« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »
out the town. At that point he seemed to lose his coolness and self-com. mand; there was still a possibility of escape by the bridge, and that failing, he might have sought a defensible position and perhaps have held it; but he could not brook the ignominy of a flight, which would have injured the reputation he had so well won at White Plains and Fort Washington; his position was due to his own carelessness, and it is probable that mortification and shame led him to the suicidal course which he adopted. Waving his sword over his head, he called upon his men to follow, and charged the town, held, as it was, by a superior force, with artillery posted. At almost the first discharge, he paid the price of his rashness, falling mortally wounded. His men at once broke and Aed, striving to gain the bridge, but Washington had foreseen this attempt, and they were cut off, and grounded their arms. The condition of the river had prevented General Ewing from carrying out his part of the design, hence the bridge, at first unguarded, had afforded an avenue of escape to about five hundred men, part of whom were cavalry. Twenty Hessians were killed in the engagement; not far from one thousand stand of arms and a considerable quantity of stores captured The Americans lost two men killed, two frozen to death, and three or four men wounded. Among the latter was Lieutenant Monroe, of Virginia, afterwards President of the United States.
Cadwallader, too, had been prevented by the ice in the river from fulfilling his part of the concerted plan, and Washington, in spite of his victory, was placed in a position of the most immediate peril-peril which might well have become destruction, had not the flying enemy been so thoroughly terrified as to exaggerate his strength and communicate a measure of their fear to those at other posts beyond. There are in existence several published works, written by Hessian officers, stationed at Trenton, and who participated in the engagement. All of them greatly overstate the force of the Americans, one placing it at fifteen thousand-fully six times as great as it actually was—another at six thousand, and none even approximating the truth. It is not to be supposed that the story lost anything in the telling, and it is more than likely that Washington's little force owed its preservation to this gratuitous and imaginary reinforcement.
The capture of Trenton was not in itself a matter of much moment; the winning of a victory was, at that time, all important. The direct result of the success was to turn the British back, and, for the time, save Philadelphia; its indirect effect was to give new confidence to the army; new courage to the colonies ; new spirit to Congress, to break through the web of circumstance which seemed to doom the armies and the hopes of the colonies to destruction; to counteract, in a great degree, the effect of Howe's manifesto, offering amnesty, by strengthening the weak-kneed and doubtful element of the people, and to render possible, what before seemed hopeless, the reorganization of the army. Washington for the present kept his posi.
tion at Trenton. Count Donop, commanding the British below Trenton, retreated along the Amboy road and joined General Leslie at Princeton. Cadwallader crossed the Delaware, believing, in the absence of orders, that Washington would push on in pursuit of the enemy, and desiring to cooperate with him.
In the meantime he obtained and improved some opportunities to harass the enemy and increase his panic.
Washington was now quite convinced of the necessity and wisdom of an aggressive campaign. Hence he ordered General Heath to leave a small force at Peekskill and move upon Howe's rear; Maxwell was directed to collect all available militia and harass his flank, while Cadwallader was ordered to join the main force at Trenton. On the second day of January, Cornwallis advanced from Princeton in force, to regain Trenton. At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon he appeared in sight of the town, when the Americans retired beyond the creek, and strongly guarded all the fords. Cornwallis, finding that his crossing would be contested, went into camp, lighting his fires, and disposing himself in comfort, not doubting that his after-breakfast exercise on the morrow would be to whip the little force of rebels opposed to him. Then Washington conceived, and resolved to execute, one of those bold and vigorous movements by which he so often astonished the enemy. He had at Trenton only about five thousand effective men; opposed to him was an army vastly greater in numbers and efficiency. Should he risk an engagement defeat was almost certain; the river was frozen over, yet thaws had rendered the ice so rotten, that an attempt to retreat across it was extremely hazardous, and might result in the destruction of his army. In either event there would remain nothing to prevent Cornwallis from moving upon and taking possession of Philadelphia, the chief point to be guarded. Washington felt certain that there could not remain any very considerable force at Princeton, and he determined to make a night march, by a circuitous route, and endeavor to surprise and capture that town, and, if possible, the post and stores at the village of Brunswick, beyond. A council of war agreed to this plan, holding that it would probably draw Cornwallis back and away from Philadelphia, and that, if it failed, the situation could scarcely be worse than was promised if the army remained at Trenton. The baggage was silently removed, immediately after dark, to Burlington, and, about 1 o'clock in the morning, having renewed the fires and posted sentinels as usual, the army moved out of camp, and, by the roundabout Quaker road, proceeded to Princeton. At that place Cornwallis had left three regiments, two of which set out at daybreak to join the rear of their army near Trenton.. At sunrise these regiments discovered the Americans on their left, marching in such a direction as to reach their rear. They retired to the cover of some timber and received the American van, led by General Mercer. This was mostly composed of militia. The few regulars
were steady, but they could scarcely restrain the raw troops. At this doubtful point the gallant Mercer fell, mortally wounded, and his men, utterly demoralized, retreated in confusion. The main body coming up, however, Washington threw himself into the front, and, exposing himself to imminent danger, forced the British to give way. One of the two regiments succeeded in gaining the main road, and continued to Trenton ; the other broke across the field, and fled toward Brunswick by a back road. The regiment which had remained in Princeton took post in the college building, but was soon dislodged by artillery, and the greater part of its men became prisoners. The British loss in this fight was more than one hundred killed and about three hundred captured. The Americans lost fewer men, but General Merçer and nine other most valuable officers were among the number.
