Battle of Princeton, 3 January 1777

Battle during the American War of Independence, the second of two battles (with Trenton), that helped restore American morale after the loss of New York. In the aftermath of the American victory at Trenton, Washington found himself on the same side of the Delaware as the British. On the last day of 1776 the enlistments of many of the men in the army ended, and despite Washington’s best efforts, only about half of these men could be persuaded to stay for another month.

Washington did not want to pull back across the Delaware, fearing that it would discourage the revival of militia activity in New Jersey, just reviving after Trenton. Faced with a larger British force, Washington was forced to pull all of his troops together at Trenton, although he feared that this would leave them vulnerable to a counterattack. 1600 militia commanded by General Mifflin and 2000 men commanded by Colonel Cadwalader joined Washington, who started the year with 5000 men.

Engraving of General Charles Cornwallis, 1738-1805
Engraving of
Charles Cornwallis,

This left him with a force not much smaller than the 5,500 men commanded by Cornwallis, sent from New York to restore the situation. However, the entire British force was made up of regular troops, while Washington had a sizable body of militia troops, who were less reliable in set piece battles. Cornwallis was aware of his advantage, and on 2 January he set out from Princeton, with the aim of forcing a battle. A combination of harassing action by detachments of continental troops, and the generally poor condition of the winter roads made progress very slow, and the British did not reach Washington’s position until four in the afternoon.

The Americans were drawn up along the line of the Assunpink Creek. The British made several attempts to force their way across the Creek, but their army was stretched out along the road back to Princeton, and the advance guard was not strong enough to break through the American line. Cornwallis decided to rest overnight, and launch a proper attack in the morning. Washington appeared to be trapped. Cornwallis had before him the prospect of a victory that could end the rebellion.

That prospect was snatched away. Cornwallis had not considered the possibility that Washington might outflank him and march further in to New Jersey, but that is what happened. Leaving a small force in his camp to keep the fires burning, and convince the British the entire army was still in place, Washington slipped out of Trenton, and ‘March'd by a round about road to Princeton’ (Washington’s report to Congress, 5 January 1777). Seeing the size of Cornwallis’s force, Washington realised that Princeton could only be weakly defended. This was true – Cornwallis had left three regiments, commanded by Lt. Colonel Charles Mawhood, to defend Princeton. If Washington could break through this force quickly enough, then the road to New Brunswick and one of the main British supply bases would be open. Unknown to Washington, the British war chest of £70,000 was at New Brunswick. Its loss would have been devastating to the British war effort.

Ironically, as Washington was marching toward Princeton, Mawhood with two of his regiments was marching towards Trenton. The American advance guard encountered Mawhood, who sent one regiment back into Princeton, keeping the 17th Regiment of Foot to defeat what he believed could only be a patrol. This force of about 275 men nearly changed the course of the battle. First they saw off the American advance guard under General Hugh Mercer, who was killed in the action, and then were on the brink of defeated 600 militiamen under Cadwalader, before Washington arrived on the scene in person and restored the situation. Mawhood reached Trenton, but suffered heavy losses. The fighting now moved on to Princeton. The British made a short defence of the town, before attempting to withdraw. Washington reported taking three hundred prisoners from Princeton, a sizable proportion of the entire garrison.

News of the fighting at Princeton quickly reached Cornwallis back at Trenton. Aware of the danger to his supply depot at New Brunswick, he rushed his force back to Princeton. Washington had destroyed the bridge over the Stony Brook, which allowed a militia unit to delay Cornwallis long enough for the main American army to leave Princeton in good order. Washington now intended to make for New Brunswick, but his army was exhausted, and the British too close behind. Aware of the risk to his supplies, Cornwallis headed straight for New Brunswick rather than pursuing Washington, and was able to reach there before the end of the day. With New Brunswick now denied him, Washington moved north to Morristown, which he reached on 6 January.

The American army finally went into winter quarters, having inflicted two embarrassing blows on the British. General Howe ordered a withdrawal from New Jersey, abandoning one of the main benefits gained from the capture of New York. This set a pattern for the rest of the war. British armies could capture cities and win major battles, but they could not hold down the country, and their outposts were always vulnerable. At Trenton and Princeton, George Washington had probably saved the revolution.

War for America Black, Jeremy, War For America: The Fight for Independence 1775-1783. Provides a clear narrative of the war, taken year by year, with good chapters on some of the later years that are often skipped over. Also contains a good selection of quotes from participents in the conflict.
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The Glorious Cause Middlekauff, Robert, The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789. A very well researched book that is especially strong on the events that led up to the Revolution, which take up the first third of the book. Unlike many similar books it also covers the years immediately after the war and up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
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See Also
Books on the American War of Independence
Subject Index: American War of Independence

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (12 May 2004 ), Battle of Princeton, 3 January 1777,

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