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Battle of Princeton

Fought on January 3, 1777, George Washington's success in this battle allowed the Americans to regain control of New Jersey, and greatly improved their morale.

Background

After defeating the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas Day 1776, General George Washington withdrew back across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. On December 26, Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader's Pennsylvania militia re-crossed the river at Trenton and reported that the enemy had departed. Moving back into New Jersey with the bulk of his army on December 30, Washington assumed a defensive position south of Assunpink Creek on a series of low hills near Trenton.

Meanwhile, General William Howe, angered by the Hessians' defeat at Trenton, dispatched Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis with 8,000 men to deal with the Americans.

Moving southwest, Cornwallis left 1,200 men under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood at Princeton and another 1,200 men under Brigadier General Alexander Leslie at Maidenhead (Lawrenceville), before arriving at Trenton late on January 2, 1777 with the rest of his men. Believing that Washington had nowhere to go, Cornwallis launched three unsuccessful attacks across the creek before withdrawing for the night.

map of troop movements at Trenton and Princeton
Battle of Princeton, map of troop movements

The Battle

Battle of Princeton, main battle map
Battle of Princeton, main battle map

What Cornwallis did not know was that Washington did indeed have an escape plan. Leaving 400 men along the Assunpink Creek line to tend campfires and make digging sounds, Washington and the rest of his army slipped away east to Sandtown, before turning northwest and advancing on Princeton via the Quaker Road. By dawn the Americans were crossing Stony Brook, approximately two miles from Princeton. Wishing to trap Mawhood's command in the town, Washington detached Brigadier General Hugh Mercer's brigade with orders to slip west and then secure and advance up the Post Road. Unknown to Washington, Mawhood had already left Princeton and was heading for Trenton with 800 men.

Marching down the Post Road, Mawhood saw Mercer's men and moved to attack, while Mercer quickly formed his men for battle in a nearby orchard. Charging the tired American troops, Mawhood was able to drive them back. In the process, Mercer became separated from his men and was quickly surrounded by the British, who mistook him for Washington. Refusing an order to surrender, Mercer drew his sword and charged. In the resulting melee, he was severely beaten, run through by bayonets, and left for dead. As the battle continued, Cadwalader's men entered the "arena," and met a fate similar to Mercer's brigade.

Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton by John Trumbull
Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, by John Trumbull

Just as the battle seemed to be over for the Americans, Washington arrived with the rest of his army and, with the support of Major General John Sullivan's division, stabilized the American line. After rallying his troops, Washington turned to the offensive and began pressing Mawhood's men. As more American troops arrived on the field, they began to threaten the British flanks. Seeing his position deteriorating, Mawhood ordered a bayonet charge with the goal of breaking through the American lines and allowing his men to escape towards Trenton. The British succeeded in penetrating Washington's position and sunsequently fled down the Post Road, with American troops in pursuit. In Princeton, the majority of the remaining British troops fled towards New Brunswick, but 194 of them took refuge in Nassau Hall believing that the building's thick walls would provide protection. Opening fire with artillery, American troops charged and forced those inside to surrender, ending the battle.

General Washington rallying his troops at Princeton
General George Washington rallying his troops at Princeton

Aftermath

The Battle of Princeton cost the Americans 23 killed, including General Mercer, and 20 wounded. British casualties were heavier, with 28 killed, 58 wounded, and 323 captured. Flush with victory, Washington wished to continue attacking up the chain of British outposts in New Jersey. After assessing his tired army's condition, however, and knowing that Cornwallis was in his rear, he elected instead to move north and enter winter quarters at Morristown.

The victory at Princeton, coupled with the triumph at Trenton, helped bolster American spirits after a disastrous year which had seen New York fall to the British. And, with the British no longer in control of New Jersey, the Continental Congress was able to return to Philadelphia and meet in relative safety.

SOURCES
British Battles http://www.britishbattles.com/battle-princeton.htm
United States History
http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1290.html

SEE ALSO
George Washington
William Howe

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Campaigns and Battles

This page was last updated on February 08, 2017.