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Saving the Battlefields Where America Was Forged

A Project of the Civil War Trust |  civilwar.org

Voices from the Storm

Eyewitness Accounts at The Battle of Princeton

In the new year of 1777, with British regulars swarming through New England and Continental morale waning, American General George Washington issued orders for a surprise offensive in New Jersey. It was a bold gamble, one in which failure would have likely been the shipwreck of independence. The Continental Army, however, found improbable success on the battlefield and therefore revived the American cause.

The eyewitness accounts below trace personal experiences through the January 3, 1777, Battle of Princeton, New Jersey. They illustrate the visceral sensations of the battlefield, the rising confidence of the Americans, and the British in-fighting that would hinder their efforts for the remainder of the war.

1) Sergeant R. (who did not provide his full name in this account originally published in a newspaper) fought for survival from Valley Forge to Princeton.

"At this trying time [December 31, 1776] General Washington…ordered our regiment to be paraded, and he personally addressed us….

Washington's counterattack

Washington's counterattack secured Continental victory at Princeton. (Library of Congress)

‘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.’

A few stepped forth, and their example was immediately followed by nearly all who were fit for duty in the regiment, amounting to about two hundred volunteers. About half of these volunteers were killed in the battle of Princeton or died of the small pox soon after….

Leaving our fires kindled to deceive the enemy, we decamped that night and…took up our line of march for Princeton. About sunrise…as we were descending a hill through an orchard, a party of the enemy who were entrenched behind a bank and fence rose up and fired upon us…Our fire was most destructive; their ranks grew thin and the victory seemed nearly complete when the British were reinforced….

I soon heard Gen. Mercer command in a tone of distress, ‘Retreat!’ He was mortally wounded and died shortly after. I…discharged my musket at part of the enemy, and ran for a piece of wood at a little distance where I thought I might shelter. At this moment Washington appeared in front of the American army, riding towards those of us who were retreating, and exclaimed, ‘Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.’ I immediately joined the main body, and marched over the ground again….

The British were unable to resist this attack, and retreated into the College, where they thought themselves safe. Our army was there in an instant, and cannon were planted before the door, and after two or three discharges a white flag appeared at the window, and the British surrendered…..In this battle my pack, which was made fast by leather strings, was shot from my back....It was, however, soon replaced by one which had belonged to a British officer.”

2) An 89-year old Princeton citizen (who also did not provide a name with his account) allowed Continental soldiers to use his home as a hospital.

“The battle was seen plainly from our door. Before any gun was heard a man was seen to fall and immediately the report and smoke of a gun was seen and heard, and the guns went off so quick and many together that they could not be numbered….

Our house was…surrounded with General Washington’s men, and himself on horseback at the door. They brought in…two wounded Regulars; one of them was shot in at his hip and the bullet lodged in his groin, and the other was shot through his body just below his short ribs….

Immediately after the battle General Washington’s men came into our house. Though they were both hungry and thirsty some of them were laughing outright, others smiling, and not a man among them but showed joy in his countenance. It really animated my old blood with love to those men that but a few minutes before had been courageously looking death in the face.”

3) Lieutenant Colonel Allan Maclean, a British staff officer, wrote to a friend in England to express frustration with his army’s leadership.

 “I find our mistakes in the campaign were many and some very capital ones, but I know I am writing to a friend who has some prudence and will not expose me, though I write real truths….

[General Howe] is not by any means equal to a Commander in Chief. I do not know any employment that requires so many great qualifications either natural or acquired as the Commander in Chief of an Army. He has, moreover, got none but very silly fellows about him—a great parcel of old women—most of them improper for American service….

To you, my friend, I can say that had I not been in Canada [Howe] would never have got his Red Riband, for Quebec would have been lost, and he would be a prisoner amongst the Rebels—yet poor me have got nothing, not so much as the King’s thanks! I am indeed the single man that has been forgot.”

4) Colonel William Harcourt, a British line officer, revealed grudging admiration for the Continental Army in a letter to his father.

Battle of Trenton

The surprise successes at Trenton and Princeton staggered the British Army and gave the initiative to the Continentals. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Though [the Americans] seem to be ignorant of the precision and order, and even of the principles, by which large bodies are moved, yet they possess some of the requisites for making good troops, such as extreme cunning, great industry in moving ground and felling of wood, activity and a spirit of enterprise upon any advantage….

Though it was once the fashion of this army to treat them in the most contemptible light, they are now become a formidable enemy.”

George Washington’s unlikely success at the Battle of Princeton led to a surge of determination among patriots throughout the country.  These eyewitnesses experienced, in a variety of personal ways, the causes and effects of this momentous turning point of the American Revolution.

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