Chapter IX. The Surprise of Trenton.
 

The Americans, finding that they were not pursued, rallied from their panic and took up a position at Harlem and Kingsbridge. So great was the disorganization among them that had the British advanced at once they would have taken the place with scarcely any loss, strong as it was by nature and by the intrenchments which Washington had prepared. Great numbers deserted, disputes broke out between the troops of the various States, insubordination prevailed, and the whole army was utterly disheartened by the easy victories which the British had obtained over them. Washington reported the cowardice of his troops to Congress, who passed a law inflicting the punishment of death for cowardice.

Before leaving New York the Americans had made preparations for burning the whole town, but the speediness of their retreat prevented the preparations being carried into effect. Fire was set to it in several places and a third of the town was destroyed.

The position taken up by the enemy was so strong that it was determined to operate in the rear. Some redoubts were thrown up to cover New York during the absence of the main part of the British force.

A portion of the British army was landed at a point threatening the retreat of the Americans, and a series of skirmishes of no great importance took place. The enemy fell back from their most advanced works, but no general move was undertaken, although, as the numbers on both sides were about even and the superior fighting powers of the English had been amply demonstrated, there could have been no doubt as to the result of a general battle. Lord Howe, however, wasted the time in a series of petty movements, which, although generally successful, had no influence upon the result and served only to enable the Americans to recover from the utter depression which had fallen upon them after the evacuation of Long Island and the loss of New York.

Gradually the Americans fell back across a country so swampy and difficult that it was now no longer possible to bring on a general action. Their retreat had the effect of isolating the important positions of Kingsbridge and Fort Washington. The latter post was of the utmost importance, inasmuch as it secured the American intercourse with the Jersey shore. The fortifications were very strong and stood upon rising and open ground. It was garrisoned by 3000 of the best American troops under the command of Colonel Magaw. Washington was gradually withdrawing his army, and had already given orders that Fort Washington should be evacuated; but General Lee, who was second in command, so strongly urged that it should be retained that, greatly against his own judgment, he was obliged to consent to its being defended, especially as Colonel Magaw insisted that the fort could stand a siege. On the night of November 14 the British passed some troops across the creek, and Lord Howe summoned the place to surrender on pain of the garrison being put to the sword. Magaw had upon the previous day received large numbers of re-enforcements, and replied that he should defend the fort. Soon after daybreak on the 16th the artillery opened on both sides. Five thousand Hessians, under the command of General Knyphausen, moved up the hill, penetrated some of the advanced works of the enemy, and took post within a hundred yards of the fort. The second division, consisting of the guards and light infantry, with two battalions of Hessians and the Thirty-third Regiment, landed at Island Creek, and after some stiff fighting forced the enemy from the rocks and trees up the steep and rugged mountain. The third and fourth divisions fought their way up through similar defenses. So steep was the hill that the assailants could only climb it by grasping the trees and bushes, and so obstinate was the defense that the troops were sometimes mixed up together.

The bravery and superior numbers of the British troops bore down all resistance, and the whole of the four divisions reached their places round the fort. They then summoned it to surrender, and its commander, after half an hour's consideration, seeing the impossibility of resisting the assault which was threatened, opened the gates.

Upon the English side about 800 men were killed and wounded, of whom the majority were Hessians. These troops fought with extreme bravery. The American loss, owing to their superior position, was about 150 killed and wounded, but the prisoners taken amounted to over 3000.

On the 18th Lord Howe landed a strong body on the Jersey shore under Lord Cornwallis, who marched to Fort Lee and surprised it. A deserter had informed the enemy of his approach and the garrison had fled in disorder, leaving their tents, provisions, and military stores behind them. Lord Cornwallis, pushing forward with great energy, drove the Americans out of New Jersey. Another expedition occupied Rhode Island.

Cold weather now set in and the English went into winter quarters. Their success had been complete, without a single check, and had they been led vigorously the army of Washington might on two occasions have been wholly destroyed. In such a case the moderate portion of the population of the colonies would have obtained a hearing, and a peace honorable to both parties might have been arrived at.

