Because of the distressing condition of the tattered but unbowed soldiers, the American Continental Congress called for a day of fasting and humiliation:
Resolved, That it be recommended to all the United States, as soon as possible to appoint a day of solemn fasting and humiliation; to implore of Almighty God the forgiveness of the many sins prevailing among all ranks, and to beg the countenance and assistance of his Providence in the prosecution of the present just and necessary war.
Shortly after the resolution on fasting, three important events occurred. On 13 December 1776, General Howe disclosed his decision to suspend military operations in New Jersey until spring. He was returning to Philadelphia with most of his army, and he was making no concerted effort to pursue Washington’s army across the Delaware River. On that same date, the American General Charles Lee, who had delayed advancing his troops and who had failed to cooperate with Washington, was captured by the British. General John Sullivan (who had earlier been returned in a prisoner exchange) took Lee’s place and promptly marched to join forces with Washington, providing him with a large enough force that Washington wrote he might, “under the smiles of Providence, effect an important stroke.” On that same day, 14 December 1776, Washington wrote to Governor Jonathan Trumball and General William Heath about the possibility of initiating a counteroffensive.
Prodded by the approach of December 31—the expiration date of the enlistment of many of his troops—Washington decided to attack Trenton on Christmas Eve. And once again, the weather played a major role in the outcome of the battle.
Washington advanced on Trenton on the night of December 24. There was a full moon that night, but his movements were cloaked by a “sky … so shrouded by dense clouds that darkness covered everything.”
Washington’s plan was to take three columns of men across the Delaware River, but because of drifting ice, two of the three columns did not cross. The column that did was led by Washington, and on Christmas Day they surprised and defeated the Hessian mercenaries holding the town.
The failure of all troops to cross the river turned out to be a blessing. Had the column closest to the Hessian sentinels near Trenton crossed, they might have alerted the defenders long before Washington’s troops arrived. The Hessians could have defended Trenton until reinforced by Cornwallis, and Washington may have been trapped on the Trenton side of the Delaware without all of his troops.
This surprise victory, the first victory of the American forces, was a turning point in the war. It gave a needed morale boost to soldiers and citizens, restored confidence in Washington as commander, and caused foreign nations to take notice of American determination and abilities.
Despite the victory, Washington still worried that his men would return home when their enlistment expired on December 31. He therefore made a personal appeal to them, pledging his own credit against the bonus he offered if they stayed another six weeks. But it was not the money that motivated the troops to stay; “the troops gathered and General Washington spoke as well as he could. Would volunteers step forward? An awkward and terrible moment followed. Not a single man stepped out. The general simply tried again, returning to repeat the arguments. Something in this second appeal struck the hearts of those cold, battlesick men. A few came forward, then more. Then almost all.”
After the battle of Trenton, the British moved to engage Washington. But the weather grew mild, and the British army was delayed by heavy mud on the roads. As British General Lord Cornwallis halted the night before he expected to engage the Americans, Washington held a council of war. With no retreat possible over the Delaware, he needed to find a way out of engaging Cornwallis’s troops. He decided to attack the British rear guard at Princeton.
The plan proved to be successful, but not without assistance, once again, from the weather. As Cornwallis approached, the weather grew colder, making the roads passable. Washington took advantage of the frozen roads and swept down on Princeton while a party of men decoyed Cornwallis by burning fires and making noise. The surprise attack on Princeton confused the British and allowed the Americans to retreat to secure winter quarters on the New Jersey heights.