I favor the theory that “Boxing Day” began when servants, required to serve their masters at Christmas Day banquets, were sent home the day after with boxes of leftovers and presents, and allowed a day of rest. And to the Hessian soldiers in Trenton, the dawn of Boxing Day, 26 December, 1776, promised some blessed peace. Only about half of the German “Soldatenhandel” serving the British in the American Revolution were from the poor small state of Hesse-Kassel But to the American soldiers marching 8 miles through the snow in the cold and wind, every German in Trenton was a hated Hessian.
The village of Trenton over looked the Delaware River and was bisected by Assunpink Creek to the southeast. At the northern apex of the town, on high ground, a right hand road led 20 miles north to Princeton, while a left hand road led 19 miles west to Pennington, New Jersey. From the apex square two parallel streets angled down hill into the town, forming an “A”. King Street ran to the west and Queen Street to the east. Both crossed three numbered streets and Front Street, before King Street terminated at the “River Road”, that led directly 9 miles north to McConkey's ferry. Queen Street angled east before crossing Assunpink Creek over an arched stone bridge. The poorer third of Trenton was south of the creek, while the road continued south toward Bordentown, 20 miles down the Delaware River.
Three regiments of Hessians had occupied Trenton just since 14 December, one in the south and the other two in the north end of town. Most here were crammed into the “Old Barracks” (above), built by the colony of New Jersey to shelter 300 of the King's soldiers during the French and Indian War - 2 men to each bunk, 12 men in each of the 20 rooms
But in 1776, 36 year old Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall (above), was pressed to find living space for all 1,500 of his men, a task made more difficult after evacuating patriots set fire to many of the village's 100 buildings. And within 3 days of their occupation, it was clear the Hessians in Trenton were under siege.
Almost every day and every night, rebels took pot shots at the German sentries, and threatened to burn down the buildings the Hessians and their families were sleeping in. Picket duty, such as the roadblock at the village apex, and the road block on the River Road, which would have normally been the duty of ten men, now required fifty. Colonel Rall was forced to rotate his regiments, keeping one always on alert, even ordering those men to sleep in uniform, with their weapons. The alert regiment could expect to answer at least one alarm most nights, rushing to reinforce the pickets, or even chase down gangs of arsonists.
This constant interruption of the men's sleep was no harmless game. Just the week before two couriers were attacked on the road to Princeton, and one was killed. Rall sent fifty mounted men to ensure his dispatches got safely to headquarters. After two weeks of this constant tension, one junior officer confided to his diary, “...our people begin to grow ragged…. We have not slept one night in peace since we came to this place.”
In fact, the first night Colonel Rall felt secure enough to allow his men to relax, was during the storm on Christmas night. But even then, the evening did not begin peacefully. Shortly after sunset, the picket guarding the apex traded hots with a mounted rebel party - it was, probably, Lt. Monroe's raiding party. Six Hessians were wounded. In response an ensign led 30 men up the Pennington Road, in search of the raiders. But the wind and sleet drove them back, and as the storm strengthened and the temperature plunged, Rall ordered most of the men back to their barracks, leaving a scant guard to suffer the storm out of doors in two hour shifts.
There were no Hessian parties that miserable Christmas night, and very little drinking. There was only the sound and smells of 1,500 exhausted, bored and nervous men in very close quarters, snoring, coughing, mumbling in their sleep and using chamber pots. As if by divine will, the Nor'easter had blown its last cold gust just as General Washington launched his two pronged assault.
The first hint of disaster came to Colonel Rall in his sleep, shortly after eight in the morning of Boxing Day. It was gunfire, again, muffled this time because of the 12 inches of fresh wet snow on the ground.. Rall was unsure at first , but when he and his wife heard pounding on the front door of his headquarters, the colonel clambered out from his warm bed, and threw open the second floor windows. He demanded of young Lt. Andreas von Wiederholdt standing in in the snow, “Vas ist loss?” The nervous Lieutenant stammered almost apologetically, that the Americans had the town surrounded and were firing artillery from the high ground at the the north end of town. Johann Rall called for his horse to be brought out and threw on his clothes.
