The Battle of Princeton: January 3rd, 1777
General George Washington’s glorious victory at the Battle of Trenton on December 25th-26th, 1776 did not go unnoticed. General Lord Cornwallis was so disturbed by this harrowing defeat that he was not going to just sit idly by and watch General Washington control South Jersey for the winter.
Right after the New Year, Cornwallis left New York City (I wonder what they dropped in NYC New Year’s Eve 1777, I betcha MC Hammer was there) and headed south to garrison 9,000 men near Princeton to attack Washington’s forces in Trenton. On January 2nd, leaving 1,200 men behind to watch Princeton, Cornwallis went to engage 6,000 Continentals with 8,000 redcoats.
Washington sent skirmishers to delay the British advance and in a fit of embarrassment, Cornwallis was unable to cross the river and attack the main defenses despite trying three separate times to get over the bridge at Assunpink Creek. It was night, so Cornwallis gave up and decided to try again in the morning. Bad move.
During the night, Washington moved the bulk of his army out of the camp and headed toward Princeton to attack it. He left men digging trenches and fires lit to throw off the British and marched under complete silence. As the morning of the 3rd dawned, Washington realized he road was harder than expected. He was still 2 miles away from Princeton and was forced to send 350 men under the command of Hugh Mercer, namesake of Mercer County, to destroy the Stony Brook bridge. This would delay the British once they realized Washington had given them the slip, hopefully buying back the time he had lost.
This is when plans unraveled. Cornwallis had left the 1,200 men garrisoned at Princeton under the control of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood, but sent orders for him to join the main 8,000 in the morning of the 3rd. On the way out of Princeton, Mawhood stumbled upon the main Continental Army marching into Princeton and sent word to the small garrison he left behind of the approaching army, unaware of its real size. Mawhood then turned around. Mercer heard of Mawhood’s about-face, but was unable to smash right into Mawhood’s army as it moved backwards so he joined the very front of Washington’s forces commanded by John Sullivan. This forced Mawhood to split his troops. He sent half to attack Sullivan and the other half he took to attack Mercer.
And so it began.
Mercer’s troops were caught off guard by the British and were only able to exchange fire with them for a short time before being overrun. Mercer himself declined to surrender and was bayoneted and left for dead. Mawhood’s forces pursued Mercer’s fleeing group where they ran into 1,100 militiamen under the command of John Cadwalader. It is not as scary as it sounds, for Cadwalader’s men had no military experience and fled at the site of Mercer’s forces fleeing.
When it seemed all was lost, General Washington arrived with his men and rallied Cadwalader’s fleeing troops into battle formation. The onslaught proved too much for Mawhood who gave the order to retreat. After some pursuit, Washington moved onward toward Princeton where he still had the other part of Mawhood’s troops to deal with. After several quick skirmishes, most of the British fled and others held up in Nassau Hall where they waved the white flag of surrender.
The victory was not celebrated for long. Cornwallis still had 8,000 men down the road and Washington knew it would be impossible to keep Princeton. After some council, he took his forces to Morristown.
The defeat in terms of causalities might have been light for the British, but the implications of it cut deep. Three victories in ten days saw a boost in morale for the Continental Army as well as a boost in enlisted men. With winter coming, Cornwallis went back to New Brunswick, essentially giving up on southern Jersey.
For a small battle, the legacy that the Battle of Princeton has is quite astonishing. Hugh Mercer would die on January 12th from the wounds he inflicted at Princeton, but Mercer County forever pays homage to their namesake. It was said that during the battle, Mercer refused to leave despite the mangled state of his body from multiple wounds. His men propped him against an oak tree as they continued the battle around him. To this day, the seal of Mercer County carries the white oak of legend.
The statue of General George Washington at Washington Circle in DC is a portrayal of him at Princeton. According to the sculptor, Washington’s bravery in the face of so much fear and anguish makes it one of the ideal examples of the man’s character and larger-than-life depiction.
This is not the first or last time that Princeton would be written into the books of American History, but it might be the most exciting.