving off on a road leading to Princeton, Washington “threw a Body of Troops in their Way which immediately checked them. Finding from our disposition, that they were surrounded, and that they must inevitably be cut to peices if they made any further Resistance, they agreed to lay down their Arms.”     Some of the Hessian soldiers made their escape before the Continentals fully surrounded the town, but Washington claimed the capture of 23 officers and 886 men.2 “Our Loss,” Washington noted, “is very trifling indeed, only two Officers and one or two privates wounded.”

“Plan of the operations of General Washington, against the Kings troops in New Jersey, from the 26th. of December, 1776, to the 3d. January 1777.” Map by William Faden (1777). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The general did not fail to praise his soldiers:

In justice to the Officers and Men, I must add, that their Behaviour upon this Occasion, reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the River in a very severe Night, and their March thro’ a violent Storm of Snow and Hail, did not in the least abate their Ardour. But when they came to the Charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward, and were I to give a preferance to any particular Corps, I should do great injustice to the others.

With only the force he brought over at McKonkey’s Ferry available for action (one division of Continentals and the Pennsylvania militia had been unable to cross due to the large quantity of ice in the river), Washington decided to forgo any further attacks as too risky. After arranging for the transport of the prisoners, Washington crossed his army back to the Pennsylvania side of the river to plan his next move. Despite Washington’s inability to continue his attack, the victory at Trenton nevertheless succeeded in clearing the British and Hessian posts on the Delaware River. Mount Holly, Bordentown, and Burlington were all evacuated.

After receiving this letter, the executive committee of Congress sent their congratulations to Washington:

We . . . rejoice in your Excellencys success at Trentown as we conceive it will have the most important publick consequences and because we think it will do justice in some degree to a Character we admire & which we have long wished to appear in the World with that Brilliancy that success always obtains & which the Members of Congress know you deserve, permit us to Congratulate you on this success & to suppose it is only the beginning of more important advantages . . . It appears to us that your attack on Trentown was totally unexpected, the Surprize compleat, & the Success beyond expectation.

Historian Chistopher Ward points out that Washington’s victory quickly became a turning point in the war: “The effect upon the American people was . . . instantaneous . . . From the depth of despair they rose to new confidence. From every direction came news of militiamen on the march to serve for two months, while the new Continental army was being organized.”3 Washington had achieved his objective.

This letter with full annotation appears in volume 7 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. My next blog will focus on Washington’s Jan. 5, 1777, letter reporting his next victory at Princeton, N.J., a mere eight days after Trenton.

 

Notes

  1. The Hessian regiments, totaling about 1,500 men, were the Fusilier Regiment von Lossburg, the Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen, and the Grenadiere Regiment von Rall. Also present were a Hessian artillery detachment, fifty Hessian jägers, and twenty British light dragoons.
  1. On the return of prisoners Washington submitted with this letter, the total number of prisoners taken was listed as 918.
  1. Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, 2 vols. (New York, 1952), 1:305.

Washington’s Worst Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
May 25, 2017

Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

“This is a most unfortunate affair and has given me great Mortification as we have lost not only two thousand Men that were there, but a good deal of Artillery, & some of the best Arms we had.” So wrote General George Washington to his brother John Augustine Washington in November 1776 about the loss of Fort Washington.1 The fall of the bastion, with its garrison of 2,900 officers and men, on Nov. 16, 1776, was Washington’s worst defeat (excluding Charleston, S.C., in 1780, where he was too distant from the scene of action to affect the outcome). Fort Washington was located along the Hudson River on a high bluff in the northern part of Manhattan Island. Along with Fort Lee directly across the river in New Jersey, it formed the chief defense against a British naval advance up the river. Most American officers considered Fort Washington virtually impregnable.

At the time of the fort’s fall, Washington and his main army were in retreat across New Jersey, after having been driven out of lower New York by General Sir William Howe and his British army. But the American general, believing he should throw every possible obstruction in the way of British conquest of New York and New Jersey, decided to retain a garrison in the fort.2

When Washington evacuated the rest of his army from Manhattan Island, he left a garrison of 1,200 men in Fort Washington and gave orders to the garrison’s colonel “to defend the post to the last Extremity.” However, given the fort’s isolation and its vulnerability to an attack by Howe’s whole force, he later modified those orders to give discretion to Major General Nathanael Greene, the area commander, “to retain or evacuate the post as he should think best.”3

