Jan. 3, 2022

The Battle of Princeton

The Battle of Princeton

January 3, 1777. General George Washington snatches victory from the jaws of defeat at the Battle of Princeton.

This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Cold Open

It’s 8 AM on December 26th, 1776, in the city of Trenton, New Jersey.

Inside the bedroom of a small house on King Street, a group of German soldiers known as Hessians, wake up with stinging hangovers from the previous day's drinking. They have been celebrating Christmas with plenty of beer, and some of these men are determined that the festivities will continue into today.

As the men rouse, and then immediately pour glasses and toast to their health, they feel they've earned this brief Christmas reprieve after months of heavy fighting against the colonial forces.

These 1500 Hessians are soldiers for hire. They’ve been on the payroll of the British Empire ever since the American colonies declared their War of Independence. 

In that time, the Hessians have earned a reputation for being fearsome warriors, and have helped to decimate the continental army, led by General George Washington. At the battle of Long Island, in Manhattan, the Hessians slaughtered colonial troops by the hundreds.

They don't consider the dwindling American army to be much of a threat nor do they expect to have to defend themselves this morning. But outside in the street, comes a shout of alarm. 

“Der Fiend! Der Fiend!”, “the enemy!” “the enemy!”

Shooting starts, and the Hessians scramble out of bed and grab their bayonets. Some of them take the time to put on their bright blue uniform while others simply dash out of the house in their underwear. 

All along the main road, Hessians emerge from various homes in astonishment, to find colonial soldiers on horseback streaming into the snow-covered streets of Trenton from two sides. Backed by the sound of thunderous cannons, the colonial soldiers are heavily armed, and they appear to outnumber the Hessians two to one.

Until today, the Hessians were convinced that they were on the winning side of the bitter conflict between the British colonists and the American patriots. But starting at Trenton and culminating in just over a week's time, George Washington will lead a series of victories that will prove the American revolution is far from over. 

On January 3rd, 1777, at the battle of Princeton, Washington and his army will perform an extraordinary military feat that will turn the tide of the war and alter the course of history.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is January 3rd, 1777: The Battle of Princeton.

Act One: Battle of Trenton

It’s December 26th, 1776 in the City of Trenton, New Jersey. Just over a week before the Battle of Princeton.

General George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army of the Thirteen Colonies, observes the Battle of Trenton from the high ground at the north of the city. From here, he can direct his army of 2400 men and witness the action from a good vantage point. He has a decent view of the two main streets at the center of Trenton although they are now clouded with musket smoke.

But the Hessians are easy to spot in their brightly colored uniforms. Among them, Washington recognizes the uniform of Colonel Johann Rall, the commander of the Hessian brigade. Rall rides a horse through Trenton, trying to regain control of the city, but it’s a lost cause.

Washington’s plan for this surprise attack was simple, but effective. He divided his men into two flanking columns that would attack the city simultaneously under the cover of darkness, backed by cannonfire. The outnumbered Hessians are already buckling under the onslaught and Washington feels proud that his plan is working, and that his army is performing; especially considering what a poor state they were in just days before.

Ever since the Continental Army’s defeat in New York at the Battle of Long Island, an alarming number of his soldiers have deserted. Washington needs a big victory to boost morale, and recruitment. He knows that if he cannot secure some key victories for the Continental Army very soon, morale will plummet even more and this glorious revolution that he and so many others have devoted their lives to, will be doomed to failure. To that end, his army has just performed a daring feat that will go down as one of the most significant moments in American history.

Late yesterday evening, under the cover of darkness, Washington and his army managed to row themselves and their heavy artillery over the freezing Delaware River, in order to carry out this surprise attack on Trenton. It was a hugely perilous and logistical challenge, especially considering that most of his men can’t swim. At any point, thick pack of ice could have collided with their boats, pulling them into the icy depths. Washington considers it a miracle that it didn’t happen.

