The Battle of Princeton
The Massachusetts militia crossed McKonkey's Ferry and arrived in New Jersey late on New Year's Day, 1777.
"You're just in time for the trap," announced a soldier to Moses.
"Why, do we have them surrounded?" asked Moses.
"No, they’ve got us in the trap,” replied the disconsolate American. "It's just a matter of time, till dawn, probably."
We’ve marched three days and nights for this, thought Moses. "This is madness. Why don't we simply cross back over the Delaware?" he asked.
"It took us two full days to get our men and equipment over while the British were unaware,” replied the American. "Now Cornwallis and Howe know we’re here and their combined forces greatly outnumber us. It’s just a matter of time, we’ll be done for by noon tomorrow, I expect."
A quick retreat was improbable, it seemed. Men and cannon aside, a sudden thaw had made the roads impassable rivers of mud. Troop movement was impossible. The trap was set. In the morning, Cornwallis planned to bag his fox. But, towards midnight, as quickly as the thaw had set in, the temperatures dropped, suddenly and rapidly. Moses could feel the mud harden beneath his feet.
"Prepare to move," came the order down the line of troops.
"Prepare to move," relayed the men.
“Are we retreating or running into the cannon's mouth,” asked Moses. No one answered.
"Double file, men, stand tall. Quickly now,” commanded Lieutenant Gunn from his horse.
"Where to, sir?" asked Moses.
"We have another surprise for the redcoats,” the officer responded. "We will not be waiting for them here in the morning."
"Are we evacuating New Jersey?" asked another shivering patriot.
"No, we are going to attack them when and where they least expect it. In their soft underbelly." He galloped off.
Hundreds and hundreds of exhausted patriots labored in the freezing cold as they slipped through the enemy lines, fortifying strategic positions behind them with men and artillery as they advanced in the darkness, defending their own flanks and preventing the British from escaping south from Princeton and uniting with the Trenton forces.
As the sky grew light gray in the East, the American army was out of imminent danger of strangulation, but battle was unavoidable. Confrontation with the enemy occurred as soon as it was light enough for the armies to see each other.
In a farmer's field, just south of Princeton, the American advance guard intercepted the British en route to join Cornwallis at Trenton.
Moses instinctively dropped to his knee, took aim and fired. Without an order, the others had done the same in unison. Nathaniel was off his horse already reloading his pistol.
"Make every shot count men,” he yelled. A half-dozen red-clad bodies lay dead some hundred yards away.
"Good Lord," said Moses, "there must be a thousand of them!"
"Well, then, we can hardly miss, can we?" Asahel replied.
The British formed battle columns along a fence line and fired into the small party of patriots. Shots dug into the ground and whistled past the men. One took the epaulet off Moses' shoulder.
"Whoa," he yelled, and the British fired another volley.
“Whoa,” he yelled again as the shot splattered dirt in his face. He rolled over on his back and wiped dirt from his eye, then took aim while the enemy reloaded. Again the Americans raised themselves to one knee and fired in unison. Another half-dozen British dropped lifeless.
Moses quickly looked about him as he reloaded his musket. "Not a tree within a hundred yards,” he said. "What in blazes are we doing in the middle of the field?"
The British fired again but this time one of the patriots screamed in agony. The screaming stopped as abruptly as it had started. The first casualty. The enemy column rose to advance. Moses fired what he thought would be his last shot when the ground around the advancing red tide exploded sending bodies hurtling through the air.
"At last, the American Artillery,” he muttered. The British advance halted. The sound of musketry and cannon filed the air. The ground lay littered with red uniforms. Behind him swelled the American forces as they gathered depth and momentum. At their head was a majestic figure on a chestnut stallion.
"Advance men, let's put them on the run,” he said confidently as he galloped towards Moses. Lieutenant Nathaniel Gunn mounted his steed and echoed the inspiration.
“Let's put them on the run, men,” he said. Moses, Asahel and the others rose yelling and firing as they advanced toward the enemy line. As they got within thirty yards of the fence, the British fired one last desperate volley, turned tail and ran. When the smoke cleared, the two men miraculously were still astride their horses.
"It's a fine fox chase, my boys,” Moses heard the stately leader proclaim as he rallied the men and galloped off after the receding red mass.
The American army gave pursuit but not with such determination as to engage its enemy in another fierce battle. The bear may run when chased by the terrier, but God help the terrier it should ever catch the bear. Such was the American stratagem.
The rejuvenated army stopped briefly to take toll and catch its breath. Moses and the advance guard were still at the forefront of the force. He could see the officers gather round on their horses and make grand gestures in his direction pantomiming their voiceless mouths. He could see his father's face break into a smile as he looked over his shoulder in Moses’ direction. The colloquy ended. Commanders returned to their units.
Lieutenant Gunn reined up.
"We march to Morristown. New Brunswick may be a bit more than our troops can handle. The British are fresh and we are exhausted. Stand tall men, there's rest ahead."
"Sir,” Moses addressed his father, "who is that impressive looking officer with the noble bearing on the chestnut?"
"Why, that's General Washington," Nathaniel replied.
"You were looking at us while talking," said Moses.
"Yes, he admired the courage you few showed in holding off the entire British Army and leading their rout,” he replied. "He wanted to know who you were."
"And what did you tell him?" asked Asahel.
"I told him you were the Gunns of Montague."
* * * * *
In Baltimore, where the Congress had sought temporary refuge, Robert Morris, head of the Committee to Conduct its Affairs, struggled over his most recent communiqué from General Washington.
"Curious," he muttered.
"What is it now, Robert,” queried John Adams, "more of the same complaints?”
"No, this one is a little different,” replied the puzzled Morris. "He says, 'I need more than men and muskets. Send me more Gunns! I don't understand."
"I do," chuckled the man from Massachusetts who seldom chuckled. "I do!"
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