In fact, the town was not surrounded. The militia which was supposed to land south of Trenton the night before and complete the circle, had never made the crossing. But a junior Hessian officer, hearing the firing from the top of the village (1) , pulled the pickets who had been huddling in houses along the River Road, and led them north to help with what he assumed was another American raiding party. The front door to Trenton was now unguarded
And it was not a mere raid. Rhode Island's Nathaniel Green, at the head of over half the American forces, about 800 men, had pushed the few unfortunate pickets suffering outside off the high ground at the pinnacle of the “A”, and cut the road to Princeton.
Within a few minutes, Henry Knox's field pieces were blasting down both King and Queen streets (above), while Green's frozen infantrymen occupied houses, and began firing from windows and doorways. The hail of shot and shell ensured the newly arrived Colonel Rall could find no room to organize his regiments. There would be no counterattack up either street.
And just as the Hessian River Road pickets had abandoned their post, a column of about 600 men under New Hampshire General James Sullivan arrived on River Road, and pushed unopposed across the broad base of the “A”, even filtering to the Queen Street approach of the stone bridge over Assunpink Creek (above). Now Rall's command really was surrounded, and a third of his strength was cut off. Out of contact with their commander, the Hessian regiment south of Assunpink Creek, did little more than trade occasional musket fire with the Americans at the bridge
But there was an easy solution to the Hessian's problem. There was another bridge over Assunpink Creek, the Fourth Street Bridge, higher up the stream, north of the village. A road from here also ran to Princeton. Had the officer commanding the third Hessian regiment shown the initiative to look for a way around the American snipers at the Queen Street bridge, had he taken the chance of leading an attack around his own right flank, he would have fallen on the American left flank from the rear, just as Rall was finally leading a desperate attack against the front of that same American position.
Circumstances had forced Rall out into the open, to the field east of Queens street. Here his men had room to form up and maneuver in formation, and here he could bring the weight and discipline of his professional soldiers to men bear on the Americans. So, about an hour after the American attack began, and about 40 minutes after he had been awakened from a dead sleep, Colonel Rall raised his sword and commanded about 600 of his men to advance toward the American line with the bayonet.
It was the climax of the battle. Washington knew his men did not have the stamina for a long fight, and was pushing them forward, determined not to give the Hessians, or his own men, time to think. So even as Rall was leading his men into the field, American infantry were slipping into houses along Queen's Street, whose back doors gave them clear shots at the flank and rear of the Hessian assault. And by chance one of those shots hit Colonel Johann Rall in the abdomen. He did not fall from his horse, but he did slump in the saddle. It was clear instantly he had been gravely wounded, and immediately the Hessian attack fell apart.
Sensing the enemies' sudden collapse, the Americans pressed forward, driving the remaining Hessians back, into an orchard along the River Road. Colonel Rall asked for quarter, and a relieved Washington immediately agreed to accept his surrender. It was just about 10 in the morning, Boxing Day, Thursday, 26 December, 1776. The most important single battle of the American Revolution had been won.
Total American casualties for the operation were three wounded (one of whom was Lt. Monroe) and 2 men who had begun the march without shoes, fell asleep on the road to Trenton, and died of exposure. The Hessians suffered 22 dead – Including Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall who died the next day - , 83 wounded and almost 1,000 soldiers and 23 officers, 1,000 muskets and 8 cannon captured. Most the third Hessian regiment managed to retreat 20 miles to Bordentown, although some stragglers were later taken prisoners as well.
Washington wasted no time in New Jersey. Aware now that his supporting units had not made the crossing, he had his weary men and their prisoners slipped back across the Delaware River by nightfall. The next day he informed Congress of his amazing victory. Two weeks before, Washington had warned Congress “Ten more days will put an end to the existence of our Army.” Instead, his Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware, and his Boxing Day assault on Trenton, had saved the American Revolution at almost the very moment of its birth.
Sometimes history is just that simple.
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