The advantage gained by the gallantry of the British troops was, however, entirely neutralized by the lethargy and inactivity of their general, and the colonists had time given them to recover from the alarm which the defeat of their troops had given them, to put another army in the field, and to prepare on a great scale for the following campaign.

The conduct of General Howe in allowing Washington's army to retire almost unmolested was to the officers who served under him unaccountable. His arrangements for the winter were even more singularly defective. Instead of concentrating his troops he scattered them over a wide extent of country at a distance too great to support each other, and thus left it open to the enemy to crush them in detail.

General Howe now issued a proclamation offering a free pardon to all who surrendered, and great numbers of colonists came in and made their submission. Even in Philadelphia the longing for peace was so strong that General Washington was obliged to send a force there to prevent the town from declaring for England.

During the operations which had taken place since the landing of the British troops on Long Island Captain Wilson's company had taken but little part in the operations. All had been straightforward work and conducted on the principles of European warfare. The services of the volunteers as scouts had not, therefore, been called into requisition. The success which at first attended the expedition had encouraged Captain Wilson to hope, for the first time since the outbreak of the Revolution, that the English might obtain such decisive successes that the colonists would be willing to accept some propositions of peace such as those indicated by Lord Howe--a repeal of all obnoxious laws, freedom from any taxation except that imposed by themselves, and a recognition of the British authority. When he saw that Lord Howe, instead of actively utilizing the splendid force at his disposal, frittered it away in minor movements and allowed Washington to withdraw with his beaten army unmolested, his hopes again faded, and he felt that the colonists would in the long run succeed in gaining all that they contended for.

When the army went into winter quarters the company was ordered to take post on the Delaware. There were four frontier posts, at Trenton, Bordentown, White Horse, and Burlington. Trenton, opposite to which lay Washington with the main body of his army, was held by only 1200 Hessians, and Bordentown, which was also on the Delaware, was, like Trenton, garrisoned by these troops. No worse choice could have been made. The Hessians were brave soldiers, but their ignorance of the language and of the country made them peculiarly unsuitable troops for outpost work, as they were unable to obtain any information. As foreigners, too, they were greatly disliked by the country people.

Nothing was done to strengthen these frontier posts, which were left wholly without redoubts or intrenchments into which the garrison could withdraw in case of attack.

Captain Wilson's little company were to act as scouts along the line of frontier. Their headquarters were fixed at Bordentown, where Captain Wilson obtained a large house for their use. Most of the men were at home at work of this kind, and Peter Lambton, Ephraim, and the other frontiersmen were dispatched from time to time in different directions to ascertain the movements and intentions of the enemy. Harold asked his father to allow him, as before, to accompany Peter. The inactivity of a life at a quiet little station was wearisome, and with Peter he was sure of plenty of work, with a chance of adventure. The life of exercise and activity which he had led for more than a year had strengthened his muscles and widened his frame, and he was now able to keep up with Peter, however long and tiresome the day's work might be. Jake, too, was of the party. He had developed into an active soldier, and although he was but of little use for scouting purposes, even Peter did not object to his accompanying him, for the negro's unfailing good temper and willingness to make himself useful had made him a favorite with the scout.

The weather was now setting in exceedingly cold. The three men had more than once crossed the Delaware in a canoe and scouted in the very heart of the enemy's country. They were now sitting by the bank, watching some drifting ice upon the river.

"There won't be many more passages of the river by water," Peter remarked. "Another ten days, and it'll be frozen across."

"Then we can cross on foot, Peter."

"Yes, we can do that," the scout said, "and so can the enemy. Ef their general has got any interprise with him, and ef he can get them chaps as he calls soldiers to fight, he'll be crossing over one of these nights and capturing the hull of them Hessians at Trenton. What General Howe means by leaving 'em there is more nor I can think; he might as well have sent so many babies. The critters can fight, and fight well, too, and they're good soldiers; but what's the good of 'em in a frontier post? They know nothing of the country; they can't speak to the people, nor ask no questions, nor find out nothing about what's doing the other side of the river. They air no more than mere machines. What was wanted was two or three battalions of light troops, who would make friends with the country people and larn all that's doing opposite. If the Americans are sharp they'll give us lots of trouble this winter, and you'll find there won't be much sitting quiet for us at Bordentown. Fortunately Bordentown and Trenton aint far apart, and one garrison ought to be able to arrive to the assistance of the other before it's overpowered. We shall see. Now, I propose that we cross again to-night and try and find out what the enemy's doing. Then we can come back and manage for you to eat your Christmas dinner with yer father, as you seem to have bent yer mind upon that, though why it matters about dinner one day more than another is more nor I can see."