Instead, in the early hours of December 26th, he and his entire army successfully made it across the Delaware and began the grueling 9-mile march to Trenton. Washington had been privately concerned that putting his men through such an ordeal the night before a battle might break their spirits but, as he watches the vigor with which they attack the Hessian garrison, he realizes he was right to believe in them.

Washington watches as Colonel Rall unsuccessfully attempts to rally his troops and establish a defensive perimeter. The Hessians have garnered a reputation for being formidable opponents. But today, Washington’s men prove the tougher combatants, as they surge through the streets shooting Hessians down on every corner. Washington feels little pity, considering what they did to his troops on Long Island. 

Just then, Washington hears a gunshot crack above the fray. He watches as Colonel Rall, the Hessian commander, slumps over his horse and falls to the ground. With their commander dead, it doesn’t take long for the remaining Hessians to throw down their weapons and surrender. Washington exhales in relief.

With the battle over, Washington and his Generals assess their victory. It's soon established that 22 Hessian soldiers were killed, including Colonel Rall. 92 were wounded. 900 have been taken prisoners. The rest have fled the city. By contrast, Washington is informed that his army has only suffered two deaths this morning, with only a handful of casualties.

But Washington is not ready to celebrate just yet. However morale-boosting this victory at Trenton might be, Washington knows it’s just the beginning of his campaign. The more pivotal battle will take place just North of here on January 3rd, 1777 in Princeton. There, General George Washington will lead his newly emboldened troops into a battle that will turn the tide of the war.

Act Two: Assunpink Creek  

It’s December 30th, 1776, four days before the Battle of Princeton, on the south side of Assunpink Creek, a small tributary that flows into the Delaware River which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania.

General George Washington rides atop a large black steed and addresses his assembled troops of over 2000 men. He knows the outcome of the appeal he is about to make is vital to the success of the American Revolution. He’s also aware that he’s already asked a great deal of these brave soldiers. But he has no choice but to persuade them all to keep fighting even though, as of tomorrow, most of them no longer have to.

On December 31st, the enlistment of many of his soldiers will be up, meaning his men can legally leave the army and return home. To entice them to stay and fight, he’s offered them a bounty of ten dollars per man, the equivalent of just over three hundred dollars today. But Washington knows this small amount of money alone will not compel them. He hopes to appeal to their sense of duty.

He tells them: "My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably can never do under any other circumstances."

Upon completing his speech, Washington waits to see if anyone will step forward to show their allegiance. For some long seconds, it appears nobody will. Then, one soldier volunteers. Then another. Before long, all of the assembled troops have stepped forward to declare their loyalty to Washington, and to the Revolution. Washington nods in appreciation, knowing that with strong-hearted men like these, anything is possible: even defeating the British. 


It’s January 2nd, 1777, on the north side of Assunpink Creek in Trenton, New Jersey.

Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, a commander of the British infantry, is frustrated. He marched here with thousands of red-coated soldiers to take back Trenton from the Americans. Cornwallis expected to easily overwhelm Washington’s forces, which are only roughly half the size of his. But the Continental Army has not been so easy to defeat.

As Cornwallis marched towards Trenton, Washington’s troops employed delay tactics, repeatedly attacking Cornwallis and then retreating, in an effort to buy time. Washington used that time to build a defensive line on the south side of Assunpink Creek. Washington and his men have formed ranks safely behind it.

And now, Cornwallis and his troops stand on the north side of the creek. In order to attack, Cornwallis’ men must first make it across a small wooden bridge. Three times now, Cornwallis has ordered his men to cross the bridge and each time, his soldiers were repelled by American cannons. The bridge is now red with British blood and night is falling. 

Cornwallis is irritated, but confident that Washington is pinned down with nowhere to run. So Cornwallis orders his men to make camp for the night, telling them: "We've got the old fox… now. We'll go over and bag him in the morning."

