- Historic Sites
Trenton And Princeton
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
Washington marched his prisoners into Newtown, Pennsylvania, and you may want to go there too. It’s a goodlooking old town, with some ancient liver-colored stone buildings past which it is not hard to imagine the Americans parading their prisoners, the Germans warm in their winter uniforms, and their captors, as one witness wrote later, “mostly in light, summer dress and some without shoes, but stepping light and cheerful.” The two-century-old Temperance House in Newtown has recently been redone and its guest rooms colonialed-up to a faretheewell. If you can get the one with a working fireplace, you’ll be able to enjoy a considerable pleasure unavailable to summer visitors.
News of the victory astonished and appalled the British, and Cornwallis moved fast. In a week he believed he had Washington trapped on the New Jersey side of the Delaware. But the American stole a march on him, and one freezing, crystalline January morning found Washington moving his little army toward Princeton. Some 350 of his men under Gen. Hugh Mercer came up against British regulars under Col. Charles Mawhood. The two forces swung into line, and a short, ugly fight ended with Mercer down and his Continentals in panicked retreat.
For a moment it looked like the old story: The Americans were running away from battle again; the coup at Trenton had been a mere fluke. But then Washington came galloping onto the field and took his big white horse to within thirty paces of the British line. There he reined in and yelled for his troops to rally around him. After a moment’s pause, the British fired at this astonishing target. One of Washington’s aides hid his face in his cloak so as not to see his commander die, but when the smoke cleared, there was Washington, still in the saddle, still calling for his troops. And now they were coming. Men from Pennsylvania and Rhode Island and Massachusetts stead- led their ranks, stood, exchanged volley fire—and the British fled.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the campaigning that took place here in the deep winter of 1776.
Princeton Battlefield is oddly affecting; it’s so small. A tile map placed there in the 1960s at first seems an incoherent amalgam of peppy colors but on examination resolves itself into an admirable explication of the action that points out, among other things, the oak tree where Mercer took his mortal wound. Across the way is a monument—four Ionic columns that look as if they were part of a grand house that has disappeared. And that is just what they are. When a mansion built on the site years afterward was pulled down, it was decided that the portico made a nice memorial to the men who died there. I like the fortuitous quality of that monument; it somehow reflects the way we fought the Revolution, learning as we went, making do with what we had. A plaque in one of the columns expresses the significance of the battle in a lucid sentence that strikes me as being about as good as English prose gets: “Across these fields in the early light of the third of January 1777, Washington’s Continentals defeated British regulars for the first time in the long struggle for American independence.”
Washington moved on into winter quarters in Morristown, while the news went forth—across the country, across the Atlantic—that the American army was still in business and in very capable hands. Nevertheless, it was a hard winter of fear and doubt. There was smallpox in the camp. There was frostbite. Soldiers figured they’d done enough and went home. But now and forever after there would be in the ranks a leavening of men who had seen Hessians throw down their muskets and British regulars break their ranks and run and who would not forget the sight.