It had taken Cornwallis a whole week to drive Washington from Brunswick to Trenton; Washington had now made Cornwallis retrace his steps inside of twenty-four hours. In the retreat through the Jerseys there had been neither strategy nor tactics; nothing but a retreat, pure and simple.
In the advance, strategy and tactics had placed the inferior force in the attitude menacing the superior, had saved Philadelphia, and were now in a fair way to recover the Jerseys without the expenditure even of another charge of powder.
While Washington was looking for a vantage ground from which to hold what had been gained, everything on the British line was going to the rear in confusion. Orders and counter orders were being given with a rapidity that invariably accompanies the first moments of a panic, and which tend rather to increase than diminish its effects.
What was passing at Brunswick has fortunately found a record in the diary of a British officer posted there when the news of Washington's coming fell like a bombshell in their camp. It is given word for word:
On the 3d we had repeated accounts that Washington had not only taken Princeton but was in full march upon Brunswick. General Matthew (commanding at Brunswick) now determined to return to the Raritan landing-place, with everything valuable, to prevent the rebels from destroying the bridge there. We accordingly marched back to the bridge, one-half on one side, the remainder on the other, for its defense, never taking off our accouterments that night.
On the 3d, Lord Cornwallis, hearing the fate of Princeton, returned to it with his whole force but found the rebels had abandoned it, upon which he immediately marched back to Brunswick, arriving at break of day on the 4th. I then received orders to return to Sparkstown (Rahway?). Washington marched his army to Morristown and Springfield. At about the time I arrived at Sparkstown, a report was spread that the rebels had some designs upon Elizabethtown and Sparkstown. The whole regiment was jaded to death. Unpleasant this! Before day notice was brought to me by a patrol that he had heard some firing towards Elizabethtown, about seven miles off. I immediately jumped out of bed and directed my drums to beat to arms, as nothing else would have roused my men, they were so tired. Soon after this, an express brought me positive orders to march immediately to Perth Amboy, with all my baggage. At between six and seven the rebels fired at some of my men that were quartered at two miles distance. I had before appointed a subaltern's guard for the protection of my baggage. This duty unluckily fell upon the lieutenant of my company, which left it without an officer, the ensign being sick at New York. I immediately directed my lieutenant, who was a volunteer on this occasion, to march with his guard, that was then formed, to the spot where the firing was, while I made all the haste I could to follow him with the battalion.
The lieutenant came up with them and fired upwards of twelve rounds, when, the rebels perceiving the battalion on the march, ran off as fast as they could. Had I pursued them I should perhaps have given a good account of them.
The company baggage wagon was, however, carried off by the Americans, driver and all. The garrison got to Perth Amboy that night. Elizabethtown was evacuated at the same time. The narrative goes on to say:
The only posts we now possess in the Jerseys are Paulus Hook, Perth Amboy, Raritan Landing, and Brunswick. Happy had it been if at first we had fixed on no other posts in this province... Washington's success in this affair of the surprise of the Hessians has been the cause of this unhappy change in our affairs. It has recruited the rebel army and given them sufficient spirit to undertake a winter campaign. Our misfortune has been that we have held the enemy too cheap. We must remove the seat of war from the Jerseys now on account of the scarcity of forage and provisions.
The writer shows the wholesome impressions his friends were under in this closing remark: "The whole garrison is every morning under arms at five o'clock to be ready for the scoundrels."
In New York, great pains were taken to prevent the truth about the victories at Trenton and Princeton from getting abroad. False accounts of them were printed in the newspapers, over which strict military censorship was established; but in spite of every precaution enough leaked out through secret channels to put new life and hope in the hearts and minds of the long-suffering prisoners of war.
It was one of the misfortunes of this most extraordinary campaign that every blow Washington had struck left his army exhausted. After each success, it was necessary to recuperate. It was now being reorganized in the shelter of its mountain fastness, strengthened by a simultaneous uprising of the people, who now took the redress of their wrongs into their own hands. No foraging party could show itself without being attacked; no supplies be had except at the point of the sword. A host of the exasperated yeomanry constantly hovered around the enemy's advanced posts, which a feeling of pride alone induced him to hold. Putnam was ordered up to Princeton, Heath to King's Bridge so that Howe was kept looking all ways at once. Redoubts were thrown up at New Brunswick, leading Wayne to remark that the Americans had now thrown away the spade and the British taken it up. Looking back over the weary months of disaster the change on the face of affairs seems almost too great for belief. From the British point of view, the campaign had ended in utter failure and disgrace. In England, Edward Gibbon says that the Americans had almost lost the name of rebels, and in America, Sir William Howe found that he had to contend with a man in every way his superior.