That night the three scouts crossed the river in the canoe. Avoiding all houses, they kept many miles straight on beyond the river and lay down for a few hours before morning dawned; then they turned their faces the other way and walked up to the first farmhouse they saw.

"Can we have a drink of milk?" the hunter asked.

"You can," the farmer replied, "and some breakfast if you like to pay for it. At first I was glad to give the best I had to those who came along, but there have been such numbers going one way and the other, either marching to join the army or running away to return to their homes, that I should be ruined if I gave to all comers."

"We're ready to pay," Peter said, drawing some money from his pocket.

"Then come in and sit down."

In a few minutes an excellent breakfast was put before them.

"You are on your way to join the army, of course?" the farmer asked.

"Jest that," Peter replied. "We think it's about our time to do a little shooting, though I don't suppose there'll be much done till the spring."

"I don't know," the farmer said. "I should not be surprised if the general wakes up them Germans when the Delaware gets frozen. I heard some talk about it from some men who came past yesterday. Their time was expired, they said, and they were going home. I hear, too, that they are gathering a force down near Mount Holly, and I reckon that they are going to attack Bordentown."

"Is that so?" Peter asked. "In that case we might as well tramp in that direction. It don't matter a corn-shuck to us where we fight, so as it's soon. We've come to help lick these British, and we means to do it."

"Ah!" the farmer said, "I have heard that sentiment a good many times, but I have not seen much come of it yet. So far, it seems to me as the licking has been all the other way."

"That's so," Peter agreed. "But everyone knows that the Americans are just the bravest people on the face of the habitable arth. I reckon their dander's not fairly up yet; but when they begin in arnest you'll see what they'll do."

The farmer gave a grunt which might mean anything. He had no strong sympathies either way, and the conduct of the numerous deserters and disbanded men who had passed through his neighborhood had been far from impressing him favorably.

"I don't pretend to be strong either for the Congress or the king. I don't want to be taxed, but I don't see why the colonists should not pay something toward the expenses of the government; and now that Parliament seems willing to give all we ask for, I don't see what we want to go on fighting for."

"Waal!" Peter exclaimed in a tone of disgust, "you're one of the half-hearted ones."

"I am like the great majority of the people of this country. We are of English stock and we don't want to break with the Old Country; but the affairs have got into the hands of the preachers, and the newspaper men, and the chaps that want to push themselves forward and make their pile out of the war. As I read it, it's just the civil war in England over again. We were all united at the first against what we considered as tyranny on the part of the Parliament, and now we have gone setting up demands which no one dreamed of at first and which most of us object to now, only we have no longer the control of our own affairs."

"The great heart of this country beats for freedom," Peter Lambton said.

"Pooh!" said the farmer contemptuously. "The great heart of the country wants to work its farms and do its business quietly. The English general has made fair offers, which might well be accepted; and as for freedom, there was no tyranny greater than that of the New England States. As long as they managed their own affairs there was neither freedom of speech nor religion. No, sir; what they call freedom was simply the freedom to make everyone else do and think like the majority."

"Waal, we won't argue it out," Peter said, "for I'm not good at argument, and I came here to fight and not to talk. Besides, I want to get to Mount Holly in time to jine in this battle, so I guess we'll be moving."

Paying for the breakfast, they started at once in the direction of Mount Holly, which lay some twenty-five miles away. As they approached the place early in the afternoon they overtook several men going in the same direction. They entered into conversation with them, but could only learn that some 450 of the militia from Philadelphia and the counties of Gloucester and Salem had arrived on the spot. The men whom they had overtaken were armed countrymen who were going to take a share in the fight on their own account.

