Jacob Bottomer

The Second Battle of Trenton

Private Bottomer and many rebel soldiers probably believed that the victory at Trenton signaled the end of the year's campaign. Most 18th century armies did not conduct operations in the winter. In fact, while the rebels were surprising the Hessian outpost at Trenton, Lord Cornwallis, a top commander of the British army, was headed toward New York, where he planned to embark on a ship that would take him home to England for the winter.

When he received news of Trenton, Lord Cornwallis turned around and headed for New Jersey.

General Washington did not send the Continental Army into winter quarters. Instead, on 30 December, 1776, he led them back across the Delaware to Trenton. He planned to engage the British army before ending the 1776 campaign.

The Assunpink creek ran east then south of Trenton. At the southeast part of town, Queen street crossed the creek over a single-arch stone bridge barely wide enough for one wagon. On the other side of the creek, the terrain rose in a hill that commanded a view of the bridge, the creek and the town. George Washington deployed most of his army along that hill and ordered them to dig in.

On 31 December 1776, Washington sent Fermoy's bridge, which included the German Regiment, on another mission. They were to march north along the road toward Princeton and delay the advance of the British troops.

Some very strange things happened on the road to Princeton.

Most of the American forces advanced only halfway to Princeton. Colonel Hausseger, commander of the German Regiment, however, led his regiment further north. They continued to march until they were out of sight of the rest of the American forces. They continued to march, in fact, until they came within sight of Princeton itself.

Major Ludwig Weltner, Hausseger's second-in-command, grew disturbed. He knew the enemy was in Princeton, and he probably knew that Hausseger did not have orders to enter the town. Weltner rode up to the head of the column and began an argument with his commander. Hausseger insisted that the enemy was not in Princeton and that he would lead the regiment directly into the town. Weltner refused. He insisted that they could not enter Princeton without at least a reconnoiter. Hausseger then said he would lead Lieutenant Bernard Hubley and ten men into Princeton. Weltner turned to Hubley and ordered him to stand fast. Hausseger then declared that Weltner was making mutiny.

This unusual discussion presumably took place in German. We can imagine the concern in the ranks, as the two senior officers argued about their fate, so far in advance of the other rebel forces, with an unknown number of British and Hessian troops in front of them.

Perhaps after a glance at the men's faces, Hausseger gave in to Weltner. He left Lieutenant Hubley behind. With ten unlucky soldiers in tow, he advanced toward Princeton. They didn't see any enemy troops, because the enemy troops were hiding. Colonel Hausseger rode up directly to a house and knocked. A British officer opened the door. Greetings were exchanged. At one point, the British officer poured gold coins into his palm, and Hausseger helped himself to a few.

This was Hausseger's final day as a leader in the Continental army. He was never tried for treason, but in his correspondence, General Washington explicitly instructed that Hausseger was not to be treated as if he were a prisoner of war. He would spend some time under British control, distrusted by his fellow Americans. Eventually he would resign his commission. He would die years later in Pennsylvania.

We don't know the fate of the 10 soldiers. It is possible many of them perished in captivity. The British submitted rebel prisoners to harsh conditions, although officers were treated in a more gentle manner.

Weltner waited. When Hausseger didn't return, he took command of the regiment and redeployed to join the rest of the brigade, which had taken defensive positions at Five Mile Run.

The next day was New Year's day, 1777. Lord Cornwallis arrived at Princeton. The next morning, 2 January 1777, he lead a Hessian and British force of 7,000 troops out of Princeton, marching south for Trenton. The weather had turned warm, with rain, so the road was mud. The British troops sunk to their knees in the muck. Progress with the 28 pieces of artillery was slow.

When the first British troops advanced within sight from Five Mile Run, another strange thing happened. General Fermoy, the officer in charge, turned and rode back to Trenton. Abandoning his troops in the presence of the enemy would cause comment, but he would remain in his position until transferred in the spring.

Command diverted to Colonel Edward Hand, the leader of the Pennsylvania Riflemen. It was 10:00 in the morning. He began a delaying action that was to last the rest of the day.

The Pennsylvanian long rifles, many built by German gunsmiths, had a long, rifled barrel, whereas the muskets used by the British, Hessians and indeed most of the Americans had shorter, smooth barrels. Therefore the long rifles had a greater range and accuracy. The combination of these superior weapons, Hand's cool leadership, and the woodland skills of the Pennsylvanian men were instrumental in the ability of the Americans to fight a successful delaying action against the larger British force. The Americans would fire, the British would halt, form up for a battle, and the Americans would retreat to their next defensive position.

