At Williamsburg, the company’s core of about 70 men had been boosted to 140 by the addition of stragglers who had missed the 8th Virginia Regiment’s rendezvous. The company, attached to the 1st Virginia for the year, was at the very center of the action at Trenton, lined up only a few yards from the commander in chief.
The marches to and from Trenton were much harder on the men than the battle itself. By the time Washington crossed the Delaware again for another go at the enemy, only a fraction of the men were able to go with him. A mere 20 men from the 1st Virginia were healthy enough to join. Of them, only five can be shown from pension records to have been from Croghan’s detachment from the 8th Virginia —one twenty-third of the original 140. The rest were dead, had deserted, or were sick in camp on the other side of the river.
Even Croghan seems to have been absent, leaving Lieutenant Abraham Kirkpatrick in command. Kirkpatrick was a tough, mean, and belligerent man, but also an effective soldier. With him were privates Henry Brock, Harmon Commins, Jonathan Grant, David Williams, and perhaps others who left no record of their presence. All three of the 1st Virginia's field officers were wounded or sick, leaving command to Captain John Fleming.
These men, together with the remnants of three other Continental regiments and 200 Pennsylvania state (not Continental) riflemen, were Washington’s advance force, under Brigadier General Hugh Mercer’s command. Fleming’s men went first as they clambering over the icy banks of a ravine and proceeded through an orchard. On the other side of the trees they found fifty dismounted British dragoons lying prone behind a split-rail fence. The dragoons rose and fired a volley. As often happened, this first volley went over their heads—splitting the branches of the fruit trees above them. The dragoons retreated about 40 feet to reload as they were reinforced by a British infantry regiment.
Ordering his men to form up before firing, Captain Fleming shouted, “Gentlemen, dress the line before you make ready!” Within easy earshot, the British taunted back, “We will dress you!”
With the rest of Mercer’s men coming as fast as they could, Fleming’s men advanced to the fence and fired at the British. “[T]he enemy screamed as if many devils had got hold of them,” recalled one soldier. After two or three minutes of firing, the British advanced with their bayonets. Most of Mercer’s men carried rifles, which lacked bayonets and took longer than muskets to reload. This was precisely the kind of engagement they had been trained to avoid.
The British bayonet charge was brutal. Mercer’s desperate voice was soon heard shouting, “Retreat!” just as his his horse was shot out from under him. He was mercilessly beaten and stabbed to death by the enemy, some of whom may have thought he was George Washington.
Captain Fleming was killed. His lieutenant, Bartholomew Yeates, was sadistically shot, stabbed, beaten and left to die. Lieutenant Abraham Kirkpatrick was wounded too, but also fortunate enough to be carried off the field by Private Grant. The British captured a cannon, turned it around, and fired it as the Americans ran. Colonel John Haslet of Delaware, attempting to rally the men behind a farm building, was shot through the head and “dropt dead on the spot.” A unit of Philadelphia Associators (militia) arrived to help, but were also quickly forced to retreat.
With the Revolution itself hanging in the balance, George Washington brought more reinforcements and daringly risked his own life rallying the troops. “At this moment Washington appeared in front of the American army,” recalled a Pennsylvania state rifleman, “riding toward those of us who were retreating, and exclaimed ‘Parade with us, my brave fellows, there is but a handful of the enemy, and [we] will have them directly.’” The American soldiers were moved, physically and emotionally. “I shall never forget what I felt at Princeton on his account,” wrote one of the Philadelphia Associators, “when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.”
In the battle that followed, Washington and his men were victorious. After the devastating losses of 1776, Washington had learned to win smaller battles fought on his own terms and to avoid major set-piece battles like those he had lost in New York. Most importantly, his countrymen believed again that they could win.
The death of Hugh Mercer, a former commandant of Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War, was widely mourned. Today, eight states have counties named for him and there are countless towns, streets, and schools named in his honor. Unfortunately, the central importance of the battle in which he, Colonel Haslet, Captain Fleming, and Lieutenant Yeates gave their lives is lost on too many people today--including the people who own the ground on which they fought.