George Washington had wanted to move on to take Princeton after the Continental Army had taken Trenton, but his men were too exhausted from the river crossing and subsequent battle ordeal, so he took all his prisoners and stores back across the river to safety. His troops were in no condition to advance at the moment and he was short of food. By Dec. 31, he had improved his supplies.
The end of the year came, enlistments were up, and when the drums rolled calling for men to step forward, no one did. George Washington then gave an impassioned speech to his men to reenlist. He said, “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do and more than could reasonably be expected. But your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. 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 never can do under any other circumstances. The present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny.”
The drums rolled again and many finally did step forward, and because of the victory at Trenton, militiamen from all over the area poured into the Continental army camp. It wasn’t as many as Washington had hoped for, but it would have to be enough. If he could maintain his initiative, he might save the Revolution. If he lost a battle at this critical time, the Revolution would collapse.
The good news was that roughly 600 US Marines from the Philadelphia area heeded Washington’s plea for help. They had been aboard the various Continental warships anchored near Philly and were excellent fighters. All of the Marine officers had seen combat against the British in sea skirmishes and their men had been drilling daily, so three companies of US Marines accompanied Washington’s army on its march to Princeton. The Battle of Princeton was the first time Marines had suffered casualties on any battlefield.
General Calwalader caught up to the Continental Army and told Washington the people in the surrounding areas were hastily removing the red rags nailed to their doors as a symbol of loyalty to the crown.
In the mean time, British General Howe ordered Cornwallis to Princeton for a counter attack. On January 2, Cornwallis marched on to Trenton with about 6000 men, leaving 3 regiments at Princeton as a rear guard under Col. Mawhood.
The British arrived at Trenton to find Washington entrenched on the other side of a creek, but out-numbered and outclassed. Washington had far fewer men, many new and untested. The British and Patriots battled back and forth through a drenching rain, with the British trying to get across the water to get at the Patriots. Fortunately, the Patriots held the bridge as the rain came down harder. Night finally fell and since his troops were tired and soaked, Cornwallis decided to wait until morning to finish the attack and stop Washington once and for all.
Washington, on the other side of the creek, knew daylight would bring slaughter to his troops. During the night, Washington ordered campfires be built and ordered a few men to stay behind to keep the fires burning and make entrenchment noises to make the British believe the whole Continental army was there. The rest of the army wrapped wagon wheels and horses hooves with rags to muffle their sound, the men spoke only in whispers and – in the middle of the night – the entire Patriot army snuck silently around the sleeping British army using back roads and trails. The shivering troops staggered along the 18-mile route in total darkness, trying not to make a sound. Luckily, a freeze had set in with nightfall and the roads were frozen and passable for the men and cannon. This night march on January 2-3, 1777 is remembered as one of the great flanking marches in American history.
At dawn, British Col. Mawhood stormed Washington’s camp, only to find a few smoking fires – and not a soul in sight. At that moment, the Continental army was attacking Princeton and, after a fierce battle, took back the town from the British. The British retreated from New Jersey completely, leaving the loyalists at the mercy of their countrymen.
When the British in Princeton saw the Patriots charging across the bridge, they thought the merciless Hessians were attacking. Terrified, many British troops fled the city.
These two critical battles are called the Ten Crucial Days. Importantly, the Revolution now had a chance, morale has improved, people once again believe they could stand and face the enemy. The British outrages in the invasion of New Jersey had turned many previously on the fence to the side of the rebels and the Continental army once again found support from the local populace.