The American situation looked grim. Washington’s army had dwindled down to only 3000 men, and continued to shrink. Worse, half of his army was due to leave at the end of December when their term of enlistment expired, and Washington was already too familiar with his men to expect that any would stay beyond that date. Facing him across the Delaware, General Howe commanded 10,000 men. Howe spent the second week of December looking for boats to cross over the river, but Washington had removed most suitable boats from the New Jersey shore, the Delaware was running very full and the weather had already turned bitterly cold. Satisfied with his year, on 14 December General Howe ordered his men into winter quarters. The Hessians were left to guard the line of the Delaware.
Washington’s mood was less happy. In New Jersey the inhabitants were slipping too easily back into a habit of loyalty. His army was slowly collapsing, and morale in Pennsylvania was low. Washington was worried that the entire rebellion was on the brink of collapse. This helps to explain his extraordinary decision to risk everything on a winter offensive. Washington chose his target well. The Hessian forces, strung out along the Delaware, had quickly made themselves unpopular. At Trenton, a Hessian garrison of 1,500 had not even bothered to fortify their position. Their commander, Colonel Johann Rall, held his American opponents in undeserved contempt. The last thing he was expecting was an attack by the main American army.
Washington decided to take advantage of the German habit of celebrating Christmas heavily. His plan was to attack first at Trenton, then if things went well move on to Princeton and then New Brunswick. Three separate forces were to cross the Delaware late on Christmas day. The main force, 2400 men commanded by Washington, was to attack Trenton. A second force of 700 men under James Ewing was to cross south of Trenton and capture a bridge over the Assunpink Creek to prevent the Hessians escaping. The third force, commanded by Lt. Colonel John Cadwalader, was to cross further south to prevent Hessian reinforcements reaching the town. This plan was typical of Washington, who was often to attempt elaborate plans that were too complex for his men to successfully carry out (He was to make the same mistake at Germantown the next year, when an attempt to attack in four prongs was to help the British win a victory). On this occasion, neither Ewing or Cadwalader were able to cross the Delaware, leaving Washington unsupported.
Even without the other two columns, Washington still outnumbered the Hessians by a thousand men. Moreover, the same dreadful weather that had halted Ewing and Cadwalader had convinced Rall that there was no danger of an American attack. On the morning of 26 December, his men were still recovering from their Christmas celebration, and when the attack came Rall was still in bed.
Crossing the river had taken longer than Washington had hoped. His original plan had been to cross over by midnight and reach Trenton by five in the morning, but in the event his force was not ready to march until four. Washington now further divided his force. One column under John Sullivan was to march along the River Road, which would take them into the southern part of Trenton, while Washington and Nathanael Greene followed the Pennington Road, further inland, which would bring him to the northern side of the town. For the plan to succeed, both forces would need to arrive at the same time. If Sullivan arrived early, his force would be terribly vulnerable, while if he arrived late the Hessians could easily escape Washington’s trap.
On this occasion, the two American columns arrived together, at eight in the morning. Washington’s force pushed in a Hessian outpost, and set up artillery at the top of King and Queen Streets, the two main north-south streets of Trenton. This gave them a great advantage once the fighting started. On hearing the first firing, two of the three Hessian regiments rushed into the streets. Rall himself got out of bed only to be killed by American fire, leaving his men effectively leaderless. Under cannon fire, the Hessians were never able to form up, and were unable to mount a credible defence. In the fighting, 22 were killed and 98 wounded, while the Americans only suffered four wounded! By nine, Washington had captured nearly one thousand prisoners, as well as almost all of their supplies. The only disappointment was that the third regiment, another 500 Hessians, had managed to escape.
Despite the ease of his victory at Trenton, Washington now had to abandon his plans for a further attack on Princeton or New Brunswick. The failure of Ewing and Cadwalader to cross the Delaware left him with no choice but to return across the river into Pennsylvania. Much to his surprise, the Hessians also withdrew, abandoning their positions along the Delaware. The victory at Trenton helped enormously to restore American morale, and encouraged Washington not to end campaigning for the winter. Within a week, Washington had won another victory, at Princeton.