The British are Coming

*While the Continental Congress was debating independence, the British under General Sir William Howe planned to invade New York and New Jersey with the help of his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe.  Together they had about 25,000 regulars and 10,000 sailors, the largest expeditionary force Britain would amass prior to World War I.  Washington was only able to muster about 19,000 soldiers, mostly militia.


*Among Howe’s soldiers were about 9,000 German mercenaries hired through King George III’s connections with Germany as Elector of Hanover.  Because over half of them were from the state of Hesse-Kassel (and some of the others were from Hesse-Hanau) all of them were called Hessians by the Americans.  Although many were conscripts, some of them formed highly trained and disciplined units, and as a whole they had a reputation for cruelty.


*Unsure where Howe would attack first, Washington split his forces between Manhattan and Long Island.  Instead, Howe landed on Staten Island, on 3 July.  On 9 July, Washington read the Declaration of Independence aloud to the people of New York City, who pulled down the statue of King George III, cut off the head, cut off its nose, mounted the rest of the head on a spike, and melted the rest of the statue (which was made of lead) down into musket balls.


*Despite the bravery of the Continental troops, they were forced off Long Island and out of New York City, leaving America's second largest city in British hands, where it would remain until 1783.  However, Washington was able to keep his army together, and prepared to fight another day, in part through leaving large camp fires burning during a night escape so that the British thought the retreating Americans were still in camp.


*During the fighting in and around New York, Washington needed a spy to go behind British lines.  However, spying was considered dishonourable; one officer said ‘I am willing to go and fight them, but as for going among them and being taken and hung like a dog, I will not do it.’  Eventually Nathan Hale of Connecticut agreed to do it and had some success making notes in Latin about British troop numbers and movements until a Loyalist recognised him as a rebel sympathiser and turned him in with the suggestion that the British search his shoes.  When they did they found his notes, charged him with spying, and hanged him.  His last words were (according to tradition) ‘I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’


*Washington eventually withdrew into Pennsylvania.  Congress itself abandoned Philadelphia.  Washington’s army was down to 5,000 men, about a quarter the size it had been in the summer, and many men’s enlistments were about to run out—most soldiers only signed on for a few months or a year.  As the year came to its close, Washington expected to have an army of about 1,400 men in the New Year.


*At this time, Thomas Paine began writing the series of pamphlets he entitled The Crisis, beginning the first volume with the words


THESE are the times that try men's souls.


The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.


Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.


What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.


Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.


*The British had also moved into New Jersey, as had their Hessian mercenaries, although as the weather worsened, General Howe moved back to New York City, leaving New Jersey to his subordinates.


*Some of the New Jersey militia harassed the British and Hessians (particularly as stories of rape and pillage by the Hessians spread), preventing them from sending out as many patrols as they should have, thus limiting their intelligence.  However, the commander of the Hessians occupying Trenton said that it was not necessary to build earthworks or other defences, stating that the bayonet would be enough.


*Encouraged by the success of several small raids against the British and Hessians in New Jersey, and knowing that his men outnumbered the Hessians in Trenton, Washington planned a daring night attack across the Delaware River.  He would cross on Christmas night, hoping the catch the Hessians tired from their Christmas celebrations at dawn on the 26th.


*Bad weather, including ice in the river, slowed their crossing, and they did not arrive on the Jersey shore until 3 AM (instead of Midnight).  Some of Washington’s men did not manage to cross at all due to the weather.  However, a blizzard hid the approach of Washington’s soldiers from the Hessians while local patriots were able to guide Washington’s men to Trenton.


*The Hessians were caught off guard, although a sentry managed to sound the alarm, and the Hessians were able to form a line that provided some resistance.  However, they were not able to hold off the American forces, particularly as American artillery began firing into their ranks--some of the artillery was commanded by Alexander Hamilton, who had to keep his finger over the touchhole of his cannon to keep it from freezing over.  Miscommunication led to the Hessians splitting their forces until they finally fell apart as Colonel Rall was mortally wounded.


*22 Hessians were killed, 83 seriously wounded, and 896 captured.  A few managed to escape because they were on the far end of the town from where the attack began.  Washington only lost two men killed and five wounded (one of whom was Lieutenant James Monroe, who was wounded in the shoulder and nearly bled to death—he carried the bullet in his body for the rest of his life), although many men died the next day of illness, exposure, and exhaustion.


*Although this was not a large battle, and Washington crossed back into Pennsylvania shortly afterwards, it offered a great lift to American morale, encouraging re-enlistment and breaking the Hessians’ reputation as unbeatable killing machines.


*The Battle of Princeton a week later was another small, but important, American victory.  On 29 December, 1776, Washington again crossed the Delaware and re-occupied Trenton, this time with fresh soldiers who had been unable to cross with him the last time.


*Washington then marched the bulk of his army to Princeton, where he rapidly defeated most of the force defending the town.


*Unlike at Trenton, he did not capture the majority of the British, as they managed to break through Washington’s lines with a bayonet charge and escape (with their dragoons covering their rear), but Washington captured numerous wagons full of supplies and further increased American confidence, even though he soon fell back to a defensive position further from the British lines.  Although he had not lost many men, Cornwallis withdrew from parts of New Jersey.


*Even more important, after these victories, France, England’s traditional foe, prompted by Benjamin Franklin who had recently arrived in France and charmed the sophisticated people of Paris with his wit and humour, as well as his fame as a writer, scientist, and inventor, began to send some aid, in the form of money and materiel, but not yet men or ships.


This page last updated 29 August, 2015.
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