On January 3, 1777, the battle of Princeton took place that helped turn the tide of the Revolution. However, setting the stage for this battle, early in the morning December 25, 1776, Washington secretly crossed the Delaware River to conduct a surprise attack on Trenton, New Jersey. The painting by Emanuel Leutze depicting Washington Crossing the Delaware included artistic symbols like the “star of Bethlehem” over the oarsman in the front of the boat (to commemorate the birth of Christ), as well as the Betsy Ross flag (though not actually designed until six months after this incident).
The actual crossing was conducted at night during a driving snow and rain storm and not completed until 3 A.M. The army had lost several battles and were exhausted, demoralized and in trouble. They had just retreated from Long Island under a miraculous fog, barely escaping a complete surrender. Soldier enlistments would soon be up the 1st of the year. Washington made a daring move that took courage as well as persuasion to have his generals agree. They were to attack Trenton on Christmas day, capturing the British and their Hessian mercenaries. After the miraculous crossing with horses and cannon aboard, they marched the nine miles to Trenton and took the garrison by surprise. The Hessians surrendered and Washington retraced his steps back across the Delaware with his prisoners.
Knowing that time was of the essence, he recrossed the Delaware on December 30. The Battle of Second Trenton then took place at Assunpink Creek on January 2nd. The American army stood their ground, repulsing the British attack successfully. However, their predicament became apparent and they were on the verge of losing it all after these two victories. Cornwallis had more than 5,000 veteran troops now near Trenton, and would soon attack and overwhelm them. Washington set out fake campfires all night, deceiving the enemy, and withdrew his troops in a flanking move to Princeton 18 miles away. All night they marched in the freezing cold, muffling the sound of the carriages and arriving in Princeton on the morning of January 3. This is now known as one of the great flank moves in all of America’s history!
A providential reinforcement occurred as well with this flanking march. Over 600 Marines from the Philadelphia area had joined the troops. Considered excellent fighters, they joined John Cadwalader’s Brigade and were some of the first Marines to ever die in battle in America. By the Providence of God, Cadwalader had received a detailed map of the British positions at Princeton. This had come from one of General Washington’s spies, who are credited with amazing work throughout the Revolution.
Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood, the British leader of the troops at Princeton, had been ordered south along the Post Road to help Cornwallis who was going to attack Washington at Trenton. If it had not been for an American detachment sent up the Post Road to tear down a bridge to impede the British, Mawhood may have missed Washington entirely! However, upon seeing American troops on the road, he regrouped at Princeton. A bayonet charge by the British ended up surrounding American Brigadier General Hugh Mercer. He refused to surrender and ended up being killed in battle. Because of the way he was dressed, however, many British soldiers thought they had killed George Washington!
To reinforce the broken Mercer line, the Pennsylvania, Delaware and Philadelphia light infrantry were called to fill the hole. However, though they outnumbered the British, they were inexperienced and began to fall back under the steady fire of the British. Riding calmly on his large white horse, Washington appeared in the middle of the flying bullets to say “Parade with us my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we shall have them directly!” He then led the militia toward the front, only 30 yards from the British! Turning around with his back to the British, he gave orders when to fire. Providentially, Washington was not hit, but his bold presence of confidence and faith rallied the troops and soon had the British forces broken and in retreat!
The battle was not over, however. About 200 British Regulars had fortified Nassau Hall, the main building of the College of New Jersey which is now Princeton University. This was the Hall where John Witherspoon, colonial preacher and writer, taught James Madison and others the biblical rudiments of Constitutional Law. Now, it housed the enemy, and the Americans began firing their cannons on it! Supposedly a cannon ball entered through a window and decapitated a portrait of King George II! The British soon surrendered in the very hall where the truths of liberty had been so well taught by a colonial preacher!
So what lessons can we learn from the Battle of Princeton, fought January 3rd, 1777, 240 years ago? As Proverbs 16:9 declares “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Though our plans, like Washington’s, may be good, we must have God direct our steps or we will not be successful. Bold confidence in God may seem like a risk at times, but we must trust that God is with us. In addition, though it may seem futile at times, teaching the truths of liberty will take root, grow up, and produce leaders who will teach others to stand. As we see in this battle, symbolically, it is the halls of learning and education that house the real battle and will determine whether we win or lose the battle for our nation’s future. Let us believe God for a righteous harvest!