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CHAPTER XLV 1
ROWE HEARS OF THE AFFAIR AT TRENTON-CORNWALLIS SENT BACK TO TAZ
JERSEYS-RECONNOITERING EXPEDITION OF REED-HIS EXPLOITS-WASHINGTON IN PERIL AT TRENTON-REINFORCED BY TROOPS UNDER CADWALADER AND MIFFLIN-POSITION OF HIS MEN-CORNWALLIS AT TRENTONREPULSED AT THE ASSUNPIXK-THE AMERICAN CAMP MENACE-NIGHT MARCH OF WASHINGTON-AFFAIR AT PRINCETOX-DEATH OF MERCER ROUT OF BRITISH TROOPS-PURSUED BY WASHINGTOX-CORNWALLIS AT PRINCETON—BAFFLED AND PERPLEXED-WASHINGTON AT MORRISTOWNHIS SYSTEM OF ANNOYANCE—THE TABLES TURNED UPON THE ENEMY.
GENERAL Howe was taking his ease in winter quarters at New York, waiting for the freezing of the Delaware to pursue bis triumphant march to Philadelphia, when tidings were brought him of the surprise and capture of the Hessians at Trenton. “That three old established regiments of a people who made war their profession, should lay down their arms to a ragged and undisciplined militia, and that with scarcely any loss on either side,” was a matter of amazement. He instantly stopped Lord Cornwallis, who was on the point of embarking for England, and sent him back in all haste to resume the command in the Jerseys.
The ice in the Delaware impeded the crossing of the American troops, and gave the British time to draw in their scattered cantonments and assemble their whole force at Princeton. While
BRITISH PICKET SURPRISED.
his troops were yet crossing, Washington sent out Colonel Reed to reconnoitre the postion and movements of the enemy and obtain information. Six of the Philadelphia light-horse, spirited young fellows, but who had never seen service, volunteered to accompany Reed. They patrolled the country to the very vicinity of Princeton, but could collect no information from the inhabitants; who were harassed, terrified, and bewildered by the ravaging marches to and fro of friend and enemy.
Emerging from a wood almost within view of Princeton, they caught sight, from a rising ground, of two or three red coats passing from time to time from a barn to a dwelling house. Here must be an outpost. Keeping the barn in a line with the house so as to cover their approach, they dashed up to the latter without being discovered, and surrounded it. Twelve British dragoons were within, who, though well armed, were so panic-stricken that they surrendered without making defence. A commissary, also, was taken ; the sergeant of the dragoons alone escaped. Colonel Reed and his six cavaliers returned in triumph to head-quarters. Important information was obtained from their prisoners. Lord Cornwallis had joined General Grant the day before at Princeton, with a reinforcement of chosen troops. They had now seven or eight thousand men, and were pressing waggons for a march upon Trenton.* • Cadwalader, stationed at Crosswicks, about seven miles distant, between Bordentown and Trenton, sent intelligence to the same purport, received by him from a young gentleman who had escaped from Princeton.
Word, too, was brought from other quarters, that General Howe was on the march with a thousand light troops, with which he had landed at Amboy.
* Life of Reed, i. 282.
The situation of Washington was growing critical. The enemy were beginning to advance their large pickets towards Trenton. Every thing indicated an approaching attack. The force with him was small; to retreat across the river, would destroy the dawn of hope awakened in the bosoms of the Jersey militia by the late exploit; but to make a stand without reinforcements was impossible. In this emergency, he called to his aid General Cadwalader from Crosswicks, and General Mifflin from Bordentown, with their collective forces, amounting to about three thousand six hundred men. He did it with reluctance, for it seemed like involving them in the common danger, but the exigency of the case admitted of no alternative. They promptly answered to his call, and marching in the night, joined him on the lst of January.
Washington chose a position for his main body on the east side of the Assunpink. There was a narrow stone bridge across it, where the water was very deep; the same bridge over which part of Rabl's brigade had escaped in the recent affair. He planted his artillery so as to command the bridge and the fords. His advance guard was stationed about three miles off in a wood, having in front a stream called Shabbakong Creek.
Early on the morning of the 2d, came certain word that Cornwallis was approaching with all his force. Strong parties were sent out under General Greene, who skirmished with the enemy and harassed them in their advance. By twelve o'clock they reached the Shabbakong, and halted for a time on its northern bank. Then crossing it, and moving forward with rapidity, they drove the advance guard out of the woods, and pushed on until 1777.]
CRITICAL SITUATION OF WASHINGTON.
they reached a high ground near the town. Here Hand's corps of several battalions was drawn up, and held them for a time in check. All the parties in advance ultimately retreated to the main body, on the east side of the Assunpink, and found some difficulty in crowding across the narrow bridge.
From all these checks and delays, it was nearly sunset before Cornwallis with the head of bis army entered Trenton. His rear-guard under General Leslie rested at Maiden Head, about six miles distant, and nearly half way between Trenton and Princeton. Forming his troops into columns, he now made repeated attempts to cross the Assunpink at the bridge and the fords, but was as often repulsed by the artillery. For a part of the time Washington, mounted on a white horse, stationed himself at the south end of the bridge, issuing his orders. Each time the enemy was repulsed there was a shout along the American lines. At length they drew off, came to a halt, and lighted their camp fires. The Americans did the same, using the neighboring fences for the purpose. Sir William Erskine, who was with Cornwallis, urged him, it is said, to attack Washington that evening in his camp; but his lordship declined; he felt sure of the game which had so often escaped him ; he had at length, he thought, got Washington into a situation from which he could not escape, but where he might make a desperate stand, and he was willing to give his wearied troops a night's repose to prepare them for the closing struggle. He would be sure, he said, to “ bag the fox in the morning.”
A cannonade was kept up on both sides until dark; but with little damage to the Americans. When night closed in, the two camps lay in sight of each other's fires, ruminating the bloody action of the following day. It was the most gloomy and anxious night that had yet closed in on the American army, throughout its series of perils and disasters; for there was no concealing the impending danger. But what must have been the feelings of the commander-in-chief, as he anxiously patrolled his camp, and considered his desperate position? A small stream, fordable in several places, was all that separated his raw, inexperienced army, from an enemy vastly superior in numbers and discipline, and stung to action by the mortification of a late defeat. A generai action with them must be ruinous; but how was he to retreat ? Behind him was the Delaware, impassable from floating ice. Granting even (a thing not to be hoped) that a retreat across it could be effected, the consequences would be equally fatal. The Jerseys would be left in possession of the enemy, endangering the immediate capture of Philadelphia, and sinking the public mind into despondency.
In this darkest of moments a gleam of hope flashed upon his mind: a bold expedient suggested itself. Almost the whole of the enemy's force must by this time be drawn out of Princeton, and advancing by detachments toward Trenton, while their baggage and principal stores must remain weakly guarded at Brunswick. Was it not possible by a rapid night-march along the Quaker road, a different road from that on which General Leslie with the rear-guard was resting, to get past that force undiscovered, come by surprise upon those left at Princeton, capture or destroy what stores were left there, and then push on to Brunswick? This would save the army from being cut off; would avoid the appear. ance of a defeat; and might draw the enemy away from Trenton, while some fortunate stroke might give additional reputation to the American arms. Even should the enemy march on to Phila