Mill Hill History, Colonial Era
The name “Mill Hill” refers to central New Jersey’s first industrial site, a grist mill, erected in 1679, at the southeast corner of the present Broad Street crossing of the Assunpink Creek. Mill Hill and its wooden mill were among the holdings of the first settler in the vicinity of Trenton, Mahlon Stacy, who arrived in North America at Burlington, New Jersey on the SHIELD in 1678.
In 1714, Mill Hill, along with much of the rest of Stacy’s holdings and adjacent lands, was purchased by William Trent of Philadelphia. The major eighteenth century development of “Trent Town” took place north of the creek, just below the “Falls of the Delaware”. This is where the Delaware changes from an estuary (a tidal body, mixing fresh and salt water) to a purely fresh water stream. This was the limit of navigation for commercial sailing ships.
The Battles of Trenton
Washington “crossed the Delaware” to engage in the so-called “First Battle of Trenton” in the early morning hours of Christmas, 1776. He split his force into two columns, one attacking from the west down what is now State Street, the other from the north. American artillery set up on the hill where the Battle Monument is now located. Advancing in a howling blizzard, the Continental army achieved near complete tactical surprise, and succeeded in routing the Hessian garrison. The last hold-outs of the Hessian defense surrendered in what is now Mill Hill Park.
Following this success, Washington withdrew to Pennsylvania. During the following week British troops from New York were sent to Central New Jersey under the command of Lord Cornwallis. Fearing the loss of his army without another victory to boost morale (many of his soldiers’ enlistments expired on December 31), Washington again crossed to the New Jersey side of the Delaware to confront Cornwallis.
This was an extraordinarily risky maneuver, as the ice floes on the Delaware would have prevented an American retreat to the safety of Pennsylvania if the American army were to lose the engagement. Washington was betting the survival of his army on this single confrontation.
On the night of January 1, he met with his generals at the Douglass House which now stands within the district at the southwest corner of Montgomery and Front Streets. With the British approaching from Princeton, Washington decided to establish a strong defensive position along the high ground on the opposite (south) bank of the Assunpink, in a line stretching from the Delaware approximately a mile up the creek.
The center of the American position was the only bridge across the Assunpink, at what is now called Broad Street. Washington covered this with his artillery and his best troops, arrayed along where Mill Hill’s Jackson Street now ends.
Washington also decided to send out skirmishers to harry the British advance, along the Princeton Road (currently 206). On January 2, these detachments fought a series of actions along the route, and succeeded in delaying the British advance by many hours.
Cornwallis’ army arrived in Trenton near dusk. The British repeatedly assaulted the bridge, and were repulsed. With nightfall, the British suspended their attacks. Given the superior force of the British Army, there is little doubt that it would destroy the Continental Army when hostilities resumed in the morning.
However, in what is widely regarded as the single most important turning point of the war, Washington eluded them. He ordered campfires built up and maintained throughout the night by a rear guard while the main body slipped away by a back road towards Princeton.
Washington’s army surprised the British rear guard on the morning of January 3, and the Americans were victorious (the “Battle of Princeton”). Having managed to elude the British, Washington encamped his army in the mountains around Middlebrook, from which position he was able to control British movements across central New Jersey.
The historic nature of this battle site was recognized by the citizens of Trenton at an early date. On April 21, 1789, when Washington passed through on the way to New York City for his inauguration, he was greeted at a triumphal arch erected on the bridge over the Assunpink, by a bevy of little girls and young ladies bearing baskets of flowers. Portions of the arch are presently preserved in the Old Barracks and the Trenton Free Public Library.