Frederick the Great of Prussia called these 10 days “the most brilliant in the world’s history.”
After winning the Battle of Trenton, Christmas Day evening, George Washington’s small 1,200 man force confronted General Cornwallis’ 4,500 man British army. The night of Jan. 2, 1777, Washington left his campfires burning and marched his army in absolute silence around the back of the British camp at Princeton, New Jersey. Guns were wrapped in heavy cloth to stifle any noise.
At daybreak, Jan. 3, 1777, Washington attacked the British from behind, similar to what the British did to the Americans at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights. The British fought back, sending a bayonet charge which killed dozens of American soldiers.
One of those killed was General Hugh Mercer, who had fought with Washington in the French and Indian War, and in the Battle of Trenton, and whose descendants included WWII General George S. Patton.
After this British counter-attacked, the American militia under General John Cadwalader fell into a panic and began to flee. To stop the retreat, General George Washington immediately rode to the front of the line and ordered the soldiers to stop fleeing. He quickly commanded them to turn around and follow him back to the line, riding within 30 yards of the British.
Turning and facing his men, Washington yelled “Halt!” “Aim” then “Fire!”
The British immediately returned by firing a volley. The field of battle was filled with a cloud of smoke. Many thought Washington was surely shot, as he was exposed to fire from both sides. American officer John Fitzgerald pulled his hat down to cover his eyes so as to not see Washington killed.
But when the smoke cleared, to their dismay, Washington was seen waving to his men to charge forward. Over 300 British were captured and an estimated 100 killed or wounded, as compared to only 23 Americans killed and 20 wounded.
Enthusiasm swept America. British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan wrote of the American victories at Trenton and Princeton: “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”
President Calvin Coolidge stated Oct. 28, 1925: “Distinguished military critics have described Washington’s campaign of Trenton and Princeton as a military exploit of unparalleled brilliancy.”
The equestrian statue at Washington Circle in Washington, D.C. depicts General Washington at the Battle of Princeton.
At the statue’s dedication in 1860, sculptor Clark Mills stated: “… at the battle of Princeton where Washington, after several ineffectual attempts to rally his troops, advanced so near the enemy’s lines that his horse refused to go further, but stood and trembled while the brave rider sat undaunted with reins in hand. But while his noble horse is represented thus terror stricken, the dauntless hero is calm and dignified, ever believing himself the instrument in the hand of Providence to work out the great problem of liberty.”
Yale President Ezra Stiles described General George Washington as the American version of the Israelite commander Joshua, in an election address before the governor and General Assembly of Connecticut, May 8, 1783: “Congress put at the head of this spirited army, the only man, on whom the eyes of all Israel were placed. … This American Joshua was raised up by God, and divinely formed by a peculiar influence of the Sovereign of the Universe, for the great work of leading the armies of this American Joseph … and conducting this people through the severe, the arduous conflict, to liberty and independence. …”
Ezra Stiles continued: “In our lowest and most dangerous estate in 1776 and 1777, we sustained ourselves against the British army of sixty thousand troops commanded by Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton, and other the ablest generals Britain could procure throughout Europe, with a naval force of 22,000 seamen in above eighty British men of war. … This was sealed and confirmed by God Almighty in the victory of General Washington at Trenton, and in the surprising movement and battle of Princeton; by which astonishing effort of generalship, General Howe and the whole British army, in elated confidence and in open-mouthed march for Philadelphia, was instantly stopped, remanded back, and cooped up for a shivering winter in the little borough of Brunswick. Thus God turned the battle to the gate; and this gave a finishing to the foundation of the American Republic. …”
Ezra Stiles ended: “Who but a Washington, inspired by Heaven, could have struck out the great movement and maneuver of Princeton? … The United States are under peculiar obligations to become a holy people unto the Lord our God.”
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