After the previous British victories in New York and New Jersey in 1776, Continental Army General George Washington had to be lucky, daring, and cunning. In early December 1776, he’d been lucky to get away from the advancing British earlier in the war with a reasonable force left. Later, he made his daring crossing of the Delaware River over Christmas of 1776 where he had surprised Hessian troops serving in the British cause. However, those types of raids would be hard to re-create with the level of surprise that that one had achieved. Therefore, on 3 January 1777, George Washington used his cunning and tactical flexibility to strike a new blow on an over-extended British Army in New Jersey.
The Battle of Princeton 1777
After letting the Americans slip away after the Christmas 1776 attack at Trenton, Washington knew that British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis would not let another opportunity to catch him go to waste. Cornwallis combined most of his British Army forces from Princeton with his Hessian troops around Trenton and took off in pursuit leaving detachments at several locations. On 2 January, Washington had decided to set up defensive positions around Trenton and the British attacked. Washington realized that he could not take on the massed might of the British, so he decided to retreat with a purpose. The Continental Army fought off the British attack with a delaying action that let most of the Continental Army escape overnight. Washington kept most of his 6,000 Continentals intact, but Cornwallis had fatally separated his 8,000 troops into several detachments in New Jersey during the pursuit. Washington saw his opening. Washington managed to evade a decisive engagement with Cornwallis near Trenton, but cunningly looped around to find several smaller British detachments around Princeton. Washington managed to cut off Cornwallis’s rearguard in several short and sharp engagements around Princeton and inflict tactical, but significant defeats on the British.
The retreat from New Jersey across the Delaware River, the Christmas Trenton raid, and the Battle of Princeton had shown Washington to be more than a match for the British Army. General Sir William Howe, Cornwallis’s superior, had seen enough and pulled British forces back closer to New York for the winter. The British were to leave New Jersey soon thereafter to focus on the more strategically important northeast coast. Washington had proven to the British that neither he nor his “ragtag” American troops could be taken easily.
The Battle of Princeton 1777 Motorcycle Ride
Check out west-central New Jersey roughly following Washington’s route from Trenton to Princeton to the Rockingham State Historical Site to Rocky Hill to Hopewell to Lambertville and down the Delaware River valley to lovely Yardley, PA.