The British attacked the post with four corps on Nov. 16. The American troops defending the fort’s outer works were spread too thin, and their lines were quickly penetrated, although they inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. The British and Hessians pushed the Continentals and militia back into the fort. Surrounded with no hope of relief, they soon had to surrender. Washington nearly became a casualty when he decided to visit Fort Washington during the early part of the engagement. Greene, writing on the 17th, explained to a fellow officer that on

Yesterday morning General Washington, General Putnam, General Mercer, and myself went to the Island to determine what was best to be done, but Just at the instant we stept on board the Boat the Enemy made their appearance on the Hill where the monday action was, and began a severe Cannonade with several field pieces. Our Guards soon fled, the Enemy advanced up to the second lines. This was done while we were crossing the River and geting upon the Hill. The Enemy made several marches to the right and to the left, I suppose to reconnoiter the fortifications and lines. There we all stood in a very awkward situation; as the disposition was made and the Enemy advancing we durst not attempt to make any new disposition—indeed we saw nothing amiss. We all urged his Excellency to come off. I offerd to stay. General Putnam did the same and so did General Mercer, but his Excellency thought it best for us all to come off together, which we did about half an hour before the Enemy surrounded the fort.4

The fall of the fort embarrassed Washington, and many, including at least one of his staff officers, questioned his military judgment.5

In his letter to his brother, Washington cast the blame for the fort’s fall on Greene. Washington had arrived “a day or two before it surrendered,” but had not, he asserted, come in time to take measures to save Fort Washington. “And what adds to my Mortification,” he wrote,

is, that this Post . . . was held contrary to my Wishes & opinion; as I conceived it to be a dangerous one: but being determind on by a full Council of General Officers, & receiving a resolution of Congress strongly expressive of their desires, that the Channel of the River (which we had been labouring to stop a long while at this place) might be obstructed, if possible; & knowing that this could not be done unless there were Batteries to protect the Obstruction I did not care to give an absolute Order for withdrawing the Garrison till I could get round & see the Situation of things & then it became too late as the Fort was Invested. I had given it . . . as my opinion to Genl Greene under whose care it was, that it would be best to evacuate the place—but—as the order was discretionary, & his opinion differed from mine, it unhappily was delayed too long, to my great grief.

By implying that he had no time to decide whether to evacuate or defend the fort, Washington misled his brother. The commander in chief had in fact arrived at Fort Lee on Nov. 13; the enemy did not attack the fort until three days later. He had ample time to make a decision. Despite his own convictions, he failed to reverse Greene’s decision to continue defending the fort.

In his official letter to Congress explaining the defeat, Washington cast himself almost as a bystander to the events. He became involved only after the British had commenced their assault. The blame again appeared to fall on Greene.6 But his own irresolution was the main reason for the defeat. Even in a private letter to his brother, he could not bring himself to mention his indecision and hesitation.

Washington’s failure to take responsibility for the defeat at Fort Washington was not one of his finest moments. I believe it stemmed from his insecure position at that time. For more on this defeat and Washington’s later account of the fort’s fall, which I believe shows his maturation as a general, see my article “Washington’s Belated Admission,” published by the Journal of the American Revolution on April 23, 2014. In my next blog post, I will look at one of the most pivotal moments of the war: Washington’s victory at Trenton, N.J., on Dec. 26, 1776, and his letter to John Hancock of the next day reporting the triumph.
 

Notes

1. “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, Nov. 6–19, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0070. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 7:102–6.

2. “From George Washington to Joseph Reed, Aug. 22, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0175.  Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 22:224–27

3. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Nov. 16, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0118. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:162–69.

4. “From Nathanael Greene to Henry Knox, Nov. 17, 1776,” in The Papers of Nathanael Greene, 1:351–52.

5. “From Joseph Reed to Charles Lee, Nov. 21, 1776,” in [Charles Lee] The Lee Papers. 4 vols. (New York, 1872–75; in Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 4–7), 4:376–77.

6. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Nov. 16, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0118. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:162–69.

Washington’s First Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
March 7, 2017

“Inclination as well as duty would have Induced me to give Congress the earliest Information of my removal and that of the Troops from Long Island & Its dependencies to this City the night before last, But the extreme fatigue whic<h> myself and Family have undergone as much from the Weather since the Engagement on the 27th rendered me & them entirely unfit to take pen in hand—Since Monday scarce any of us have been out of the Lines till our passage across the East River was effected Yesterday morning & for Forty Eight Hours preceding that I had hardly been of[f] my Horse and never closed my Eyes so that I was quite unfit to write or dictate till this Morning.