Entering the place with the others, Peter found that the information given him was correct.

"We better be out of this at once," he said to Harold, "and make for Bordentown."

"You don't think that there is much importance in the movement," Harold said as they tramped along.

"There aint no importance whatever," Peter said, "and that's what I want to tell 'em. They're never thinking of attacking the two thousand Hessians at Bordentown with that ragged lot."

"But what can they have assembled them for within twelve miles of the place?" Harold asked.

"It seems to me," the hunter replied, "that it's jest a trick to draw the Germans out from Bordentown and so away from Trenton. At any rate, it's well that the true account of the force here should be known. These things gets magnified, and they may think that there's a hull army here."

It was getting dusk when they entered Bordentown, and Harold was glad when he saw the little town, for since sunset on the evening before they had tramped nearly sixty miles. The place seemed singularly quiet. They asked the first person they met what had become of the troops, and they were told that Colonel Donop, who commanded, had marched an hour before with his whole force of 2000 men toward Mount Holly, leaving only 80 men in garrison at Bordentown.

"We are too late," Harold said. "They have gone by the road and we kept straight through the woods and so missed them."

"Waal, I hope no harm 'ill come of it. I suppose they mean to attack at daylight, and in course that rabble will run without fighting. I hope, when the colonel sees as how thar's no enemy ther worth speaking of, he'll march straight back again."

Unfortunately this was not the case. The militia, according to their orders, at once dispersed when their outposts told them of the approach of the British, but the German officer, instead of returning instantly, remained for two days near Mount Holly, and so gave time to Washington to carry out his plans.

Captain Wilson's company had gone out with the force, and Peter and his companions had the house to themselves that night. Harold slept late, being thoroughly fatigued by his long march the day before, carrying his rifle, blanket, and provisions. Peter woke him at last.

"Now, young un, you've had a good sleep; it's eleven o'clock. I'm off to Trenton to see what's doing there. Will you go with me, or will you stop here on the chance of eating your dinner with your father?"

"Oh, it's Christmas Day," Harold said, stretching. "Well, what do you think, Peter--are they likely to come back or not?"

"They ought to be back, there's no doubt about that, but whether they will or not is a different affair altogether. I've never seed them hurry themselves yet, not since the war began; things would have gone a good deal better if they had; but time never seems of no consequence to them. They marched twelve miles last night, and I reckon it's likely they'll halt to-day and won't be back till to-morrow. I feel oneasy in my mind about the whole affair, for I can't see a single reason for the enemy sending that weak force to Mount Holly, unless it was to draw away the troops from here, and the only motive there could be for that would be because they intended to attack Trenton."

"Very well, Peter, I will go with you."

Accompanied by Jake they set out at once for Trenton. On arriving there they found no particular signs of vigilance. Since the Hessians had reached Trenton their discipline had much relaxed. A broad river separated them from the enemy, who were known to be extremely discontented and disorganized. They had received instruction on no account to cross the river to attack the colonials, and the natural consequence of this forced inactivity had manifested itself. Discipline was lax, and but a slight watch was kept on the movements of the enemy across the stream. Ignorant of the language of the people, they were incapable of distinguishing between those who were friendly and those who were hostile to the Crown, and they behaved as if in a conquered country; taking such necessaries as they required without payment, and even sending parties to a considerable distance on plundering expeditions.

Peter, on his arrival, proceeded to the headquarters of Colonel Rhalle, who was in command--an officer of great bravery and energy. One of his officers was able to speak English, and to him Peter reported the departure of the force from Bordentown, of which Colonel Rhalle was already aware, and the weakness of the American force at Mount Holly. He stated, also, his own belief that it was merely a feint to draw off Colonel Donop, and that preparatory to an attack on Trenton. The officer treated the information lightly, and pointing to the mass of ice floating down the river asked whether it would be possible for boats to cross.

"When the river freezes," he said, "there may be some chance of attack. Till then we are absolutely safe."

Peter, shaking his head, rejoined his companions and told them of the manner in which his advice had been received.

"But it would be difficult to cross the river," Harold said. "Look at the masses of ice on the water."