Cornwallis awoke in the morning to find lacking the second party necessary to any successful quarrel. He at once saw how he had been duped, and made all haste to return to Princeton, and thence to Brunswick. The colonial troops were too much exhausted by fatigue and exposure to permit of following out the plan against Brunswick. Hence Washington, allowing them to rest at Princeton until the latest possible moment, moved out of the town just before Cornwallis entered it, marched his troops to Morristown and placed them under cover, where they might recuperate. Later, knowing that the garrison of New York must be much weakened, he ordered Heath to make a reconnoissance in force and, if possible, regain the works of the lower Hudson; Heath, however, was obliged to forego any attempt against them and to return to Peekskill. The remainder of he winter passed away without any operations worthy of mention.
THE BATTLE OF BRANDYWINE AND LOSS OF PHILADELPHIA.
LONG chapter night be written, enlarging upon the difficulties of
reorganization which faced the commander at this most critical period. They were the same that had menaced the army from the beginning, arising from the ruinous system of short enlistment. Had it not been for the two i atrinsically small advantages—that at Trentun and that at Princeton-.spring would certainly have found Washington without a force sufficient to make a show of defense. The importance of these affairs was greatly exaggerated by popular report; they were magnified to the dimensions of decisive victories. Communities which had before looked upon the struggle as hopeless, came to have new confidence in the result and in their commander. The chief difficulties in the way of organization were of two-fold origin; the first came from the terrible suffering, want, sickness, and casualties of the Continental army; reports of these were not slow to travel, and a widespread fear and disinclination for the service was the result; the second trouble arose from the lack of a competent central authority to take control of recruiting. Congress was the creature of the colonies and could only appeal to each to do its share. The British had a fleet; the Americans
The former might at any hour embark a force and quickly change the seat of war to a distant and unprotected colony. The feeling of individuality had not to any degree given way to that united spirit which has made the later republic a power. Each colony thought first of its own defense, and the people complained loudly if this were taken from them for the general good. The withdrawal of regulars made frequent calls upon militia inevitable, and thus agriculture suffered and production decreased, at the very time when the resources of the country were taxed for the support alike of friends and enemies. This statement must suffice to suggest the seriousness of the problem.
Congress was sanguine of effecting the happiest results. It passed
resolutions expressing its "earnest desire to make the army under the immediate command of General Washington sufficiently strong, not only to curb and confine the enemy within their present quarters, and to prevent their drawing support of any kind from the country, but, by the Divine blessing, totally to subdue them, before they can be reinforced.” Washington was not disposed to encourage such rosy hopes. He answered the letter, enclosed in which were the resolutions, with one in which he wrote: “Could I accomplish the important object so eagerly wished by Congress, confining the enemy within their present quarters, preventing them from getting supplies from the country, and totally subduing them before they are reinforced, I should be happy indeed. But what prospect or hope can there be of my effecting so desirable a work at this time. The enclosed return, to which I solicit the most serious attention of Congress, comprehends the whole force I have in Jersey. It is but a handful, and bears no proportion on the scale of numbers to that of the enemy. Added to this the major part is made up of militia. The most sanguine in speculation can not deem it more than adequate to the least valuable purposes of
General Washington was quite convinced that nothing could be done during the winter, with any existing force, or any that could be raised, hence he turned his thoughts and efforts to preparing for the spring campaign. His utmost exertions were put forward, yet, when May came, his army numbered only eight thousand three hundred and seventy-eight men, exclusive of cavalry and artillery; of these more than two thousand were sick and his effective rank and file was composed of but five thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight men.
This was a force miserably insufficient for a defensive war; aggressive measures were quite out of the question. To add to the embarrassment of his situation, Washington was in profound ignorance as to the destination and plans of the enemy. He felt confident, however, that one of two plans was contemplated; either that Burgoyne should make an effort to capture Ticonderoga, gain command of the northern lakes, and push his way to the Hudson, where Howe should join him, or that the former deserting the
*In a letter written to Governor Trumbull, on the 6th of March, 1777, begging for aid from Connecticut, Washington wrote: “I am persuaded from the readiness with which you have always complied with all my demands, that you will exert yourself in forwarding the aforementioned number of men upon my bare request ; but hope you will be convinced of the necessity of the demand when I tell you, in confidence, that, after the 15th of this month, when the time of General Lincoln's militia expires, I shall be left with the remains of five Virginia regiments, not amounting to more than as many hundred men, and parts of two or three other colonial battalions, all very weak. The remainder of the army will be composed of small parties of militia from this State and Pennsylvania, upon whom little dependence can be put, as they come and go when they please.
The enemy must be ignorant of our numbers and situation, or they would never suffer us to remain unmolested; and I almost tax myself with imprudence in committing the secret to paper; not that I distrust you, of whose invaluable attachment I have had so many proofs, but for fear the letter should, by any accident, fall into other hands than those for which it is intended."