The Continental Army has previously suffered several defeats in New York and has been forced to retreat through New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Morale in the army is low. To end the year on a positive note, George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, devises a plan to cross the Delaware River on the night of December 25–26 and surround the Hessian garrison.
Because the river is icy and the weather severe, the crossing proves dangerous. Two detachments are unable to cross the river, leaving Washington with only 2,400 men under his command in the assault, 3,000 less than planned.
Washington’s army marches 9 miles south to Trenton. One division commanded by John Sullivan, the third son of Irish settlers from the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, secures the important bridge over the Assunpink Creek to the south of the town. This prevents escape and ensures the high number of Hessian prisoners captured.
The Hessians have lowered their guard, thinking they are safe from the American army, and have no long-distance outposts or patrols. Washington’s forces catch them off guard and, after a short but fierce resistance, most of the Hessians surrender, with negligible losses to the Americans. Almost two thirds of the 1,500-man garrison is captured, and only a few troops escaped across Assunpink Creek.
Despite the battle’s small numbers, the American victory inspires rebels in the colonies. With the success of the revolution in doubt a week earlier, the army had seemed on the verge of collapse. The dramatic victory inspires soldiers to serve longer and attracted new recruits to the ranks.
John Sullivan goes on to serve as a delegate in the Continental Congress, the third Governor of New Hampshire and a judge of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire. He dies on January 23, 1795 at the age of 54 in Durham, New Hampshire. He is buried in the Sullivan Family Burial Ground in Durham.