Lesson Plans

Colonial America & Revolution

The Battle of Trenton
Author: Jeff Walker
School: Westland Middle
Grade Level: 8th
Time Estimated: 2 days

Enduring Understanding

The American Revolution gave America its independence, but it was not an easy victory. A major turning point came early in the struggle in 1776, as Washington’s battered army was on the verge of defeat. In this two day lesson, students will understand why the Battle of Trenton was a turning point of the American Revolution by identifying specific outcomes that resulted from this American victory that enabled Washington's troops to fight on.

George Washington's army was battered and demoralized after being defeated and barely escaping catastrophe in New York. As David McCullough described the condition of Washington’s army in his book 1776, “The men were in tatters, many without shoes, their feet wrapped in rags…The men were broken and dispirited; they had no tents, no baggage, no entrenching tools.” Washington had fled south to New Jersey with the British close at his heels.

Many men had deserted his army. James Monroe, a young lieutenant in Washington’s army at this time observed that at best, Washington had only about 3,000 men left. Washington had fled N.J., crossed over the Delaware River, and made camp. Washington knew he needed a military victory, however small, to boost the morale of his men and restore confidence in his leadership throughout the colonies. He also needed to reinsure the representatives and revolutionary leaders in Philadelphia that he “had what it took” to lead the army and defeat the British. Washington, therefore, opted for a bold strike against the Hessians (British mercenaries) stationed at a small town in New Jersey called Trenton.

On Christmas night, 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware River from his camp in Pennsylvania to New Jersey to attack the Hessians at Trenton. He caught them by surprise and defeated them within just a few hours. The victory at Trenton was a turning point because Washington gained the confidence among the revolutionary leaders, and put the British on notice that Americans were not about to surrender. It also convinced many soldiers to reenlist for another year of fighting.


Students will be able to write a BCR (single paragraph essay) explaining why the battle of Trenton was a turning point in the American Revolution, citing evidence from an eyewitness account of the battle and Thomas Paine’s American Crisis.


Unit 8.1 “Democracy: Political System of the People, 1763-1783”
Lesson Sequence 4 "Defending the American Political System," MCPS Content Focus - The Continental Army faced great difficulties including lack of supplies, limited enlistment, and untrained soldiers. The Continental Army was helped by knowledge of the land, support of the colonists, French aid, and the strong leadership of George Washington.


  • Map of Trenton, New Jersey
  • An eyewitness account of the Battle of Trenton
  • Copies of Thomas Paine's American Crisis
  • Questions to American Crisis
  • McCullough, David 1776
  • Procedures

    Day 1

    Activator: Read passage "The Darkest Hour" from the book 1776 by David McCullough aloud to students to identify how bleak and dire Washington's army was.

    Main Activity:

    • Students will use a map to locate Washington’s location, the location of the Hessians and the town of Trenton. This map is linked and could be used very well with an LCD projector.
    • Probe students by asking, “What do you think will be the key if this plan is to succeed?” The answer will be “the element of surprise.”
    • Once students are familiar with the setting of this event, they will next read an excerpt from Thomas Paine’s American Crisis. Explain to students that during this time period, written books were the main form of media. Many American’s got their news of the day from books. Also, bring students back to Paine’s other work, Common Sense. Explain to students that Paine was already famous throughout the colonies and that he was known as a strong revolutionary voice.
    • Pass out a copy of Thomas Paine’s American Crisis, have students read the first paragraph and answer the questions. Discuss questions and probe for student understanding:
      • Who is Thomas Paine? What was he already famous for?
      • What does Paine mean by the phrase, "summer soldier?"
      • What does Paine mean by the phrase, “sunshine patriot?”
      • What does Paine mean by the phrase, “tyranny like hell is not easily conquered?”
      • What is the importance of this work? How would it make you feel, if you were fighting in the Continental Army?
      • How is this writing a message to the troops to, “Keep hope alive?”

    Day Two

    Activator: Set stage and give students some background knowledge from the Battle of Trenton. Discuss with students that at the time the Americans were losing the war and many thought the cause hopeless.

    Main Activity:

    • Pass out Eyewitness account of the Battle of Trenton, which is a soldier’s account of the Battle of Trenton. Have students read the document in order to create a time line retracing Washington’s route of attack. Each student must write down what Washington was doing on each date, from Dec. 23rd to Dec. 27th. Using the eyewitness account, students should pull out key phrases about the location and intentions of George Washington during this campaign.
    • The teacher will then have students share their time line to class.
    • Secondly, the students will retrace the steps of a soldier during this campaign using an “eyewitness account.” Using this document, students will record details in their social studies journals of some of the key details and hardships that soldiers experienced during this campaign as they marched towards Trenton. The title of this activity could be, “You get your marching orders”. Have students write down specifically what soldiers were going through, what they said and ultimately why they won this battle.
    • End by having students discuss why the battle of Trenton was a turning point. Elicit and probe for the following details:
      • It gave the Continental Army confidence that it could achieve victory.
      • George Washington gained the confidence of his troops and congress as a capable.
      • Troops began to enlist in the army for another year.

    Homework/Summarizer: Writing Prompt - Having now learned about the Battle of Trenton and the American victory, cite three reasons why the Battle of Trenton was a turning point in the American Revolution.

    References: Web

    The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of Trenton

      Map of Trenton, New Jersey

    The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of Trenton

      An eyewitness account of the Battle of Trenton

    Liberty Online

      Copies of Thomas Paine's American Crisis

    References: Books & Media

    McCullough, David. 1776. Simon and Schuster, 2006.