"It would be difficult," the hunter admitted, "but not by no manner of means impossible. Determined men could do it. Waal, I've done my duty and can do no more. Ef the night passes off quietly we'll cross again before daybreak and go right into the Yankee camp and see what they're up to. Now, Harold, you can take it easy till nightfall; there's naught to be learned till then, and as we shall be on foot all night ye may as well sleep to-day."

Returning to a spot on the banks of the river at a short distance from the town, they made a fire, on which Jake cooked some steaks of venison they had procured. After smoking a pipe, the hunter set the example by stretching himself on the ground near the fire and going to sleep. Used as he was to night marches, he had acquired the faculty of going to sleep at any hour at will. Jake and Harold were some time before they followed his example, but they too were at last asleep. At sunset they were on their feet again, and after taking supper proceeded along the river.

The night passed off quietly, and Harold became convinced that his companion's fears were unfounded. Toward morning he suggested that it was time to be crossing the river.

"I'm not going yet," the hunter said. "Before I start we'll go down to Trenton Ferry, a mile below the town. Ef they come over at all, it's likely enough to be there. There'll be time then to get back and cross before it's light; It's six o'clock now."

They kept along the road by the river until they were within a quarter of a mile of the ferry. Presently they saw a dark mass ahead.

"Jerusalem!" Peter exclaimed. "There they are."

They immediately discharged their rifles and ran back at full speed to the outposts, which were but a quarter of a mile from the town. The Americans had also pressed forward at full speed, and the outposts, who had been alarmed by the discharge of the rifles, were forced at once to abandon the post and to run into the town, whither they had, on hearing the rifles, already sent in one of their number with the news. Here all was in confusion. The Hessian leader was trying to collect his troops, who were hurrying in from their quarters, but many of them thought more of storing their plunder away in the wagons than of taking their places in the ranks.

Washington had crossed with 2500 men and a few field-pieces, and upon gaining the Jersey side had divided his troops into two detachments, one of which marched by the river side, the other by an upper road. Hurrying forward they surrounded the town, and placing their field-pieces in the road, opened fire on the astonished Hessians. Rhalle had by this time succeeded in assembling the greater part of his force and charged the Americans with his usual courage. He received, however, a mortal wound as he advanced. His troops immediately lost heart, and finding their retreat cut off at once surrendered. A body of Hessian light horse succeeded in making their escape. The casualties were few on either side, but 1000 prisoners were taken. Two other divisions of the Americans had attempted to cross, the one at Bordentown, the other at Mackenzie's Ferry, but both had failed, owing to the quantity of floating ice. Washington retired across the Delaware the same afternoon.

The consequences of this success were great. The spirits of the Americans, which had fallen to the lowest ebb in consequence of the uninterrupted series of defeats, rose greatly. They found that the British were not invincible, and that, if unable to oppose them in great battles, they might at least inflict heavy losses on them and weary them out with skirmishes and surprises. The greatest joy reigned throughout the various States; fresh levies were ordered; the voices of the moderate party, which had been gaining strength, were silenced, and the determination to continue the war vigorously was in the ascendency.

The lesson given at Trenton was wholly lost upon the English commander-in-chief. Instead of at once ordering General Leslie to advance from Princeton and to hold the enemy in check by reoccupying and fortifying Trenton, he allowed Colonel Donop to abandon Bordentown and to fall back to Princeton--thus laying it open to Washington to cross the Delaware again and carry the war into New Jersey. Washington, after waiting eight days, seeing the indecision and ineptitude of the British general, again crossed with 4000 men and occupied Trenton.

Peter Lambton and his two companions were not among the prisoners taken at Trenton. On entering the town Harold was about to join the Hessians assembling under Colonel Rhalle, but Peter gave a violent tug to his coat.

"Come along, young un!" he said. "The darned fools have let themselves be caught in a trap and they'll find there's no way out of it. In ten minutes the Americans will be all round the place, and as I don't wish to spend a year or two in a Yankee prison at present, I'm going to make tracks at once. Fighting aren't no good now. Men who'll let 'emselves be caught in a trap like this'll never be able to cut their way out of it. Come on!"

