Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.



By Judy Leithe

Throughout the eight years the American Patriots fought against the British Monarchy for independence, communications on the battlefield were, at best, difficult and slow. In order to plan battles, and even coordinate with their troops, General Washington and his commanders had to rely on sending and receiving messages by couriers on horseback, and even townspeople on foot.   

After their decisive victory over the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, the American army returned to their base camp on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Once they transferred their 900 Hessian prisoners to the Philadelphia Militiamen, they were ready for much needed rest, having spent the last sixty hours in action. However, the following day, Washington received perplexing news. The night before the Battle of Trenton, Colonel Cadwalader held his division back from attempting to cross the icy Delaware River. It was too late to meet up with Washington’s division, but the colonel eventually took his men across the river, and they were now heading toward Trenton to do their part in fighting the Hessians!

At his headquarters, located in widow Hannah Harris’ home, Washington met with his generals to deliberate about this unexpected turn of events. There was unanimous agreement that the smaller Cadwalader division, now in New Jersey, would surely face British retaliations for the loss of Trenton. They reached the bold consensus to mobilize the rest of the army and re-cross the Delaware in order to protect Cadwalader’s unit, as well as preserve their hard-fought victory in Trenton. At the same time, Washington was also painfully aware that his soldiers would be free to go home on New Year’s Day, when they had fulfilled their enlistment agreement. Somehow, he had to try to convince them to stay.

The announcement of this new plan of action was met with rumblings coming from the militiamen who were ready to leave the army on January 1st. At the outset of the revolution, the dignified and self-controlled Washington found these enlistees lacking in discipline and military readiness. But, having been on the battlefield with them for a year, his doubts had changed to admiration for their courage and patriotism. “My brave fellows,” Washington told them, “you have done all I have asked you to do and more that can be reasonably expected. But, your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear…If you consent to staying one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty…” They had witnessed Washington take the lead in every battle, while brushing off any danger to himself. Deeply moved, small groups of militiamen began to step forward, until their ranks reached 3,000 men who agreed to stay on with their revered Commander in Chief.

Lt. General Charles Cornwallis, with his nearly 6,000-strong British and Hessian army, was bent on revenge. They had marched six miles from Princeton to confront the Patriot army that had returned to Trenton. Cornwallis even admired Washington, calling him “the old fox,” but he was certain he could defeat this rabble of farmers and bring this rebellion to a close. When it looked like Cornwallis had the upper hand in Trenton, Washington deftly moved his troops across to the other side of the Assunpink Creek. While many militiamen waded across the creek’s swift currents, others, along with Washington, stood guard at the far end of the stone bridge. In Ron Chernow’s book, “Washington, A Life,” he recounts Private John Howland’s memories of the American’s withdrawal across Assunpink Creek Bridge:

“The noble horse of Gen. Washington stood with his breast pressed close against the end of the west rail of the bridge, and the firm, composed, and majestic countenance of the general inspired confidence and assurance in a moment so important and critical…”

The Second Battle of Trenton took place on January 2, 1777. The British soldiers were repeatedly ordered to storm Assunpink Bridge, but many were caught in the American’s cannon-fire. Even after losing a couple hundred of his men, Cornwallis calculated he still had double the number of troops that Washington had. With his significant troop advantage, he decided to let his soldiers get a good night’s sleep, then in the morning, he would “bag the fox.”

Once again, Washington proved to be a brilliant, and even wily, strategist. His spies informed him that most of the British troops in Princeton had been commandeered to march to Trenton with Cornwallis. So, in the dead of night, Washington stealthily moved his army along a little-known back road, with the objective of rescuing the city of Princeton from British control.

Next week: The Confrontation at Nassau Hall.