German colonel Johann Rall (1726–1776) helped to turn the tide of the American Revolution through perhaps no fault of his own. According to legend, when news came that General George Washington was crossing the Delaware River to attack Rall's Hessian encampment at Trenton, New Jersey, the officer was engrossed in a card game and took no notice of a note warning of approaching colonial forces.
Johann Rall grew up in the service of the Landgraff, or emperor, of Hesse-Kassell, and his position in the Hessian Army led him to North America and into history. As soldiers for hire, or mercenaries, many Hessian men fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War, where they were feared for their fighting skills and reviled for their coarse and foreign ways. Rall commanded the Hessian forces billeting in the city of Trenton early on December 26, 1776, when General George Washington and his Continental Army crossed the icy Delaware River. Surprised by the colonials, the 1,400 Hessians camped in Trenton were defeated in less than an hour. Inspired by Washington's victory, the Continental Army gained much-needed new recruits and the resolve of the newly formed U.S. Congress was strengthened.
By now a captain, the 27-year-old Rall returned to his homeland of Hesse to fight for British interests against the French at the Battle of Bergen in April of 1759. When his commander was killed, he moved up through the ranks and became a major within the year. By the time he and his garrison were hired to support Great Britain in the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War), Rall was a lieutenant colonel, and he was appointed a full colonel in April of 1771. The following January, he was put in command of the 1,400-man Mansbach Infantry Regiment.
After helping Russia's Catherine the Great fight in the Fourth Russo-Turkish War from 1771 to 1772, the Mansbach Infantry Regiment joined the tens of thousands of Hessian soldiers setting sail for North America. In fact, these Germans would provide a quarter of the troops the British Crown deployed in the American colonies to defend its economic interests. Rebellion had been fomenting for months in the colonies, and on July 4, 1776, American colonists declared the United States to be an independent political state. As news of this revolution reached major cities in the American colonies and the Declaration was read, militias were mustered, although the loyalty of many living outside of New England remained to the British. These volunteer militias were composed of young men aged from 16 to 70, and they numbered about 10,000 untrained men at the time.
Rall's regiment was commanded by General Philip Leopold von Heister, and it was among the 5,000 Hessians landing on Long Island, New York, on August 22, 1776. Five days later, these troops reinforced the 15,000 British at the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn Heights). Under the command of British General William Howe, British forces achieved victory against U.S. troops led by Major General John Sullivan. With numerous casualties and with their general captured, the rebel forces fled to Brooklyn Heights, admitting defeat in the largest battle yet fought in this war. As Howe and the British command discussed their options well into the night, General Washington took advantage of an early-morning fog to lead the defeated rebels across the East River and into Manhattan.
Howe pursued General Washington's Continental Army as they retreated north to White Plains, where another battle was fought. Von Heister's Hessians aided in pushing the rebels west into New Jersey and Pennsylvania. With troops already dwindling due to death and battlefield injuries, the Continental Army also lost men as some gave up hope of victory and returned to their homes. Washington, aided by a recently released Sullivan and Major General Nathanael Greene, now found himself leading a colonial infantry comprised of only 2,400 men.
On December 14, three regiments of Hessian soldiers—1,400 men in the Knyphausen, Rall, and Lossberg regiments—arrived in the small town of Trenton, New Jersey, where they planned to billet during the winter of 1776–77. They were soon joined by several Jäger detachments as well as by Colonel Stirling's 42nd Highland Regiment. While the Hessians were led by the aristocratic Major General Carl von Donop, overall command was held by Major General James Grant, aristocratic laird of Ballindalloch Castle. Both generals wintered at Princeton, which was 13 miles away.
According to contemporary reports, Rall's men viewed him as a skilled soldier, but the colonel was also considered to be indecisive and prone to self-indulgence. Although his Mansbach Infantry Regiment had distinguished itself during the Battle of Long Island, Junior Colonel Rall also did not inspire Donop's confidence; after all, the man was brash in his manner, uneducated, and had little interest in learning English. Rall was ultimately given command of Hessian forces in Trenton, but it was only because fellow senior officers Knyphausen and Lossberg were ill. Although Donop was concerned about holding Trenton and requested that Rall's brigade be supplemented by other troops, General Howe denied his request.
In 1776, Trenton was a small settlement with two main streets. When the British arrived, most inhabitants were gone, leaving little behind for use by the occupying troops.
Several merchants remained, however, among them one John Honeyman, a butcher and weaver who was in constant contact with General Washington. In addition to spying on the billeted troops, Honeyman spread the false information that Washington's army was in tatters and no plans were underway to attack Trenton over the winter. Although several of Rall's officers suggested that they build walls and other fortifications, the colonel considered the task as unnecessary.
Rall viewed the threat of attack more seriously several days before Christmas, when rebel patrols were sighted and guards were attacked. When a shipment of much-needed supplies was now waylaid, Rall wrote to Major General Grant regarding his concerns. Perhaps because of the aristocratic Scot's disdain toward the colonials and his lack of regard for the German-speaking Hessians, he denied Rall's request for reinforcements. For his part, Major General Donop not only refused to send British troops to Trenton, but he left the town more vulnerable to attack by ordering Rall to send 100 men to guard a bridge outside town. On Christmas Eve, as a severe snowstorm blanketed Trenton patrols were impossible, the billeted Hessians went to bed fearful of what threat might be mounting nearby.