Much against his will Harold yielded to Peter's wishes, and the three kept straight on through the town by the river side and issued into the country beyond before the Americans had surrounded it. A minute or two after leaving the town the light horse galloped past.

"There are some more out of the hole, and I reckon that's about all. There, do you hear the guns? The Yanks have brought their artillery over--I reckon the fight won't last long."

For two or three minutes there was a roar of musketry; then this suddenly ceased.

"I thought as much," Peter said. "They've surrendered. If they had only kept together and fought well, they should have cut their way through the enemy. Lord! what poor things regular soldiers are in the dark! A frontiersman would just as soon fight in the dark as in the light; but here are the men who climbed up the hill to Fort Washington--and that was no child's play--no better nor a pack of women when they're attacked half-asleep and half-awake, just as day is breaking."

The three comrades walked to Bordentown, which, they were relieved to find, had not been attacked. A few miles beyond this place they met Colonel Donop marching back at full speed with his corps, having received the news of the disaster at Trenton from the horsemen who had fled. They joined their company and marched to Princeton.

A fortnight later Lord Cornwallis, with the forces at Brunswick, under General Grant, advanced to Princeton and then moved forward to attack the army at Trenton. General Washington on his approach retired from the town and, crossing a rivulet at the back of it, took post on some high ground there, with the apparent intention of defending himself against an attack. It was late in the afternoon, and a heavy cannonade was kept up till night-time. Lord Cornwallis determined to attack next morning. At two in the morning Washington retired suddenly, leaving his fires burning. Quitting the main road he made a long circuit through Allentown and marched with all speed toward Princeton, which place he intended to surprise. When Lord Cornwallis advanced he had left the Seventeenth, Fortieth, and Fifty-fifth regiments there.

On arriving at Trenton he had sent word back for the Seventeenth and Fifty-fifth to advance to Maidenhead, a village halfway between Princeton and Trenton. Colonel Mawhood, who commanded, marched at daylight, but scarcely had he started when he met Washington advancing with his army. The morning was foggy, and it was at first supposed that the enemy were a body of British troops marching back to Princeton, but it was soon found that the force was a hostile one. Its strength could not be seen on account of the fog, and he determined to engage it. Possessing himself of some high ground, he sent his wagons back to Princeton and ordered the Fortieth Regiment to come out to his assistance.

As the Americans advanced, the artillery on both sides opened fire. The leading columns of the colonists soon snowed signs of disorder. The Seventeenth Regiment fixed bayonets and with great gallantry charged the enemy in front of them, driving them back with considerable slaughter; and so far did they advance that they were separated from the other battalions, and cutting their way through the American force the regiment pursued its march to Maidenhead. The Fortieth and Fifty-fifth fought stoutly, but were unable to make their way through the American force, and fell back to Brunswick, while the Americans occupied Princeton. At daybreak Lord Cornwallis discovered the retreat of the American army, and being apprehensive for the safety of Brunswick, where great stores of the army were accumulated, marched with all haste toward that town.

Brigadier Matthew, the officer commanding there, on hearing of the approach of the enemy, at once dispatched the store wagons toward the rear and drew up his small command to defend the place to the last. The gallant resistance before Princeton had delayed the Americans so long that the van of the army of Cornwallis was already close to their rear as they approached Brunswick. Seeing this, Washington abandoned his design on that town and crossed the Millstone River, breaking down the bridge at Kingston to stop pursuit.

Washington now overran East and West Jersey, penetrated into Essex County, and making himself master of the country opposite to Staten Island, thus regained almost all the district which the English had taken from him in the autumn.

All this greatly heightened the spirit and courage of the Americans, while the loyalists and the English troops were disheartened and disgusted at seeing an army of 30,000 fine troops kept inactive, while the enemy, with but 4000 men, who were wholly incapable of opposing an equal number of English troops, were allowed to wander unchecked, to attack and harass the English pickets, and to utilize the whole of the resources of their country. Had General Howe entertained a fixed desire to see English authority overthrown in America he could not have acted in a manner more calculated to carry those wishes into effect.