How Sobriety Lost the Battle: Beer and the Battle of Trenton

April 7, 2015

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The American military has a long-standing tradition of social drinking. From the infamous grog bowl to the Officer’s Club, American fighting spirit is derived in part from spirits of another kind. This tradition is hardly new. America’s fighting forces owe much to patriotic brewers, distillers, and vintners. This tradition dates back to before the birth of the nation.

In December of 1776, the Continental Army was in dire straits. The more professional and well-equipped British Army had ceaselessly battered the Americans, and the battles at Long Island and Fort Washington inflicted brutal losses on the Americans. Desertions were common, and even General Washington privately admitted in his letters that “the game is near up.”

The Continental Army’s greatest problem however, was morale. The sons of farmers and tradesmen felt quite useless against the well-trained British Regulars, but what truly terrified the Americans were the mercenary Hessians. The Hessians were German soldiers, leased by the British from the Germanic state of Hesse. The 1770s were the pre-industrial apex of German military power, and German fighters, especially the Hessians, were renowned across Europe for their fighting prowess.

Beating the Hessians seemed about as likely as the Taliban out-gunning an A-10, but General Washington knew that a victory over the Germans, even a strategically insignificant one, would bolster American morale. More importantly, victory would prove the effectiveness of the Continentals to the American public and their French financiers, who were staying on the sidelines until the Americans demonstrated a real shot at victory.

To beat the Germans, Washington needed an equalizer; a way to level the playing field with the Hessians. The answer came in the form of American brew.

American alcohol production in the 1770s was a booming business. At the time, microbiology wasn’t well understood, so Europeans and colonists alike subscribed to the belief that water caused illness, and that beer was thus a healthy alternative (the brewing process did actually sanitize beer, while most water sources remained contaminated). Beer was widely available in any colonial town, and the tavern was a fixture of life in colonial America.

The beer produced in early America differed significantly from the traditional beer of Europe. Colonial America did not have easy access to many European beer ingredients, such as hops and barley. This forced colonists to get creative with their recipes. Fermentable sugars came from pumpkins, molasses, or persimmons. Spruce shoots were an easy substitute for hops. Beer was often brewed in the home.

As the economy and infrastructure of the colonies improved, trade increased up and down the East Coast. The establishment of taverns in turn facilitated the growth of commerce. Taverns not only provided a safe area for travelers to stop, rest, and grab a beer; they were also a valuable public space. The tavern was a commercial center, where farmers and merchants could buy and sell goods. In some regions, a barrel of ale was even considered a medium of exchange. The tavern also functioned as a judicial center, since the legal system of the day depended on travelling jurists. Often, these jurists would hold court where they were staying — the tavern. By the time of the Revolutionary War, it was almost a given that any town of significance would have a tavern, and an ample stock of beer.

In the winter of 1776, as Washington and his staff began to plan their next move, they realized a rare opportunity had presented itself. German Christmas celebrations traditionally include copious amounts of beer, and to the 1500-man garrison at Trenton, New Jersey the Christmas of 1776 was likely no exception. Since any mid-sized colonial town had plenty of beer available, Washington’s staff hypothesized that on Christmas night the garrison would be unready for combat, thanks to the ready availability of American beer, and the German propensity for drinking it. An unnamed officer on Washington’s staff is reported to have said,

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.

Confident they could overwhelm the thoroughly buzzed Hessians, Washington and his staff planned one of the most daring operations of the entire Revolutionary War. The Continental Army would stage on the Pennsylvania bank of the Delaware River on Christmas Day. Once night fell, the army would ferry across the river, march nine miles to Trenton, and ultimately conduct a pre-dawn assault on the town.

The operation was beleaguered from the outset. The crossing proved difficult, and the operation ran almost three hours behind schedule. The weather was also uncooperative. Rain soaked the troops and muddied the roads. The army crossed the river, but the falling temperatures turned the rain to sleet and then snow. Many Continental soldiers did not even have proper shoes and their frostbitten feet began to bleed onto the snow. Two soldiers would die of exposure on the six-hour march.

Washington knew he was already fully committed, and despite the setbacks, pressed on. Finally, at 0900 the army arrived at Trenton. The first engagement was with a small picket, whose lieutenant spied the approaching army as he emerged from a copper shop. Washington realized the enemy was not in battle order. Despite all the delays, errors and miscalculations, he had still caught the Hessians completely flat footed.

The few Hessians on duty scrambled through a fighting retreat. Meanwhile, Washington ordered the potential escape routes cut off, and cannon to seize the hilltop at the edge of town. The Hessians attempted to form in battle order, but were quickly cut down by American cannon, which had a clear field of fire from the high ground. Hessian artillerymen found the Americans had seized the German cannon as well, and by the time they were retaken, the Americans had rendered them inoperable. Before long, the Hessians were in a fighting retreat, under harassing fire from the Americans. The Hessian commander was mortally wounded, rendering the Hessians leaderless. Cornered in an orchard outside of town, the Germans surrendered to the ragtag Americans.

