Retreat across the Delaware

TPNHA Editor’s Note TPNHA is leading an international effort to expand and clarify the Paine Canon. We have attempted to mark those works that have come into question and are doubtful that they are the work of Paine. The Canon is expanding as new works and correspondence not previously in collected writings of Paine are located. Those new works are not yet posted here until it is decided how they will be released to the public.

Philip Foner’s introduction:

A few weeks after the announcement of the Declaration of Independence, Paine enlisted in the army, serving until April, 1777. During the retreat of Washington’s forces from New York through New Jersey, he wrote by campfire the first sixteen pamphlets issued at each critical point in the struggle for independence. The following article, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal of January 29, 1777, makes no mention of the fact that the author’s The American Crisis, signed “Common Sense,” inspired the victory of the Continentals at Trenton. It is an excellent example of objective reporting by an early American war-correspondent.

FORT WASHINGTON being obliged to surrender, by a violent attack made by the whole British army, on Saturday the 16th of November, the Generals determined to evacuate Fort Lee, which being principally intended to preserve the communication with Fort Washington, was become in a manner useless. The stores were ordered to be removed and great part of them was immediately sent off. The enemy knowing the divided state of our army, and that the terms of the soldiers’ enlistments would soon expire, conceived the design of penetrating into the Jerseys, and hoped, by pushing their successes, to be completely victorious. Accordingly, on Wednesday morning, the 20th November, it was discovered that a large body of British and Hessian troops had crossed the North River, and landed about six miles above the fort. As our force was inferior to that of the enemy, the fort unfinished, and on a narrow neck of land, the garrison was ordered to march for Hackensack bridge, which, though much nearer the enemy than the fort, they quietly suffered our troops to take possession of. The principal loss suffered at Fort Lee was that of the heavy cannon, the greatest part of which was left behind. Our troops continued at Hackensack bridge and town that day and half of the next, when the inclemency of the weather, the want of quarters, and approach of the enemy, obliged them to proceed to Aquaconack, and from thence to Newark; a party being left at Aquaconack to observe the motions of the enemy. At Newark our little army was reinforced by Lord Sterling’s and Colonel Hand’s brigades, which had been stationed at Brunswick. Three days after our troops left Hackensack, a body of the enemy crossed the Passaic above Aquaconack, made their approaches slowly towards Newark, and seemed extremely desirous that we should leave the town without their being put to the trouble of fighting for it. The distance from Newark to Aquaconack is nine miles, and they were three days in marching that distance. From Newark our retreat was to Brunswick, and it was hoped the assistance of the Jersey Militia would enable General Washington to make the Banks of the Raritan the bounds of the enemy’s progress; but on the 1st of December the army was greatly weakened, by the expiration of the terms of the enlistments of the Maryland and Jersey Flying Camp; and the militia not coming in so soon as was expected, another retreat was the necessary consequence. Our army reached Trenton on the 4th of December, continued there till the 7th, and then, on the approach of the enemy, it was thought proper to pass the Delaware.

This retreat was censured by some as pusillanimous and disgraceful; but, did they know that our army was at one time less than a thousand effective men, and never more than 4000,-that the number of the enemy was at least 8000, exclusive of their artillery and light horse,-that this handful of Americans retreated slowly above 80 miles without losing a dozen men-and that suffering themselves to be forced to an action, would have been their entire destruction-did they know this, they would never have censured it at all-they would have called it prudent -posterity will call it glorious-and the names of Washington and Fabius will run parallel to eternity.1

The enemy, intoxicated with success, resolved to enjoy the fruits of their conquest. Fearless of an attack from this side the river, they cantoned in parties at a distance from each other, and spread misery and desolation wherever they went. Their rage and lust, their avarice and cruelty, knew no bounds; and murder, ravishment, plunder, and the most brutal treatment of every sex and age, were the first acts that signalized their conquest. And if such were their outrages on the partial subjection of a few villages-good God! what consummate wretchedness is in store for that state over which their power shall be fully established.

While the enemy were in this situation, their security was increased by the captivity of General Lee, who was unfortunately taken in the rear of his army, December 13th, at Baskinridge by a party of lighthorse, commanded by Colonel Harcourt. The fortune of our arms was now at its lowest ebb-but the tide was beginning to turn-the militia of this city [Philadelphia] had joined General Washington-the junction of the two armies was soon after effected-and the back countries of this State, aroused by the distresses of America, poured out their yeomanry to the assistance of the continental army. General Washington began now to have a respectable force, and resolved not to be idle. On the 26th of December he crossed the Delaware, surprised three regiments of Hessians, and with little or no loss, took near a thousand prisoners.2

Soon after this maneuver, and while the enemy were collecting their scattered troops at Princeton and Brunswick, General Washington crossed the Delaware with all his army. On the 2d of January the enemy began to advance towards Trenton, which they entered in the afternoon, and there being nothing but a small creek between the two armies, a general engagement was expected next day. This it was manifestly our advantage to avoid; and by a master stroke of generalship, General Washington freed himself from his disgreeable situation, and surprised a party of the enemy in Princeton, which obliged their main body to return to Brunswick.

  1. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, named Cunctator, “the delayer,” was a Roman general who practiced a delaying tactic in the second Punic War. It was Washington’s patient vigilance that earned him the title of “Fabius.”-Editor.

  2. At this point in the narrative, the editor of the Pennsylvania Journal inserted Washington’s letter to the Continental Congress, December 27,

  3. Towards the end of the letter, Washington wrote: “In justice to the Officers and Men, I must add, that their Behavior upon this Occasion, reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the River in a very severe Night, and their march through a violent Storm of Snow and Hail, did not in the least abate their Ardour. . . .”-Editor.