Shabbakonk Creek was about half the distance between Five Mile Run and Trenton. Hand ordered his men to pull down the bridge, then they hid in the woods on the southern bank. When the British began to wade across the stream, the Americans opened fire, almost point-blank. At this range, even the fire from the muskets of the German Regiment would have been telling.

The delaying action continued for hours. General Washington, with Generals Greene and Knox, rode up to Colonel Hand, and encouraged him to continue to delay the British.

At Stockton Hollow, about half a mile from Trenton, the Brigade was augmented with some additional troops and two pieces of artillery. The British brought their own cannon to bear, though, and the Americans were forced to retreat through the town of Trenton. They used the houses for cover -- most likely the same houses that the Hessians had used for cover against their attack the previous week.

There, in the streets of Trenton, Private Jacob Bottomer was within arm's reach of Lieutenant Bernard Hubley, the officer that Hausseger had tried to turn over to the enemy two days previously. Evidently, Bottomer was faithful to General Washington's instructions to remain by his officers. The enemy was subjecting them to fire from several directions. A musket ball impacted Private Jacob Bottomer, about three or four inches from the navel, on the left side, breaking two ribs and exiting his back above his hip bone. Jacob Bottomer shouted out with pain. Lieutenant Hubley ordered other soldiers to carry Jacob with them. He also told Jacob not to shout.

All the forces converged at the approaches to the bridge over the Assunpink. The American forces dug in along the hill opened fire. Some rushed out to cover the final retreat of Hand's men over the bridge. The British opened fire with musket and cannon. In the melee, some of the brigade could not cross the narrow bridge, and instead waded across the stream. In the thunderous noise of the cannon, the smoke, in the narrow quarters, and after hours of combat, the final retreat was less than orderly. In fact, Jacob Bottomer was dropped and some fifty men stampeded his body, leaving him on the enemy's side of the the bridge.

General Washington saw this all. He was not in the rear, but as far to the front as a general can possibly get. He sat upon his horse at the head of the bridge. In fact, his horse's chest was pressed up against the west rails of the bridge. From this vantage point, we can surmise that he was in a position to see Jacob Bottomer, who, although severely wounded, was crawling forward to cross the bridge.

The enemy army was behind him. If he collapsed, he would either receive the bayonet or another ball, or get taken prisoner, with a good chance of dying in conditions of captivity that sometimes proved fatal to the unwounded.

His comrades were in the ranks on the far side of the Assunpink.

So Private Jacob Bottomer crawled forward.

He made it to the other side, perhaps with the help of some comrades. While the battle raged, he was probably taken to a near-by house that had been converted into a field hospital. There, Dr. Benjamin Rush was in attendance. Either he or some other physician tended to Private Bottomer's wounds.

Meanwhile, in the growing darkness, the British and the Hessians charged the bridge three times, but were repulsed. Finally, Lord Cornwallis called to an end of the action, planning "to bag the fox" in the morning.

The delaying action had been successful. If Colonel Hand's troops had failed, the British would have arrived in Trenton with several hours of daylight. Possibly, they could have stormed across the bridge and the narrow stream and trapped Washington's army with the Delaware at their backs.

American witnesses believed that British losses were significant, but the British never released a casualty report. The second battle of Trenton was not an unambiguous victory for the Americans, as the first battle had been, but Washington had met the enemy at the time and place of his choosing, and had come off better than they had.

That night, the American forces retreated undetected. While a rear party kept the camp fires burning and made digging noises, the rest of the American army snuck away, muffling the wheels of their artillery with rags. The weather turned cold, freezing the backwoods road, facilitating the retreat.

The next day was the battle of Princeton. The Continental Army, en route to Princeton, bumped into a smaller British force. During the ensuing battle, Washington charged to the head of his troops. The British volleyed at close range, but Washington was unscathed. He wanted to continue toward Princeton, and possibly the British rear camp at Perth Amboy, but the troops were exhausted, so he turned back to the Delaware and Philadelphia.

The nighttime redeployment had been so stealthy that Doctors Cochran and Rush did not learn about it until Doctor Cochran went into the camp at dawn and found it empty. Doctor Rush was unhappy with the fact that he had not been kept apprised of the army's movement. The physicians quickly loaded their wounded, probably including Private Bottomer, onto wagons. They then evacuated to Bordentown, about five miles downriver from Trenton.

Private Bottomer was probably sent home to recuperate. He probably spent months in the process. He was lucky to survive at all. A large, slow musket ball caused significant tissue damage. In the age before antibiotics, a gut shot usually caused sepsis, which was was often, if not usually, fatal.

Fortunately, he survived. He probably rejoined the regiment in the spring. The next phase of his service is perhaps even more remarkable.


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