Revolutionary War Battles of Trenton (Dec. 26) and Princeton (Jan. 3) Changed History Forever, Explains Historian

By Tom McLaughlin

While Dec. 25 has prominent religious and cultural significance around the globe, it is relatively unknown that the next day holds great historical significance in the United States, says Andrew Shankman.

The Rutgers University–Camden historian explains that, on the morning of Dec. 26, 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware from Pennsylvania into New Jersey – an image famously depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s painting – and led the Continental Army in a surprise attack on the Hessians in the Battle of Trenton. Another pivotal battle would take place in Princeton on Jan. 3.

The battles did little to turn the tide of the war, says the professor of history, but they had a far greater impact on the future of the Continental Army and, ultimately, the very fate of the United States.

“As far as military achievements go, the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton a few days later were not very notable,” he explains. “However, as far as convincing the Continental Army to stay in the field and give people one national institution to rally around and support, there were perhaps no greater battles in the history of the American Revolution.”

Andrew Shankman

Up until that point, explains Shankman, “things go really, really badly” for Washington and his men in 1776. The superior British forces succeed in pushing them out of New York, across New Jersey, and eventually onto the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River that fall. Throughout that time, the men – who had enlisted on one-year commitments – were deserting.

“So morale is getting really bad for the Continental Army and these one-year enlistments under Washington were about to be up,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

There was likewise a sense of futility growing in the Continental Congress. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had already written a letter saying that the rebels should try to bargain with the British for the best deal possible.

The stage was then set for Washington to do something “heroic and bold.”

“He needed to convince these men who were left to reenlist for another year,” says Shankman. “If the men didn’t reenlist, there wouldn’t even be an army and they would lose the war.”

But that wasn’t all, he says; the victories would also have lasting consequences for “winning the hearts and minds of the people.”

For a variety of reasons, he explains, New Jersey and Pennsylvania had the largest populations of potentially loyalist or controlled people in the 13 colonies. The merchant class in Philadelphia at the time was very much dependent on the British Empire. As the British were pushing and pursuing the rebel army across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, they distributed “loyalty oaths,” which were signed by thousands of local residents swearing allegiance to the king.

Map of New Jersey and Pennsylvania from “Atlas of the Battles of the American Revolution,” printed in 1845.

After the battles of Trenton and Princeton, the British decided to pull back from small outposts in these occupied areas, leaving the people who hadn’t signed these oaths the chance to release their anger – and even hatred – on those who had signed.

“What that means, going forward, is that anyone who would have been wavering or even harboring loyalist sentiment was far less willing to express it,” he says. “That becomes really important, because it shifts the momentum to people who were much more committed to the independence movement.”

So, what would the American Revolution have looked like without these pivotal battles?

Shankman posits that the Continental Army would have “disintegrated” in 1777. Moreover, the British most likely would have occupied the Mid-Atlantic region, where many people had signed loyalty oaths, and brought it back into the empire.

“Even if Virginia remained committed to the cause, there would’ve been a major British base splitting the northern and southern regions,” he says. “Many people in the Mid-Atlantic probably would have welcomed the invitation and then slowly other people may have reconciled to that fact.”

Shankman further notes that New York and Philadelphia were faring much better economically than Boston. With New York and Philadelphia receiving assistance of the British Empire, that disparity would have been compounded.

“I don’t know how long Boston could have been shut out of the empire while New York and Philadelphia were allowed to flourish; they probably may have bargained to come back in,” he says.

So ironically, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, while the battles of Trenton and Princeton did little to change the course of the fighting, they did change the course of history.

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