« ПредишнаНапред »
RALL AND VON DONOP.
BEFORE Washington retired into the forests which lay west of the Susquehanna he intended to see whether something might not yet be done on the east of the Delaware. That region afforded a possible and, (to his judgement,) a promising field of action now that the British general had withdrawn his head-quarters to New York, and disposed the bulk of his troops in cantonments over the five northern counties of New Jersey. The situation was fairly enough described in a letter by a Virginian colonel, who wrote that in December 1776 General Howe held a mortgage on the American army, but had decided not to foreclose. Years afterwards, when both the immediate and the secondary consequences of his untoward decision were patent to the world, Sir William Howe discoursed to the House of Commons about the operations of that winter at considerable length, and with apparent frankness. He owned that the left wing of his cantonments in New Jersey had been dangerously extended towards the southward. He defended himself, however, on the score of his desire to protect a district containing many inhabitants, who had committed themselves to the Royal cause on the faith of his own express invitation; and the assertion of this honourable motive was neither an excuse nor an after-thought. He was blamed, (so
1 On the twentieth of December, 1776, – nearly a week before Trenton, — Howe wrote thus to Lord George Germaine.' “The chain, I own, is rather too extensive ; but I was induced to occupy Burlington, to cover the county of Monmouth in which there are many loyal inhabitants; and, trusting to the general submission of the country to the Southward of this chain, and to the strength of the corps placed in the advanced posts, I conclude the troops will be in perfect security."
he acknowledged,) for having entrusted the post of danger to other than British troops; but he pleaded that our German auxiliaries had all along been stationed on the left of his line, and that to shift them from that position would have been an imputation upon their courage and discipline which up to that time they had not deserved. During the Seven Years' War, (so he reminded Parliament, and few had a better right to speak about that war than William Howe,) the Hessians had been reputed to be as good soldiers as any in Prince Ferdinand's army. But, while profuse in his self-justification on all minor and collateral charges, Howe put the main question aside in silence. He did not explain why he had checked the rush of his victorious campaign; had deliberately surrendered the power of bringing on a combat at his own time and place; and, by breaking up his force into isolated and stationary fragments, had handed over the advantage of the offensive to Washington.
The six brigades of Royal troops quartered in the Jerseys were put in charge of Major General Grant, who located himself at New Brunswick on the Raritan river, as nearly as possible in the centre of his command. The shore of the Delaware, facing the whole extent of the position where Washington's army lay, was occupied by a Hessian division under the orders of Colonel Von Donop. He was an exceedingly valiant officer who, within a year afterwards, died very nobly for a cause which in his own view was not worthy of so great a sacrifice. Von Donop, with the insight of a genuine soldier, recognised that both opponents must have had their say in the matter before a campaign could be declared closed; and he found no reason to believe that the Americans were a party to the bargain. He foresaw that all his regiments, acting together, were none too many to ensure their own safety; and he urged that the entire division should be massed, and kept on the alert, in a position suited for defence, and not very near the enemy. The town of Trenton he
regarded as too exposed for security; and any body of troops, which might be quartered there, was in his view a forlorn hope. But Colonel Rall, - as the reward of his undoubted services at White Plains, in front of Brooklyn, and particularly at Fort Washington, claimed the command of a brigade, with head-quarters of his own. Howe let himself be talked over, and Rall was placed at Trenton with three fine regiments of Hessian infantry. The officers of his corps for the most part regarded their adversaries with the disdain of professional soldiers for irregular levies, and of petty aristocrats for hard-working, self-supporting citizens. German letters and diaries, during this period of the war, were impregnated by ideas then potent in Europe, but which never had, and, it is to be hoped, never will have, — any vogue whatever in America. Some very curious observations, made by these gentlemen after Putnam's defeat on Long Island, have been preserved for the instruction of posterity. Among the prisoners, (they wrote,) were many so-called colonels and lieutenant-colonels, who in reality were nothing but tradesmen and mechanics, tailors, shoemakers, and barbers; and some of them had been well knocked about by the German grenadiers, who would by no means consent to treat such people with the tenderness due to commissioned officers. General Putnam was a butcher by profession ; much such another as butcher Fischer at Rinteln in North Hesse. Their artillery was miserable, mostly of iron, and mounted on ship-carriages. As for the privates, these wretched creatures merited pity rather than fear. No regiment was properly uniformed. Every man had a common gun, such as the citizens of Cassel marched out with at Whitsuntide, which it took him a quarter of an hour to load ; and he would always be glad to surrender his fire-arms, and himself too, if only he were not afraid of being hanged for a rebel.1
