Were the Hessians Drunk at Trenton?
This is probably one of the biggest myths in American history. This myth that General Washington caught the Hessians sleeping off their Christmas celebrations has been told by Hollywood and has been repeated by amateur historians countless times. It has even made it into school text books. The Hessians being drunk makes for a great story, but lousy history and it’s not true!
Three Hessian regiments, about 1,500 men, under Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall had occupied the houses of Trenton since December 14th. The Hessian garrison had made adequate preparations to defend themselves and had received warnings of a possible attack by Washington. Numerous guard posts on the roads in and out of town were required and constant patrols were needed to provide security. Beginning on December 17th skirmishes would erupt daily on the outskirts of Trenton, between the Americans and Hessians. The Hessians would get little rest in the following days. Every night one of the three Hessian regiments had orders to sleep in uniform to be ready for any sudden attack. According to a Hessian officer’s diary:
We are obliged to be constantly on our guard, and do very severe duty…our people begin to grow ragged…. We have not slept one night in peace since we came to this place. The troops have lain on their arms every night, but they can endure it no longer.
As this diary suggests the Hessians were not in a celebratory mood that Christmas and the idea that the Hessians would have been negligent by getting drunk and risking their lives doesn’t make any sense.
However, there was a great deal of excitement in Trenton on Christmas Night, but not due to drunken revelry. It was caused by an unauthorized band of Americans attacking one of the Hessian guard posts and then quickly disappearing into the night. Colonel Rall was quickly on his horse and ordered patrols out to investigate, but nothing unusual was found and the night passed quietly in Trenton. Meanwhile 8 miles upstream General Washington and his army of 2,400 men were crossing the icy Delaware River as a snowstorm including sleet and hail roared in.
The Subsequent victory at Trenton was not due to the Hessians being drunk (which they weren’t), but due to a number of factors including an overconfident enemy and the snowy weather (which would affect the muskets and cause many of them to misfire). The primary reason for the victory was a successful undetected crossing of the Delaware River and a vigorous attack with a superior force of men and cannon.
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