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

As soon as the Continental Army returned to New Jersey for the Second Battle of Trenton, General Washington sent out a call to arms to reinforce his troops. Within less than twenty-four hours, three units of the Continental Marines joined Washington on the march north to Princeton. These 600 Marines had been stationed in Philadelphia after having recently disembarked from American war ships, whose mission was to defend the colonies from British Naval attacks. Note: Congress commissioned the Continental Marines of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). They were recommissioned in 1798, as the United States Marines Corp.

The weather had turned bitterly cold which, for once, aided the American army’s passage, as muddy roads became solidly frozen. After marching all night, dawn was beginning to light their way as they crossed Clark’s Farm near the town of Princeton. Knowing British troops may be in the area, Washington had dispatched his long-time friend, Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, and a small detail of men, to destroy a bridge which would hamper any possible surprise attacks.

At the same early hour, Lt. Colonel Charles Mawhood, the commander in charge of the British garrison in Princeton, was ordering his troops to begin their march south to Trenton to reinforce General Cornwallis and his men. Mawhood’s troops were startled to discover General Mercer’s detail and ferociously attacked the Americans. Because Mercer was on horseback, and wore an officer’s uniform, the British regulars fired their muskets at him. Thinking they had actually shot General George Washington, they then brutally attacked him with their bayonets shouting, “Surrender you damn rebel!” Mercer later died from the attack.

Just as the Americans were being forced back by the British, General Washington arrived astride his powerful white horse. Close behind him were 1,500 militiamen ready to back up their fellow soldiers. Amid flying musket shots, Washington cooly assured his men, “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we shall have them directly.” As Washington rode within thirty yards of the British lines, one of his officers, John Fitzgerald, later reported that he, Fitzgerald, had pulled his hat over his eyes expecting to see his Commander in Chief shot at any moment.

However, the emboldened Americans prevailed, and Mawhood’s army retreated, clearing the path for Washington to march his army into the town of Princeton. They discovered that a remnant of 200 British soldiers had occupied Nassau Hall, the stately main building of the College of New Jersey, later renamed, Princeton University. Wasting no time, Captain Alexander Hamilton had the building surrounded by his artillerymen, who aimed a barrage of cannon fire at the building until the British soldiers surrendered.

It was becoming clear that the British had lost control of New Jersey, which was intended to cut through the center of the colonial states, dividing their rebellion. After losing the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, General Howe ordered all of his British troops back to New York and Pennsylvania to reinforce their command over New York City and Philadelphia.

Next week: From the Colonial battlefields to the Palace of Versailles.