1 Many extracts to this effect from German military publications are given in Mr. Lowell's book on the Hessians.
Insolence and over-confidence were not discouraged by the Brigadier in command, who was a brave, proud, and stupid man. Imbued with the densest prejudices incidental either to his class or to his calling, he neglected the most ordinary precautions against a foe whose defects he ridiculed, and to whose very remarkable military qualities, which were not exactly those of the Potsdam guard-parade, he was wilfully and incurably blind. Colonel Rall's present circumstances by no means justified his self-complacency; for the position which his force occupied was extremely hazardous. Some of his junior officers displayed a zeal, and an interest in the realities of soldiering, which put the indolence and recklessness of their chief to shame; for no fewer than three Hessian lieutenants have left each of them a plan of Trenton which would do credit to any modern Staff College. The place was within a few hundred yards of a navigable river, of which the Americans had the undisputed command; but Colonel Rall's most serious danger was in the opposite quarter. Several high roads, leading from the interior of the province and from the crossing-places further up the stream, converged upon a spot at the northern entrance of Trenton where a single battery of hostile cannon could sweep, from end to end, the two broad straight streets which constituted the village. That spot, moreover, was to rear of the Hessians, planted fair and square across their communications; and, if it was seized and maintained by a superior American force, nothing could save their brigade from a total and irretrievable overthrow.1 The more intelligent German officers felt relief and satisfaction when Von Donop paid a visit to Trenton in order to examine the ground with his own eyes. He directed Colonel Rall to raise a small fortification at the Ferry, and, as a matter of prime necessity, to erect a redoubt, with flanking angles
1 The scale of the map at the end of this volume has been calculated to show the battle-fields of Trenton, and of Long Island, sufficiently for the purposes of a book which is not a scientific military history.
for cannon, at the meeting of the roads to the north of the village. Rall made a show of acquiescence, and ordered faggots to be prepared for the construction of a battery; but, after Von Donop's departure, he stayed his hand, and his six field-pieces, instead of being mounted in embrasures where they might protect the approaches, were all parked near the middle of the town in a graveyard at the back of the English Church.
Rall's three regiments were distributed among the public buildings and places of Worship, or in the private dwellings of King's Street and Queen's Street in the proportion of a company to every five or six houses. The men, though snugly lodged, were allowed very little time to themselves. A capable officer, Lieutenant Andreas Wiederhold, has recounted the proceedings of that fortnight at Trenton in terms which indicate a deep feeling of shame and resentment. The soldiers, he wrote, were harassed with watches, detachments, and pickets without purpose and without end. The cannon were drawn forth every day, and paraded about the town seemingly only to make a stir and uproar. Whether his men kept their muskets clean and bright, and their ammunition in good order, was of little moment to Colonel Rall; but of the regimental bandsmen he never could either see or hear enough. The officer on guard for the day must march round and round the churchyard in front of the Commandant's windows, with his men and musicians looking for all the world like a Roman Catholic procession, “and wanting only the cross, the banner, and the chanting choristers, at their head." Rall amused himself far into the night, and slept late of a morning. “When we came from parade," said Wiederhold, “at ten o'clock to his quarters, we had many times to wait half an hour because he had not finished his usual bath.” At length, emboldened by the arrival of a renewed and pressing
1 Wiederhold died in Cassel in 1803, where he was Inspector of the Arsenal.