In the final accounting, The Americans suffered no KIA and only a handful of wounded. The Germans suffered around 100 killed and 200 wounded. Nearly 1000 Hessians were captured. The biggest surprise, however, came as the Continentals took stock of their captives.

Every one of them was completely sober.

The ragtag Americans had beaten the Hessians, some of the finest soldiers in the world, using surprise, mobility, and firepower at the decisive point. The rumored German propensity for beer never played a role in the fighting at all.

It’s a commonly accepted trope that alcohol increases one’s confidence. Usually, it’s the drinker’s confidence that is unduly increased, but in the Battle of Trenton, the opposite proved true. Washington’s confidence in the appeal of American beer gave him the impetus to launch his assault on Trenton. The battle had powerful repercussions for the momentum of the war, and restored the confidence of the Continental army.

If you’re looking to commemorate the Battle of Trenton, look no further than the Stone Fence, a staple of any tavern in colonial America, and rumored to have been a favorite of Ethan Allen:

2oz Dark Rum

Hard Cider

Directions: Pour the rum into a pint glass, add 1 or 2 ice cubes, and fill with hard cider. Garnish with lemon twist, and enjoy!


Paul Lewandowski is a gin aficionado and MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Bologna, Italy campus. He previously served in the U.S. Army and deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.


Photo credit: Marion Doss

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15 thoughts on “How Sobriety Lost the Battle: Beer and the Battle of Trenton

  1. As a docent guide at Washington’s Crossing, tour guide to the 10 Crucial Days Campaign, and a member of the board of the Princeton Battlefield Society, I appreciate Paul’s piece for helping to set the record straight. The Hessians were on alert. They knew the Continentals were up to something. They were dressed and at the ready, with their weapons at their side. It was actually Col. Stephen’s action earlier that morning, and the constant harassment by the local militia over the prior two weeks, that caused Rall’s nonchalance to the engagement at the copper shop was anything more that a skirmish thereby giving the Continentals time to set up their artillery batteries that rainy morning. However, Paul seems to suggest that thinking the Hessians would be snookered was Washington’s sole reasoning for launching the attack. It was perhaps wishful thinking on the part of the “unnamed officer” who was perhaps met with agreement from the other delusional officers on staff who had hoped that the Lutheran lads might be recovering from celebration, but there were other sound military reasons why Washington and his council agreed they had a fighting chance in Trenton. It was a testament to Washington, and his officers – men like Knox, Glover, Stark, Sullivan and St. Clair, to name a few, and their regiments’ faith in the cause, and desperate self preservation, that Trenton was were the tide turned. For that we should all raise our pints! Huzzah!

    1. Washington was desperate for a victory, and wasn’t going to be deterred easily. The plan was to have forces cross the river a 3 separate points, and a diversionary attack made at Bordentown, but only the main army, under Washington’s direct command, made it across – high water and numerous floating ice cakes rendered the crossing extremely hazardous.

      Rall had always been dismissive of the threat of attack by the colonials. He had disdained to construct the defensive works his officers recommended, believing his men could easily defeat the Continentals in the open field. Between his low estimate of the capabilities of the Continental Army, and the apparently uncrossable condition of the Delaware River, it’s not surprising that the Hessians at Trenton were unprepared.

  2. If you taste German beer versus American beer, you’ll soon see why the Americans stayed sober. Fortunately they seem to be improving at craft beer level, even though it hasn’t reached the big boys yet.

    By the way Germany didn’t exist at the time – that didn’t happen until 1870.

    1. I figure American beer was a result of the Boston Tea Party(led by Samuel Adams, hmm), left out of history books. Brewing, rather than importing, would’ve been one more step toward independence. And, there was probably little difference in quality at that time, as there were likely many who still remembered the recipe. Unfortunately, the big boys have had less than a century to recover from another war known as Prohibition, which never happened in Germany.

      1. Up until the war, cider and rum was the main drink as barley, wheat or rye wasn’t readily grown in New England. During the war the Virginians started brewing and distilling to replace them.

    2. While Germany as a single sovereign state did not yet exist, “Germany” as a collection of independent states with a fairly common culture and language had already been recognized for centuries. Sort of how “Arabs” and “Arabia” referred (and in the case of Arabs, still does) to a region with a common people, despite how it was broken up politically.

    1. it’s always a pleasure to contribute – although just a negligible detail – to a well-written post. The dark history of the boys of Hessian peasants sold by their noble sovereign to the English army – among other armies – is not forgotten here in Germany.Interestingly enough, for many lower-class Germans in the late 18th century the experiences of these mercenaries made their emigration to the United States attractive…

  3. “…Germanic state of Hesse”
    This state still exists as one of the states (“Bundesland”) of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. They don’t sell soldiers to foreign powers any longer, though. And the proper name of the state was and is “Hessen”, with a end-n. Says a born Hessian – in German: “sagt ein gebürtiger Hesse” (Oops, there is this word again).

    1. Sources indicate that ice harvesting dates back to at least 400 BC. Great Britain had a thriving ice industry as early as the 16th century, which suggests that the colonists could easily have maintained the know-how to ice harvest once they crossed the Atlantic.