The Hessians’ fears were well founded: only six miles north of Trenton, generals Washington, Greene, and Sullivan were secretly planning an attack. In the dead of night, using flat-bottomed Durham boats and other conveyances, the newly reinforced Continental Army—each man carrying 60 rounds of shot and three days’ rations—crossed the icy Delaware river at three points: Trenton Ferry, McKonkey's Ferry, and Dunk's Ferry. At 4 a.m. on December 26, men and horses pulling 18 cannon began their march toward Trenton. One column, commanded by Generals Greene and Washington, traveled down the town's west side, while another, led by General Sullivan, moved south along River Road. Although the colonial foot soldiers were hobbled by snow and ice, at dawn they had arrived in a town blanketed by snow.
Meanwhile, in Trenton, Rall was awake when two columns of rebels marched in from the south and west. Soon a barrage of cannon fire could be heard, directed at Trenton from the east side of the Delaware. Although the three Hessian regiments formed ranks and attempted to defend the town, they were targeted by artillery and gunfire coming from multiple directions. The Rall and Lossberg regiments fled to an open field where Rall rallied them with bugles and drums and led the attack back into Trenton, hoping to recapture their cannon. Unable to hold the town, the Rall and Lossberg regiments attempted to retreat into a nearby orchard; meanwhile, the Knyphausen Regiment was surrendering to Sullivan's men. Compounding the Hessians’ problems, perhaps due to the weather or the surprise nature of the attack, was the fact that their guns would often not fire.
It took less than one hour for the Battle of Trenton to play out. While the colonists lost seven men on the field, Hessians losses numbered 22, among them three officers. More importantly, 896 Hessians were captured and 83 were left wounded, among them Rall, who was hit by a musket ball.
According to local history, after surrendering, Rall was taken to the home of Stacy Potts, a prominent Quaker businessman, where he had been living since arriving in Trenton. General Washington and General Greene both visited the German officer, paying their respects in an unfamiliar language and honoring Rall's request that his captured Hessians be decently treated. After his death, Rall's body was interred in the cemetery of Trenton's First Presbyterian Church. Although his exact grave is unknown, history records that he was given an epitaph by one of his men, nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Carl Andreas Kinen. “Hier liegt der Oberst Rall, mit ihm ist alles all,” it reads:
“Here lies Colonel Rall; with him all is over.” News of Washington's victory at the Battle of Trenton quickly spread, coupled with derisive remarks about the much-hated Hessians. One well-known story told about the battle involves Rall, who was noted for his love of playing cards. According to the story, on the night of December 25, the colonel was celebrating Christmas by playing cards at the home of a Trenton businessman. A local man then appeared and handed Rall a folded piece of paper. The man was known to be loyal to the British, and his note warned that Washington's forces were then gathering for an attack. Unfortunately, Rall stuffed the note in his coat pocket without reading it and went back to his card game.
Other stories surrounding the victory at Trenton also reflect poorly on the Hessians by referencing their love of strong drink. As William S. Stryker reported in his book The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, one of Washington's officers wrote in advance of the battle that “They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning.” Contemporary accounts taken shortly after the battle contradict this assumption, however: fearing an impending attack, the Germans scarcely ate or slept during the night of the 25th. To the extent that Rall was responsible for the Continental Army's victory, it was due to his lack of preparation, according to a contemporary account given to General Washington by Hessian lieutenant Andreas Wïderholdt.
For the Continental Army, victory at the Battle of Trenton gained them access to the guns, ammunition, and food that had not been supplied by the cash-poor U.S. Congress. The Hessian captives taken at Trenton now marched under guard to Philadelphia, where they were paraded through streets lined with jeering crowds and then put to work as agricultural laborers. The fact that a citizen army had vanquished such a formidable foe inspired other Americans to join the Continental Army's ranks. Historians cited the Battle of Trenton as pivotal to the survival of the young country, and it was immortalized by artist Emanuel Leutze in his 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Measuring 149 inches tall by 255 inches wide, this portrait now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Atwood, Rodney, The Hessians: Mercenaries from HessenKassel in the American Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Ferling, John, Almost a Miracle, Oxford University Press, 1980.
Fischer, David Hackett, Washington's Crossing, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Ketchum, Richard, The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton, Henry Holt, 1999.
Podmore, Harry J., Trenton, Old and New, Trenton Tercentenary Commission/MacCrelish & Quigley Co., 1964.
Smith, Samuel Stelle Smith, The Battle of Trenton, Philip Freneau Press, 1965.
Stryker, William S., The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, Houghton Mifflin, 1898.
Tucker, Phillip Thomas, George Washington's Surprise Attack: A New Look at the Battle That Decided the Fate of America, Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.
Wiederholdt, Andreas, Diary of Captain Wiederholdt: Defeat and Captivity at Trenton/Tagebuch des Capt. Wïderholdt vom 1776–1780, edited by M.D. Learned and C. Grosse, MacMillan Co., 1862, reprinted, 1984.❑