The year 2026 marks the 250th anniversary of the first American crisis.

America's First Crisis

General George Washington and the Continental Army spent almost half the American Revolution in this small state. From 1775 to 1783, New Jersey was home to a series of decisive events in the war for independence. Strategically located between the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and the British Army in New York, and midway between the New England colonies and the American South, New Jersey was the spot where Patriots, Tories, British and Hessians maneuvered; where Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth witnessed dramatic American victories; and where the Continental Army endured the hardest winter of the century. It was at Nassau Hall at Princeton University that the Continental Congress convened in 1783. And it was in New Jersey that General George Washington delivered his farewell orders to the Continental Army.

House of Decision. The Thompson House sits just upriver from McConkey's Tavern, where George Washington and several officers ate Christmas dinner before embarking on the historic Delaware River crossing in 1776. The Thompson House served as a hospital ward for wounded soldiers, and was the scene of several war councils, including the one at which Washington decided to make the bold attempt to capture the Hessians at Trenton. The painting is the first in a series by Dan Campanelli that follows the footsteps of George Washington and the pathways of the American Revolution.

Having declared their great ambition in July of 1776, a rough assemblage, representing 13 colonies without previous history of great cooperation, faced the most powerful military force in the world. Most historians agree that, had the British army and navy vented full wrath in the war's early stages, the founding fathers might well be remembered only as a band of renegades hunted down and hung for treason.

Indeed, even as the esteemed signatures graced the Declaration, British ships arrived in New York Bay during the week of July 4, and, by mid-August, 32,000 British troops resided on Staten Island. 15,000 more soldiers landed near the narrows on Long Island and forced Washington's army of 9,500 men to escape under cover of night. After a victory at Harlem Heights, Washington was forced to withdraw at the Battle of White Plains in late October. The fall of Fort Lee in November began Washington's retreat across New Jersey, through Newark, New Brunswick, Trenton, and finally across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on December 8, 1776.

Seventeen days later, on Christmas night, 2,400 men accompanied the great General back across an ice-choked river, marched nine miles, and achieved surprise against a garrison of Hessian troops at Trenton during the desperate counter attack. The victorious army returned to Pennsylvania until December 30 when they crossed again.

General Washington was astride his horse, surrounded by his senior officers, holding a council of war at Kingston, New Jersey, a few miles east of Princeton on the afternoon of January 3, 1777. His army had decisively defeated two British contingents at Princeton earlier in the day. The afternoon before, he had repulsed an attack by Lord Cornwallis at the so-called Second Battle of Trenton, where the American troops were encamped on the south bank of the Assinpunk Creek. Cornwallis had planned to renew his attack the next day, allegedly stating 'we'll bag the old fox in the morning.' But Washington pulled his troops out at midnight, making a secret march up to Princeton.

Now, Washington had to decide where to take his army next. It was tempting to proceed on to New Brunswick and attack a relatively small contingent of British soldiers stationed there. They were guarding their prize captive, General Charles Lee, ammunition, and £70,000 in specie (a commodity in short supply in the Revolutionary Army). One can't help imagining, however, that Washington pulled out his watch and calculated that his troops needed a rest, having fought two battles and without sleep and provisions for nearly 36 hours. He also knew that an outwitted and revengeful Cornwallis was on his way up from Trenton in hot pursuit. Contemplating his three recent successes, which included the overwhelming defeat of the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, we can imagine Washington saying to himself in the vernacular, 'I rolled the dice thrice and won; I think I'll quit while I'm ahead.' The decision was thus made to end the campaign, and head immediately for a winter encampment at Morristown, a strategic and naturally protected location.

Late that afternoon, the Americans marched to Somerset Courthouse (today's Millstone) and camped. The next day they proceeded to Pluckemin where the troops rested the nights of January 4 and 5. On Monday, January 6, Washington and his troops marched triumphantly into Morristown, where the General took up his headquarters at Jacob Arnold's Tavern overlooking the Green. Washington's 'first coming' to Morristown lasted until early May of that year."

Washington's army had yet to endure the legendary adversity the following winter at Valley Forge, and again at Morristown two years later in 1779-80, when the Jockey Hollow encampment made Morristown the third largest city in the Colonies. During this second winter at Morristown, General Washington lived and made his headquarters in a relatively new two-story house on the outskirts of town built by Jacob Ford, Jr. The struggles at Jockey Hollow to keep the Continental Army intact, as crucial for American independence as any other, were waged more in hearts and minds than on the battlefield. But it was, by then, an army and a General well-steeled by the first American crisis in 1776-77.

Article prepared with contributions from Richard Simon, Washington Association of New Jersey

New Jersey Events during the Revolutionary War


May 10: 2nd Continental Congress opens in Philadelphia

June 19: Royal Governor Franklin arrested at Proprietary House, Perth Amboy

June 21: NJ Provincial Congress at Burlington votes 53-3 to break ties with Great Britain, Burlington

July 4: Continental Congress approves Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia

July 1: Washington's troops construct Fort Lee in New Jersey and Fort Washington in New York

November 16: Fort Washington falls to the British, and Washington evacuates Fort Lee

November 20: Washington leads 2,000 troops from Fort Lee across Hackensack River to New Bridge Landing & Steuben House

November 23 - December 3: Washington continues retreat passing through Princeton on way to Delaware River

December 7 - 8: Washington and troops cross Delaware River. British and Hessians reach Princeton and Trenton

December 13: General Lee is captured by British in Basking Ridge

December 25: The night of December 25, Washington and 2,400 troops cross Delaware River landing at Johnson's Ferry Washington Crossing State Park

December 26: Predawn - American army marches to Trenton, surprising Hessians in attack at the Old Barracks, Trenton


January 1: Lord Cornwallis takes command of the British Army in Princeton

January 2: Battle of Trenton with heavy fighting along Assunpink, Trenton

January 3: Battle of Princeton - Washington strikes the British rear at Princeton, Americans defeat small British force

January 6 - May 28: Washington's troops spend winter at Morristown

September 26: British take Philadelphia

September to October: Washington builds up defenses at Red Bank on lower Delaware River

October 22: Americans defeat attacking Hessian troops, then abandon Fort Mercer

November 15: British take Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania

December -May: Washington and 12,000 troops survive bitter winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania


March 21: Britsh and Loyalist troops raid Hancock's Bridge, American troops die at Hancock House massacre

June 28: Critical American victory at Battle of Monmouth

December 11: Washington sets up headquarters in Wallace House , troops spend winter in Watchung Mountains in Middlebrook


August 19: Major Henry Lee attacks the British fort at Paulus Hook (Jersey City)

October 28: British Major John Simcoe leads raid through Elizabethtown to Bound Brook and Somerset Courthouse, Millstone

December 1: Washington moves army into winter quarters at Morristown for the most severe winter of the century.


June 7 - 23: Battle of Springfield; Invasion of Elizabethtown and Springfield

July 1 - 8: Washington establishes headquarters at Dey Mansion, Wayne


June 30: Congress abandons Independence Hall in Philadelphia and reconvenes at Nassau Hall in Princeton

August 23: George and Martha Washington arrive at Rockingham

September 3: America and Britain sign Peace Treaty in Paris, France

November 2: Washington writes Farewell Address at Rockingham

This story was first published: Spring, 2001