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George Washington’s First Victory

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
January 9, 2017

“It is with the greatest pleasure I inform you that on Sunday last, the 17th Instant, about 9 O’Clock in the forenoon, The Ministerial Army evacuated the Town of Boston, and that the Forces of the United Colonies are now in actual possession thereof. I beg leave to congratulate you Sir, & the honorable Congress—on this happy Event, and particularly as it was effected without endangering the lives & property of the remaining unhappy Inhabitants.”

General Washington sent this notice to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, from his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 19, 1776. The long siege of British-occupied Boston was over. The letter was one the general had long hoped to send: his first victory dispatch to Congress. He had taken command of the Patriot army surrounding Boston in early July 1775, and he had dedicated all his effort since to achieving the result he reported to Hancock on March 19.

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George Washington by Charles Willson Peale

George Washington Takes Command

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
October 21, 2016

Having looked at George Washington’s Revolutionary War diaries in my previous blog posts, I now turn to his Revolutionary War correspondence. In this and future posts, I will be offering my perspective on pivotal letters in Washington’s war career. To start, I focus on his letter to his friend Burwell Bassett, written on the eve of Washington’s departure to take command of the Continental Army. The letter, dated June 19, 1775, reads in part:

Dear Sir, I am now Imbarkd on a tempestuous Ocean from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbour is to be found. I have been called upon by the unanimous Voice of the Colonies to the Command of the Continental Army—It is an honour I by no means aspired to—It is an honour I wished to avoid, as well from an unwillingness to quit the peaceful enjoyment of my Family as from a thorough conviction of my own Incapacity & want of experience in the conduct of so momentous a concern—but the partiallity of the Congress added to some political motives, left me without a choice—May God grant therefore that my acceptance of it may be attended with some good to the common cause & without Injury (from want of knowledge) to my own reputation—I can answer but for three things, a firm belief of the justice of our Cause—close attention in the prosecution of it—and the strictest Integrety—If these cannot supply the places of Ability & Experience, the cause will suffer, & more than probable my character along with it, as reputation derives it principal support from success—but it will be remembered I hope that no desire, or insinuation of mine, placed me in this situation. I shall not be deprivd therefore of a comfort in the worst event if I retain a consciousness of having acted to the best of my judgment. … P.S. I must Intreat you & Mrs Bassett, if possible, to visit at Mt Vernon as also my Wife’s other friends—I could wish you to take her down, as I have no expectations of returning till Winter & feel great uneasiness at her lonesome Situation—I have sent my Chariot & Horses back.1

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George Washington’s War Diary

By Benjamin Huggins, Associate Editor
June 23, 2016

Washington's first entry. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Washington’s first entry. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Click on image to enlarge.

In my most recent blog post, I mentioned that General Washington kept two diaries during the Revolutionary War: his weather diary (which he maintained from January to June 1780) and his journal kept from May to early November 1781. In this post, I want to discuss the latter diary.

Written entirely in Washington’s own hand, the journal shows almost no corrections, suggesting that Washington may have copied the entries into the diary after writing a draft. The journal consists of two volumes: the first covering May to August 14, 1781, and the second spanning from August 14 to November 5, 1781 (the entry for August 14 is split between the two volumes). Washington opened his war diary with a statement of regret:

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General Washington Records the Weather

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
April 14, 2016

In the years before he became commander in chief of the Continental Army in the Revolution, Washington kept diaries of, in his words, “Where & how my time is Spent.” Many of these journals have survived, and they have been printed in volumes I, II, and III of the Diaries.1 But during the war, Washington kept a diary only during two periods.

From May to November of 1781, he maintained a daily journal of significant events and occurrences during the campaign that culminated in the decisive Battle of Yorktown. Scholars have made extensive use of this diary. But the general also kept another, lesser-known diary during the war: a diary of the weather at his headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey, from January to June 1780.

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George Washington Tells a Lie

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (1781) | Wikimedia Commons | US Public Domain

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
January 22, 2016

In June 1780, General George Washington told a lie. In fact, he planned a major deception. But as it was intended to deceive the British high command during the Revolutionary War, most Americans would likely forgive him. Washington, with the aid of Major General Lafayette, wanted the British to believe that the French army under the command of Lieutenant General Rochambeau was soon expected to arrive in North America to help the Americans liberate Canada from the British yoke.

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