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CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 36

“LET THEM COME!”

By Judy Leithe

A mixture of rain, snow and hail soaked the Patriot army as they slogged through the night. Their food supplies were spent, and many of their muskets were rendered useless due to moisture. General Henry Knox urged his artillery squadron, with their heavy, horse-drawn munitions wagons, to press on as silently as possible so not to alert the Hessians they were coming. Just a half hour outside of Trenton, General Washington was grateful to see his army pick up their pace. Now, as outlying buildings were coming into view, the troops seemed eager for their Commander’s signal to attack.

The Hessians, in fact, had been tipped off about Washington’s impossible-sounding plan of attack. Even though the German troops were also dealing with this cold front, they slept and took their meals in large barracks, or in the homes of Trenton citizens who had long since deserted their town. To the highly-trained mercenary soldiers, these ragtag American rebels posed no threat. They were also sure that Washington could never succeed in moving his troops such a great distance and through such a blizzard. When the Hessian Commander, Colonel Johann Rall, was on his way to Christmas dinner, he received a note warning about the impending attack, he simply tucked it into his jacket and scoffed, “Let them come!”

 In the early morning of December 26th, American cannons fired down Trenton’s King and Queen Streets, wiping out all of the Hessians on guard duty.   A contingent of surprised Germans rushed out of their barracks and quickly formed lines of defense. After they fired their first rounds, and attempted to reload, the Americans descended upon them. Initially, it was hand-to-hand combat, but throughout the town, wherever the Hessians tried to regroup, they were met with American troops who overpowered them.  

An incredulous Colonel Rall quickly dressed and mounted his horse, hoping to marshal his troops to charge into the American lines. This was a nightmare, as his troops were in absolute disarray. In his thirty-six-year military career, he had defeated armies across Europe, Asia and America. But, this cold morning in Trenton, his arrogance proved to be his undoing. Rall was hit in the abdomen by two American musket balls, causing him to fall from his horse. Mortally wounded, his men carried him inside a church where, once the battle was over, Washington spoke with the Hessian Commander before he died. Upon searching his clothing, Washington’s aides found a note warning Colonel Rall of Washington’s planned attack.

The Americans defeated the Hessians in about ninety minutes! They were now in possession of huge quantities of German muskets, bayonets, ammunition, cannons and horses.

Due to worsening weather, and the possibility of British and Hessian reprisals, Washington turned his army around and trekked back through the snow and, once again, crossed the icy Delaware River. This time, however, they had nine-hundred prisoners to guard as well as tending to even larger quantities of munitions. Once back in Pennsylvania, Washington gave his troops the cash value of all of the spoils collected after the battle, and addressed his troops saying, “The General, with the utmost sincerity and affection, thanks the officers and soldiers for their spirited and gallant behavior at Trenton yesterday.”  

The Battle of Trenton took place just five months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Although it was not the decisive battle that won the war against Britain, the Hessian rout lifted the spirits of Washington’s army. However, in five days, all of his soldiers’ enlistment contracts would fulfilled, and they would be free to go home.

Next week: New Year’s Day, l777 – An earnest petition to reenlist.