Why Was Trenton Occupied by Hessians…Not the British?

October 1st, 2019 History

Most people know that George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776. The crossing was part of Washington’s daring plan to re-ignite the Patriot cause and give new life to the American Revolution.

It was also a prelude to an equally important event: the Battle of Trenton. Trenton was held by a brigade of Hessians, who were among the approximately 30,000 German soldiers who fought during the American Revolution on the side of the British.

The reason that Hessian troops—not British troops—were in Trenton appears to come down to a modest effort to keep the peace between the Hessian and British troops, says David Price, a historical interpreter at Washington Crossing Historic Park.

“Colonel Johann Rall wanted his brigade to have the honor of occupying the frontline position of His Majesty’s forces in Trenton, the western-most outpost of the British Empire at that time,” Price says. “General William Howe, commander-in-chief of the British army in the American colonies, deferred to Rall’s request by virtue of his distinguished combat record.”

However, there’s little agreement among historians on the reason why Howe placed the Hessians in Trenton. Some, like David Hackett Fischer, speculate it may have been a question of language.

Other historians, like Richard Ketchum, believe it was an effort to temper potential rifts.

In his book, The Winter Soldiers, Ketchum explains: “Howe had given thought to the somewhat delicate relationships that existed between British and German troops and, in order to prevent any jealousy from breaking out between them, decided to take the easy way out by letting the Germans, who had originally been on the left of his army marching into New Jersey, retain that position.”