Throughout the night, the British try their best to keep a watchful eye on the Continental Army. They can’t see the enemy over the high trees. But they do see the flames of their fires flickering through the branches. And they hear the clang of their tools as the Americans prepare to set up a permanent camp.

At dawn the next day, Cornwallis orders his men to charge the bridge for a fourth time. He’s delighted when they meet little resistance. But when Cornwallis gets to the other side, he is astonished to discover that the fox has slipped away. Instead of encountering Washington’s full force, the British find the camp deserted.

Soon, Cornwallis learns the truth: General Washington knew he was outmanned, so he ordered a small number of his men to clang tools and burn fires high throughout the night to trick the British into believing they were making camp. At the same time, he marched the bulk of his army northeast to Princeton to launch another surprise attack.


It’s January 3rd, 1777 at dawn.

On the road to Princeton, General Washington has stopped his advance to consult with one of his top advisors. Washington wants to take Princeton, Cornwallis’ primary route of communications with British-occupied New York.

Washington received intelligence reports that the west side of Princeton is heavily defended. But the east side is open. Washington hoped to reach Princeton before daybreak and attack the city from the east. But traveling at night took longer than expected. Now, as he confers with his fellow officers, Washington is frustrated because the sun is up, and he’s still two miles away.

Without the cover of darkness on his side, Washington is forced to alter his plan. He orders most of his troops to continue onto Princeton where he hopes to surprise the 1200 British troops who are garrisoned there. But he also orders one of his officers, Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, to take a small detachment of 300 men west, to destroy a bridge, to slow Cornwallis’ ability to pursue them. But with these orders, Washington has just sent General Mercer and his detachment right into the sights of the enemy.

Act Three: Battle of Princeton

It’s January 3rd, 1777, at Clark farm, not far from Princeton.

General Mercer and over 300 troops make their way through an orchard in the early morning light.

Mercer and his detachment are on their way to destroy a nearby bridge, and they are in grave danger. Two thousand British troops have spotted them and are poised to attack.

Last night, Lord Cornwallis ordered these soldiers to leave Princeton and march south to Trenton to help Cornwallis attack General Washington. On their way, these British soldiers spotted Mercer and his detachment on the march. Now, the British officer in charge orders an attack. 

The stillness of the morning is interrupted by a cacophony of gunfire. Eventually, the redcoats charge with their bayonets in the air. But when they see General Mercer at the center of the ferocious fight, they are certain he must be George Washington.

The British soldiers surround, taunt and stab Mercer repeatedly until he falls to the ground mortally wounded. The British roar in triumph, but they have not killed the man they think they have. Instead, they will meet Washington later.

When he receives news of Merce's death, Washington is devastated.

He sends a militia to aid what remains of Mercer’s detachment. But seeing the state of Mercer’s men, the militia begins to flee. Eventually, Washington rides into the fray himself with reinforcements and rallies the fleeing militia, leading a counterattack against the British troops that places him directly in the field of fire.

One of Washington’s officers pulls his hat over his eyes to avoid seeing his commander killed in the crossfire. The two armies fire incessantly, and soon the field is completely obscured in a cloud of smoke. When it clears, Washington is unscathed. He waves his men forward.

The overwhelmed British are forced to break ranks and retreat from the city. Galloping after them, Washington cries out.

“It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!’

Soon after this, Washington drives what’s left of the British garrison out of Princeton. Washington achieves a well-publicized victory; one that renews confidence in America’s ability to break free of British rule. And as a result, over the coming months, many new recruits will join the patriot cause.

Just two weeks earlier, the Continental Army had been on the verge of defeat. But now, thanks to the military prowess of George Washington and the resilience of his men, the American Revolution looks poised for success. But the War of Independence is far from over. There will be six more years of fighting before ultimate victory is achieved. But thanks to the stunning set of victories that culminated at Princeton on January 3rd, 1777, the eventual success of that revolution felt for a moment inevitable.


Next on History Daily. January 4th, 1853. After being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South, Solomon Northup regains his freedom.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.