On 2 January 1777, Lord Cornwallis counterattacked after the loss of Trenton and his vanguard was repulsed by the Continental Army at Assunpink Creek. Washington, knowing he couldn’t hold against the main British force in the morning, faked camping for the night, and escaped just as he had done several times before. He marched around Cornwallis’ army. The next day, the Continental Army approached Princeton, hoping to destroy the British army from behind and seize Cornwallis’ war chest of 70,000 pounds sterling at New Brunswick.
But the British and Americans stumbled upon each other just south of the city and American Brigadier General Hugh Mercer immediately attacked. Both sides attempted to seize a small hill topped by an orchard, a position each thought they could hold until reinforcements arrived. The Americans occupied it first but after a single volley the British closed with bayonets. Most of Mercer’s men were woodsmen from central and western Pennsylvania, and their rifles, while accurate, lacked bayonets and were slow loading. In an attempt to inspire his men in the ensuing melee, Mercer took on nine redcoats with his saber before being stabbed to death. His remaining men broke.
Washington, who was just bit farther up the column, arrived with the main body of the Continental army, and rallied Mercer’s men 30 meters from the advancing British. Volleys were exchanged but miraculously Washington was not hit. A tough battle ensued, but the Americans went straight from the march into the attack and overwhelmed the British. The British attempted to make a stand in Nassau Hall inside the town but several round shot from Henry Knox’s guns dissuaded them (including one which legend says decapitated a painting of King George II. Supposedly it was gleefully fired by the battery commanded by a young Captain Alexander Hamilton, whose application was rejected by Princeton). For the rest of the battle, the British couldn’t establish a defensive position, and were eventually routed off the field.
As Cornwallis approached from Trenton, Washington dismantled the bridge into the city over the fast moving and freezing Stony Brook. The exasperated Lord Cornwallis, who had been out maneuvered by Washington and out fought by the Continentals three times in the last ten days, returned to New York and abandoned New Jersey. The exhausted but intact Continental Army entered winter quarters at Morristown. Washington ended the otherwise disastrous 1776 campaign in the Middle Colonies on a high note, and now with all of southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania open to his victorious recruiters. Money, supplies, and promises of credit poured into the Continental Congress.
Gen Washington considered the Battle of Princeton one of his proudest moments.