General George Washington's Campaigns of 1776
In March 1776 General Washington ended the British siege of Boston, and quickly moved to face General Howe in New York. New York offered the opportunity for the British to separate the northern and southern Colonies. Also, control of New York would place the strategic Hudson River under the control of the British. As a result, Washington knew victory in New York would be essential for the survival of the American cause.
Washington first faced the army of Howe in the Battle of Long Island, 27 August 1776. At this battle, Howe was able to turn the American left flank and inflict severe casualties, nearly capturing Washington's entire army. Troubled by these developments, Washington nonetheless continued his efforts in New York. He occupied Harlem Heights and upriver he ordered the construction of Fort Washington and Fort Lee, positioned on opposite sides of the Hudson River.
Howe moved to envelop Washington's army at Harlem Heights and forced the rebels to abandon their position there, 16 September 1776. Next, he faced Washington at White Plains October 28, forcing the American army to withdraw northward to North Castle. At that point, Howe turned away from his pursuit of Washington to capture Fort Washington on November 16 and Fort Lee on November 20, eliminating their threat to British control of the Hudson.
Having failed repeatedly in his efforts to deny New York to Howe, Washington removed his battle-weary forces from the area. He moved southward through New Jersey, crossing the Delaware River to settle in Pennsylvania in December of 1776. This set the stage for his successful "Christmas Campaign" of 1776.
General Washington led the patriots through two motivational victories in a campaign described by historians as the "Christmas Campaign." Washington attacked the British first at Trenton and then at Princeton in order to seize the offensive after losing his hold on New York in the previous year.
Using shrewd judgement, Washington decided to attack the Hessians camped in Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776. He ordered his troops to cross the Delaware River in three columns and take the enemy by surprise. Upon his discovery that the crossing had wet their gunpowder, he ordered the patriots to fix bayonets and they took Trenton at bayonet point. The Americans captured Trenton in little more than an hour of battle, with only minor casualties.
Realizing the danger of remaining in Trenton, Washington secured the weapons and prisoners captured and recrossed the Delaware River to return to the safety of Pennsylvania. Upon learning that the British had abandoned Trenton for a safer position in Princeton, Washington took the offensive again. This time, he moved into Trenton and the British closed with the Americans hoping to destroy Washington's weakened army. Washington used their deployment to Trenton to his advantage by ordering a detachment of men to delay the British army while the American army maneuvered around them to attack Princeton. In doing this, Washington faced the smaller British element in Princeton and briefly took it from British control before retiring for the winter in Morristown.
Although he never intended to maintain control of either town taken in the campaign, Washington's actions in this campaign bolstered the morale of his demoralized army. As a result, he had bought some more time with his "part-time" soldiers by motivating many to renew their enlistments.