David Hackett Fischer tells a great story in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Washington’s Crossing, of a “mysterious widow” who may have played a crucial role in the victory that George Washington and his troops won at Trenton, New Jersey, on the day after Christmas in 1776.
During the fall of 1776, Washington and his army had been chased out of New York, down through New Jersey, and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania by the might British Army. The leading edge of that army was a contingent of Hessian (German) troops who had been hired by King George III to help subdue the rebellious colonies. The Hessians were fierce and fearful fighters, but as they drove deeper into New Jersey, they found that the local militias were less than awestruck by their presence or reputation.
The Hessians were constantly exposed and under attack by men (and sometimes women) who were defending their homes and livelihoods.
They settled in southern New Jersey at Trenton and along the Delaware River, awaiting their chance to cross over to Pennsylvania, destroy what was left of Washington’s forces and take Philadelphia.
Because Trenton could not contain the entire force, they spread themselves out along other river towns to the south. The nearest one south of Trenton was Bordentown, about six miles away. About 12 miles further down the road was Mount Holly.
Because it was 18 miles from Trenton, more than a day’s march, Mount Holly was not a good place for a large part of the Hessian force to stay. Neither contingent of Hessians would be able to support the other if there was a major attack by the Americans.
But the overall commander of the Hessian forces was Colonel Carl Von Donrop, and having come to Mount Holly, he decided to stay and to keep most of his troops with him. Why? Because of an “exceedingly beautiful young widow,” according to his contemporaries. A fellow officer serving with the colonel later wrote:
The colonel, who was exceedingly devoted to the fair sex, had found in his quarters the exceedingly beautiful you widow of a doctor. He wanted to set up his rest quarters in Mount Holly, which to the misfortune of Colonel Rall (the commander at Trenton), he was permitted to do.
Donrop stayed the night on December 23, then another night, and then through Christmas. Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night and attacked the troops at Trenton early the next morning. Donrop was not close enough to offer support. That lack of support undoubtedly aided Washington and his troops in overcoming the Hessians.
Historians have not been successful in identifying the young woman.
Some speculation has centered on Betsy Ross. She had family in the area, and her husband John Ross had died earlier that year. She certainly knew George Washington, and had she been in the area, she would have been aware of the military situation. But there is no direct evidence linking her to this incident, so our mysterious widow must remain a mystery.
David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, Oxford University Press, USA; First Edition edition (February 1, 2006), pp. 199-200.