History with the Eyewitnesses

History with the Eyewitnesses

244 years ago, on Christmas Day of 1776, General George Washington led a force across the Delaware River to attack a Hessian outpost in Trenton.  His army, which up until then had lost battle after battle, was near the point of dissolution – the enlistments for most of the men would expire at the end of the year, extinguishing the American ability to field an army.

The Battle of Trenton was one of the most unexpected, as well as complete, victories American forces had achieved, and it reinvigorated the flagging army at the point when the fragile nation was closest to disintegration.  Soldiers reenlisted, and observers both foreign and domestic realized that American troops could, in fact, stand up to and beat professional military forces.

This episode, vital to the founding of the United States, is deeply embedded in the public consciousness (the famous painting shown above is even replicated on the back of the 1999 New Jersey quarter).  But much of what is known is retellings of retellings or dramatizations.  Scholars give preference to primary sources – records created by the eyewitnesses or participants in the events described, which include letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews, and oral histories.  Fortunately, the story of the Battle of Trenton is well represented by contemporaneous material.

Several library databases are ideal for this, or for beginning other research using primary sources.  One database is American History Online – after choosing ‘American History’ and searching for ‘Battle of Trenton’, the results will include a list of different types of resources (articles, images, timelines, primary material) – clicking on the Primary Sources tab turns up a number of letters and other accounts.

Other excellent databases include Gale Primary Sources and North American Women’s Letters and Diaries.  A researcher of the Battle of Trenton may be particularly interested in contemporary accounts from George Washington himself, giving insight in his mindset at the time.  Gale Primary Sources includes the four volume source The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-1799 which sounds promising – but unfortunately, it is a dead end.  Washington was too busy to keep a diary in 1776.  However, he did write letters constantly throughout his time as General, and many of them are also included in the same source, such as this one to General McDougall.

Records were kept by other participants, as well.  The diary of Colonel John Fitzgerald, an officer on Washington’s staff, here reproduced in a newspaper article, discusses troop movements in significant detail.  The recollections of other officers were also published in newspapers or by Congress.

Other witnesses bring diverse perspectives.  From North American Women’s Letters and Diaries, the diary of Margaret Hill Morris, a pacifist Quaker widow living in the area, offers an unflinching view of both the Hessian and the American soldiers. 

Primary sources like these can be instrumental in shedding light on historical events.  They can also dispel common rumors, such as that the Hessian soldiers were drunk at the time from Christmas revelry (while that was Washington’s hope, it was not the case; although their commander had been drinking), or that Washington knelt to pray for his soldiers in the snow here, or more famously, at Valley Forge the following winter (all contemporary records of Washington, such as those from his Philadelphia pastor William White, record that he always stood when he prayed – p.189 in the linked memoir).

Primary sources can improve any historical scholarship.  If your research would benefit from consulting primary sources, you can Ask Us! for help at iueref@iue.edu or simply click this button:

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