On Washington’s Trail: A Road Trip for the History Buff

Tour the sites where the Continental Army turned the tide of the American Revolution.

The Friends of Washington Crossing Historic Park of Pennsylvania reenact George Washington’s famed crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776
The Friends of Washington Crossing Historic Park of Pennsylvania reenact George Washington’s famed crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776. They are seen arriving on the New Jersey side, just south of Lambertville. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Chipowsky

George Washington was in a fix. The British had chased Washington and his ragged Continental Army off Manhattan Island and across the Hudson River to what is now Fort Lee. Enlistments were ending, and there was little money to feed and clothe what remained of Washington’s fighting force.

Washington needed a victory, and he needed it fast. For that, he looked to New Jersey.

On the night of Christmas Day, 1776, Washington, who had retreated all the way to Pennsylvania, led his troops on their fateful crossing of the Delaware River, landing on the Jersey side just south of Lambertville. What followed were what historians call the Ten Crucial Days. Without Washington’s surprising series of successful engagements with the British and their Hessian mercenaries during those 10 days, we might all still be English subjects.

Artist John Cameron’s 1876 painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Painting: Library of Congress/John Cameron

Artist John Cameron’s 1876 painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Painting: Library of Congress/John Cameron

Washington’s men traveled mostly on foot—some with feet wrapped in rags—for those 10 frigid days. Today, you can tour the key locations on their trek in the comfort of your family car in less than a day, including stops at three museums, two impressive monuments and several battle sites. You can use this story as your guide or join a tour.

Our journey starts at Washington Crossing State Park (along Route 29 in Titusville). From the parking lot alongside the Delaware, you can sense the heroic effort required for Washington to float 2,400 troops across the rushing waters in the dead of night. Now, factor in the ice floes that pocked the river that Christmas and the brutal nor’easter that roiled the waters, driving rain, sleet and snow into the faces of the ill-clad soldiers. (The same night, two other planned crossings of 3,000 additional troops farther down the river failed.)

New Jersey Road Trips for the Animal Lover
Retro Road Trips to Take Through New Jersey
New Jersey’s Top Pizza Tours
Why You Must Wine and Dine in Hammonton

After viewing the riverfront, drive up the hill to the visitor center museum (open daily, 9-11:30 am and 12:30-4 pm; admission free; 609-737-0623). The museum has two rooms of period artifacts, including an original letter from Washington to Colonel Richard Humpton directing him to gather the sturdy Durham boats the army needed for the crossing. You can also watch a 27-minute film on the Ten Crucial Days (admission $1). If you care to linger, visit the 18th-century Johnson Ferry House (open Wednesday-Sunday) or stretch your legs on one of the park’s many walking trails.

From the state park, we head east on Washington Crossing-Pennington Road and south on Bear Tavern Road (Route 579), following Washington’s actual march toward Trenton, 9.5 miles away. (Watch for the Victory Trail signs.) For Washington’s men, this was a brutal slog along a rocky, rutted, icy trail. The troops struggled with ropes to haul heavy artillery pieces up and down the steep ravines.

Turn left at Upper Ferry Road onto Route 634 (watch for the Dunkin’ Donuts). This is the very intersection where Washington divided his army for a two-pronged attack on the force of about 1,500 Hessians (paid soldiers from Germany) encamped in Trenton. According to local historian and volunteer tour guide Roger Williams (our guide for this day), it was here, just before sunrise, that Washington told his generals, “Synchronize your watches.” His goal: to ensure that the two divisions reached the initial Hessian outposts at the same time.

May 2024 cover of New Jersey Monthly magazine

Buy our May 2024 issue here. Cover illustration: Mary Kate McDevitt

Follow Route 634 (Parkway Avenue) all the way to Route 31 (Pennington Avenue). Turn right (there’s yet another Dunkin’ Donuts) and you’ll reach the Trenton Battle Monument, which towers above the busy confluence of five main streets. There’s no dedicated parking here, but you can park a few blocks away at the Greater Mount Zion AMA Church (42 Pennington Avenue) or pull into the gravel lot on your left as you reach the monument.

When it opened in 1893, visitors could enter the base of the 150-foot-tall monument—constructed at a cost of $60,000—and ride to the top in the world’s first Otis elevator. These days, the interior is closed, so the best visitors can do is gaze up at the monument and imagine the scene that unfolded at this spot in 1776.

That’s Washington in bronze signaling the attack atop the fluted column, but he wasn’t the only historically significant figure on the scene. Picture, to your left, a battery commanded by Alexander Hamilton firing on the Hessian positions along King Street (now Warren Street). Several hundred feet down King Street, a young lieutenant (and future president) named James Monroe led his third Virginia Regiment against the Hessians. In a moment that could have changed history, Monroe suffered a near-fatal neck wound in close combat with the enemy.

Much as Washington envisioned, the Continentals engaged the Hessians from multiple directions that morning of  December 26, 1776—a mere 4.5 hours after crossing the Delaware. The street fighting was chaotic. Outmanned by about 2-to-1, the surprised Hessians fell back. Washington’s army captured 900 prisoners and, satisfied that they had won the day, slipped back across the river to regroup.

For your next stop, head down Warren Street to West Front Street for a visit to one of NJM’s favorite museums, Old Barracks Museum (101 Barrack Street; open 10 am-5 pm, Wednesday-Saturday; adults, $10; students and seniors, $8; children under 5 and active military, free; 609-396-1776).

