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Battle of Princeton

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

Hugh Mercer
Brig Gen Hugh Mercer from John Trumbull’s painting of the Battle of Princeton

January 7. –On the second instant, intelligence was received by express, that the enemy’s army was advancing from Princeton towards Trenton, where the main body of the Americans were stationed. Two brigades under Brigadier-Generals Stephen and Fermoy, had been detached several days before, from the main body, to Maidenhead, and were ordered to skirmish with the enemy during their march, and to retreat to Trenton, as occasion should require. A body of men under command of Colonel Hand, were also ordered to meet the enemy, by which means their march was so much retarded as to give ample time for our forces to form, and prepare to give them a warm reception upon their arrival. Two field-pieces, planted upon a hill, at a small distance above the town, were managed with great advantage, and did considerable execution for some time; after which they were ordered to retire to the station occupied by our forces on the south side of the bridge, over the little river which divides the town into two parts, and opens at right angles into the Delaware. In their way through the town, the enemy suffered much by an incessant fire of musketry from behind the houses and barns. Their army had now arrived at the northern side of the bridge, whilst our army were drawn up, in order of battle, on the southern side. Our cannon played very briskly from this eminence, and were returned as briskly by the enemy. In a few minutes after the cannonade began, a very heavy discharge of musketry ensued, and continued for ten or fifteen minutes. During this action, a party of men were detached from our right wing, to secure a part of the river, which, it was imagined, from the motions of the enemy, they intended to ford. This detachment arrived at the pass very opportunely, and effected their purpose; after this the enemy made a feeble and unsupported attempt to pass the bridge, but this likewise proved abortive. It was now near six o’clock in the evening, and night coming on, closed the engagement. Our fires were built in due season, and were very numerous; and whilst the enemy were amused by these appearances, and preparing for a general attack the ensuing day, our army marched, at about one in the morning, from Trenton, on the south side of the creek, to Princeton. When they arrived near the hill, about one mile from the town, they found a body of the enemy formed upon it, and ready to receive them; upon which a spirited attack was made, both with field-pieces and musketry, and, after an obstinate resistance, and losing a considerable number of their men upon the field, those of them who could not make their escape, surrendered prisoners of war. We immediately marched on to the centre of the town, and there took another party of the enemy near the college. After tarrying a very short time in the town, General Washington inarched his army from thence, towards Rocky Hill, and they are now near Morristown, in high spirits, and in expectation of a junction with the rest of our forces, sufficiently seasonable to make a general attack upon the enemy, and prevent, at least, a considerable part of them from reaching their asylum in New York. It is difficult precisely to ascertain the loss we have sustained in the two engagements, but we think we have lost about forty men killed, and had near double the number wounded. In the list of the former are the brave Colonel Hazlet, Captain Shippen, and Captain Neal, who fell in the engagement upon the hill near Princeton; amongst the latter was Brigadier-General Mercer, 1 who received seven wounds–five in his body, and two in his head, and was much bruised by the breech of a musket, of which bruises he soon after died. The loss sustained by the enemy was much greater than ours, as was easily discovered by viewing the dead upon the field, after the action. We have near a hundred of their wounded prisoners in the town, which, together with those who surrendered, and were taken in small parties endeavoring to make their escape, amount nearly to the number of four hundred, chiefly British troops. Six brass pieces of cannon have fallen into our hands, a quantity of ammunition, and several wagons of baggage. A Captain Leslie was found amongst the dead of the enemy, and was this day buried with the honors of war. A number of other officers were also found on the field, but they were not known, and were buried with the other dead. According to information from the inhabitants of Princeton, the number which marched out of it to attack our army, amounted to seven thousand men, under command of General Cornwallis. This body, as soon as they discovered that they were out-generaled by the march of General Washington, being much chagrined at their disappointment, (as it seems they intended to have cut our army to pieces, crossed the Delaware, and have marched immediately, without any further delay, to Philadelphia,) pushed with the greatest precipitation towards Princeton, where they arrived about an hour after General Washington had left it; and imagining he would endeavor to take Brunswick in the same manner, proceeded directly for that place. Our soldiers were much fatigued, the greatest part of them having been deprived of their rest the two preceding nights; otherwise we might, perhaps, have possessed ourselves of Brunswick. The enemy appear to be preparing to decamp and retire to New York, as they are much disgusted with their late treatment in New Jersey, and have a great inclination to rest themselves a little in some secure winter-quarters.2


1 Hugh Mercer.

2 Pennsylvania Journal, February 6. Gaine, in his paper of January 13, gives another account of this battle:

–Several skirmishes between the King’s troops and the rebels have lately happened in the Jerseys. But the most distinguished encounter occurred on the 3d instant, near Princeton. The 17th regiment, consisting of less than three hundred men, fell in with the rebel army of between five and six thousand, whom they attacked with all the ardor and intrepidity of Britons. They received the fire from behind a fence, over which they immediately leaped upon their enemies, who presently turned to the right about with such. precipitation as to leave their very cannon behind them. The soldiers instantly turned their cannon, and fired at least twenty rounds upon their rear; and had they been assisted with another regiment or two, the rebels would have found it rather difficult to make good their retreat. This has been one of the most splendid actions of the whole campaign, and has given a convincing proof that British valor has not declined from its ancient glory. Of Colonel Mawhood, their gallant commander, and of his conduct in the affair, too many encomiums cannot be said. The loss was about twenty killed, and eighty wounded, of the troops. Of the rebels above four hundred were killed and wounded. Among their slain were eleven officers. Mr. Mercer, (one of the rebel officers, since dead,) when he was taken up by our people, asked how many the numbers were who had thus attacked him, and upon being told, he cried out with astonishment, “My God; is it possible? I have often heard of British courage, but never could have imagined to find such an instance as this!”

Another account says, that the 17th regiment just before they charged the rebels, deliberately pulled off their knapsacks and gave three cheers; then broke through the rebels, faced about, attacked, and broke through a second time. Colonel Mawhood then said, it would be prudent, as they were so few, to retire; upon which the men, one and all, cried out, “No, no; let us attack them again;” and it was with great difficulty their colonel could induce them to retreat; which at length they performed in the utmost order.

To the honor of this brave regiment, both as soldiers and as men, not one of them has ever attempted to plunder, nor encouraged it in others.