The Heroes of Princeton

On December 26, 1776, Washington launched his famous attack at Trenton, capturing the Hessian garrison and retreating across the Delaware. Earl Cornwallis, on his way to England, was recalled and took command of the troops in New Jersey from General Grant, although not quickly enough to beat Washington to the Delaware. On January 2, 1777, Washington again crossed over into New Jersey and faced off with Cornwallis at the second battle of Trenton. That evening, the rebel army marched from its entrenchments by a circuitous route for Princeton, where Cornwallis had left the 4th Brigade, consisting of the 17th, 40th, and 55th Regiments. On the morning of January 3rd, Lieutenant-Colonel Mawhood, commander of the 4th Brigade, marched his troops out of Princeton, intending to join Lord Cornwallis at Trenton. Along the way, he encountered Washington’s army and immediately attacked, bayonet charging Mercer’s brigade. Mercer was killed in the fighting, bayoneted by soldiers of the 17th. Taking up a defensive position at a fence line, the regiment successfully crushed attacks by rebel militia until General Washington arrived and rallied his forces. With encirclement inevitable, Mawhood ordered the 17th to charge bayonets once again and broke through the rebel lines, continuing on for Maidenhead.

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Simultaneously, the rest of the 55th and 40th Regiments, aside from detachments that were captured in Princeton, retreated up the road to Brunswick. At this time, the 17th Regiment was seriously under strength and at Princeton had only 280 men. Despite a numerical disadvantage varying between 1 to 10 and 1 to 20 (depending on estimates of the rebel army’s size), the 17th nevertheless managed to defeat a substantial portion of the rebel forces and escape, though not without loss. Captain William Leslie, the junior-most company commander in the regiment and a beloved officer within the army as a whole, was killed by the first volley at the beginning of the battle. In total, the regiment lost one captain and twelve rank and file killed, one captain (McPherson), one lieutenant, one ensign, 4 sergeants, and 46 rank and file wounded, and one sergeant, one drummer, and 33 rank and file missing. Most of the missing returned during the following days, having become lost during the breakout and the subsequent march to Maidenhead. While much attention is rightly concentrated on the Battle of Princeton, another action that day also earned the acclaim of the army and the Commander-in-Chief. With only 40 men, Captain William Scott of the 17th Regiment successfully defended the 4th Brigade’s baggage train against almost overwhelming numbers of rebel attackers. Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment of Foot left us the following account in his diary:

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“Captain Scott of the 17th Regiment with a party of 40 men under his command, having the Guard of the 4th Brigade’s Baggage, was attacked by a large body of the Enemy that were retreating from Princetown; but he formed his men upon commanding ground, and after refusing to deliver the Baggage, fought with his men back to back; and forced the Enemy to withdraw, bringing off the Baggage safe to Brunswick.”

General Howe, in his orders for January 8, 1777, made special mention of Captain Scott’s conduct while praising Lieutenant-Colonel Mawhood and the 17th Regiment for their valiant behavior at Princeton:

HEAD QUARTERS, New York, Jan. 8th., 1777

General Howe desires Lieut.-Col. Mawhood will accept his thanks for his Gallantry and good Conduct in the Attack made upon the Enemy on the 3d. Instant. He desires his thanks may also be given to the Officers and Soldiers of the 17th. Foot, to part of the 55th. Regiment, and other Detachments on their march, who on that occasion supported the 17th. Regiment and Charged the Enemy with Bayonet in the most Spirited manner. The General desires his public Approbation may be signified to Capt. Scott, of the 17th. Foot, for his remarkable good conduct in protecting and securing the Baggage of the 4th. Brigade on the above Occasion.” Their conduct at Princeton and at many other battles throughout the American War made the 17th Regiment one of the truly outstanding British units of the war.