Built in 1758 to shelter British soldiers during the French and Indian War, the Old Barracks housed British and Hessian troops at the time Washington captured Trenton. Having taken Trenton, the Continentals used the barracks as a prison and, later, as a military hospital. Today, the Old Barracks serves as a museum of Colonial times, with a collection of around 2,000 objects.

From the museum, head about three blocks south to Mill Hill Park (at the corner of East Front and South Broad streets), which commemorates the Battle of Assunpink Creek (aka the Second Battle of Trenton). It was here, on January 2, 1777, that Washington’s troops held off three assaults by a larger British and Hessian force, which had just marched from Princeton. These were fresh troops under the command of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, who was bent on reclaiming Trenton for the Crown.

Washington had stationed his troops on the high ground south of the creek. Today, you can stand astride the creek on Mill Hill Park’s black-iron footbridge and visualize Washington’s forces on the neighboring hillside, repelling the British and Hessians as they repeatedly attempted to cross the nearby Queen Street Bridge (now the Broad Street Bridge).

At the far end of the park stands the yellow clapboard Alexander Douglas House, where Washington held a council of war with his regimental commanders to determine his next move. (At the time of the battle, the house was on the south side of the creek, where Washington’s troops held sway.)

Rather than engage the enemy again the next day, Washington, content with his pair of morale-boosting triumphs at Trenton, slipped away in the night, leading his army to Princeton on today’s Quaker Bridge Road. To confound Cornwallis, Washington left behind a small detachment to lob shells across the river and keep fires burning, as if the full army were encamped for the night. By morning, as the British prepared to attack, all of Washington’s troops were gone.

On today’s Quaker Bridge Road, 12 small, granite obelisks (placed in 1914 by the Sons of the Revolution) represent Washington’s 12-mile march to Princeton. You can follow that road, or take the more direct Route 1 north to the Province Line Road exit onto Route 533 north. Cross the bridge over the Delaware & Raritan Canal and turn right. Just ahead, you can spot obelisk number 11 at the edge of a broad field. Your next stop is the Princeton Battlefield (500 Mercer Road).

A reenactment at Princeton Battlefield State Park.

A reenactment at Princeton Battlefield State Park. Photo: Al Pochek

Approaching Princeton, Washington and his army of about 6,000 men finally had the advantage of a larger force. Cornwallis had taken most of his troops to Trenton, leaving behind only about 1,200 soldiers to defend Princeton. Again, Washington divided his forces for a multipronged attack.

Things did not go as planned. Early on January 3, as Washington’s force marched toward Princeton, a small brigade led by Brigadier General Hugh Mercer (namesake of Mercer County) encountered a British column. The Battle of Princeton was on.

Before touring the battlefield, drive up the adjacent road to the Thomas Clarke House, the only remaining structure from the era. Inside the white clapboard farmhouse museum, two rooms display artifacts of Colonial times (open 10 am-4 pm, Wednesday-Saturday; 1-4 pm Sunday; admission and battlefield tours free; 609-921-0074).

The battle actually broke out down the hill. The opposing forces faced off less than 50 yards apart. As musket balls whizzed through the air, the British fixed bayonets and charged. As the fighting intensified, Mercer’s horse was shot out from under him. The general drew his sword, but fell to multiple bayonet wounds.

The fight was raging when Washington arrived at the scene, ordering his troops to attack the British left flank. As the battlefield filled with blinding smoke, the seemingly invincible Washington, tall in the saddle, rode between the lines and rallied the Americans, famously calling out, “Parade with me, my brave fellows.”

It was an iconic, death-defying moment, which, says battlefield interpreter Will Krakower, “catapulted George Washington to mythical status.” Indeed, it was the turning point of the battle. The Americans counterattacked and overwhelmed the British, capturing more than 250 enemy soldiers. Washington’s army proceeded into Princeton, where the last of the British troops had barricaded themselves in Nassau Hall. An American artillery barrage forced their surrender.

The Battle of Princeton lasted less than two hours, but turned the tide of the war. After the battle, Washington led his tired army to Morristown, where it would encamp for the rest of the winter.

After touring the battlefield, you can continue into downtown Princeton and stroll among the town’s numerous Revolutionan-era sites, including Nassau Hall (on the university campus); Morven Museum & Garden (home to Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence); the 50-foot-tall Princeton Battle Monument (which depicts Washington on horseback and the death of Mercer); and the Princeton Cemetery (final resting place for many key figures from the Colonial era).

The Battle of Princeton marked the climactic end of the Ten Crucial Days. At the start of that span, Washington’s army had been on the run. His earlier force of 20,000 men had been reduced to fewer than 8,000. What’s more, he was losing the support of the citizenry and the Continental Congress. But the swift succession of victories at Trenton and Princeton were game-changers. Enlistments rose, Congress changed its tune, and the British never fully occupied New Jersey again. Overseas, the French responded to the good news by opening discussions on an alliance with the Americans that proved indispensable.

The war dragged on for six more years, but few battles were as pivotal as those frigid engagements in central New Jersey. “If we lose, that’s it,” says Krakower. “If we win, the sky’s the limit. And we win.”

Ken Schlager is the former editor of New Jersey Monthly and a frequent contributor.

No one knows New Jersey like we do. Sign up for one of our free newsletters here. Want a print magazine mailed to you? Purchase an issue from our online store.

Read more History, Shore & Travel, Things to Do articles.