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Artillery and the Crossing

"...the boats have gone back for the artillery."


When it comes to the telling of Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and the First Battle of Trenton, there are many story lines that can be followed to get a well rounded picture of the event. The skill of the Marbleheaders, the struggles of individual leaders, and the determination of the troops individually and collectively come to the forefront of the story. However, sometimes objects and their uses can determine the outcome of an activity just as much as the people who use them. Such is the role of the artillery in the Trenton campaign. From the New Jersey side of the Delaware River on December 25-26, 1776, in the midst of the crossing, Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald wrote in his diary, "The troops are over, and the boats have gone back for the artillery. We are three hours behind the set time." It can be noted that there was no reference made to marching without the artillery — at least nothing was written down. Most men would have agreed, it was better to start the march behind schedule than to be without the field guns.

Cannons were an object feared by many an infantryman. They sent devastating shot, of various types, into the ranks. By the time of the American Revolution, a trained European cannon crew could fire 12 to 14 shots a minute if they did not have to adjust their position during the firing. Their role in determining the success of a campaign cannot be diminished. In the early days of the Revolution, March of 1776, it was Henry Knox and the cannons he laboriously brought from Ft. Ticonderoga which were placed on Dorchester Heights and used to good avail on the British who occupied Boston. It is believed, some of these same guns were used throughout the New York campaign and were carefully preserved during the retreat through New Jersey. These field pieces would eventually be brought to Bucks County, Pennsylvania and play a role in the campaign of December 1776. Though difficult to aim compared to modern weapons, yet by no means impossible, artillery firing was considered an art. The many styles of cannons, the various rules of gunnery and military operations, and the procedures followed for firing and commanding a gun crew, it could be argued, made artillery officers some of the most essential men to a campaign and often the best read and trained in the art of war.

Much can be written in specific detail of all facets regarding the use, ability and styles of artillery. For the crossing, the logistics of getting the cannons, their accompanying horses and the guns' accoutrement across the Delaware River add a unique dimension to the story. Ferry boats were the obvious choices to transport these items and not the Durham boats which were better served to move men. According to all diary accounts, the artillery were the last to leave the shore at McKonkey's Ferry after the 2400 troops under Washington had been taken across the Delaware. Col. Henry Knox was responsible for the 18 field pieces under his overall command. The guns included seven 3-lb.cannon, three 4-lb.cannon, six 6-lb.cannon and two 5.5 Howitzers. This was an inordinate amount of fire power per troop as the standards of engagement at the time stated the need for only 2 to 3 guns per 1000 men (muskets). (The equation for the First Battle of Trenton was one cannon for approximately every 130 men. This definitely gave Washington's men an advantage in armament.) That same night at Dunk's Ferry, troops under the command of John Cadwalader had a similar task of crossing the Delaware River. Many of the troops were able to reach the other side, but when it came to moving the artillery, the task was unable to be completed. Without the fire power of the artillery, Cadwalader recalled his troops, and they did not proceed with their portion of the campaign. Knox, however, was able to get his cannons across the River and in the line of march to Trenton. On the march, artillery was ordered to be placed at the head of each brigade. Knox later wrote to his wife, "...perseverance accomplished what at ?rst seemed impossible."

Caring for the cannons on the 9 mile march to Trenton would have been a tedious part of the journey. Through creek beds and ravines, on slippery surfaces from the inclement weather, the army continued to accomplish the impossible or at least the logistically difficult by safely transporting the artillery pieces to Trenton.

At Trenton, there are many differing accounts of whether the individual rifles and muskets were able to fire due to wet powder from the raging storms. There is no doubt that the artillery was able to fire and did so with great effect. Through the streets of Trenton, artillery resounded and closed in on the unsuspecting Hessians. Rall, the Hessian commander, tried to counter attack and ordered his cannons to fire, but his guns were soon overtaken.

The Hessians had six 3-lb. cannons at Trenton, all of which were captured. (Two of these cannons will be recaptured by the British later in the war at the Battle of Brandywine.) The capturing of the Hessian cannons, from all accounts of the era, were looked upon with as much excitement as the number of captured men as these valuable field pieces could be used by the Americans against the guns' former owners.

The artillery, priceless when put to good use, could determine the outcome of an engagement. The number of artillery pieces present on the American side at the Battle of Trenton was certainly a determining factor for Washington's army — a factor in their favor.