Letter from Washington to McDougall After Trenton (1776)


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    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Editor’s note
      The following letter was written just after Christmas 1776, after the Battle of Trenton, in which the Continental Army was victorious. George Washington relates to General Alexander McDougall his thoughts on the battle, and on a potential prisoner exchange, including for McDougall’s son, who was captured in Canada.

      “Gen McDougall

      Head Quarters, Newtown 28th December 1776.

      I have yours of the 22th and am sorry that Affairs bore so bad an Aspect in your Quarter at that time. But I hope that the late Success at Trenton on the 26th and the Consequence of it, will change the face of Matters not only there but every where else. I crossed over to Jersey the Evening of the 25th about 9 miles above Trenton with upwards of 2000 Men and attacked three Regiments of Hessians consisting of fifteen hundred Men about 8 o’Clock next Morning. Our Men pushed on with such Rapidity that they soon carried four pieces of Cannon out of Six, Surrounded the Enemy and obliged 30 Officers and 886 privates to lay down their Arms without firing a Shot. Our Loss was only two Officers and two or three privates wounded. The Enemy had between 20 and 30 killed. We should have made the whole of them prisoners, could Genl. Ewing have passed the Delaware at Trenton and got in their Rear, but the ice prevented him. I am informed that Count Donnop with the remainder of the Army below Trenton, decamped immediately upon this News, and is on his march towards South Amboy. Generals Mifflin, Ewing and Cadwallader have already passed over to Jersey with a Capital Force and I shall follow with the Continental Regiments as soon as they have recovered from the late Fatigue which was indeed very great.

      I hope you, Sir, GenI. Maxwell to whom I have wrote, Colo. Vose, Colo. Ford and every Gentleman who is well affected will exert themselves in encouraging the Militia and assuring them that nothing is wanting, but for them to lend a hand, and driving the Enemy from the whole province of Jersey

      Pray watch the motions of the Enemy, and if they incline to retreat or advance, harass their Rear and Flanks But at all Events endeavour to collect a Body of men to be ready to join me, or act otherwise as occasion may be.

      Your son was mentioned among the first of our prisoners that I demanded in Exchange, but Genl. Howe (or Mr. Loring in his Absence) Sent out others than those I demanded. I have remonstrated to him upon this head and have assured him that I will send in no more prisoners till he sends out the paroles of the Officers taken in Canada.

      I am dear Sir

      Your most obt Servt

      G. Washington”

      Trenton, and the followup victory at Princeton on 3 January 1777, caused the British to abandon their forward posts in New Jersey. By going into winter quarters at Morristown after the Battle of Princeton, Washington threatened supply lines and thereby swept the enemy from the state. Dwindling support for the cause of liberty was reversed, and strengthening of the diminished army ranks occured. Coupled with Benedict Arnold’s action at Valcour island, the Americans were able to continue into the campaigns of 1777.

      Aside from the obligatory reports to John Hancock as President of the Continental Congress, Washington is only known to have written eight letters describing in any detail this battle that changed the course of World History. All but the one above are in public institutions. This one, signed by the Great General but with text in the hand of his aide, Tench Tilghman, came on the market in 1997. The asking price? $350,000.00. Needless to say, your webmaster did not submit a bid.

      P S.: The son referenced in the letter, Lt. Ranald S. McDougall, who had been captured in Canada, was exchanged a few weeks later.

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