Battle of Trenton

Battle of Trenton

The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War after General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River north of Trenton, New Jersey. The hazardous crossing in adverse weather allowed Washington to lead the main body of the Continental Army against Hessian soldiers garrisoned at Trenton. After a brief struggle, nearly the entire Hessian force was captured, with negligible losses to the Americans. The battle boosted the Continental Army's flagging morale, and inspired re-enlistments.

The Continental Army had previously suffered several defeats in New York and had been forced to retreat across New Jersey. Morale in the army was low; in an attempt to save the army and end the year on a positive note, George Washington—Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army—devised a plan to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night and surround the Hessian garrison.

Because the river was icy, the crossing proved dangerous. Two of the offensive groups were unable to cross the river, leaving Washington and his 2,400 men alone in the assault. The army marched convert|9|mi|km|0 south to Trenton. When the Hessians spotted the Americans approaching, they formed lines and began an organized retreat. However, when the Hessians had been pushed back to the city, the American artillery broke their lines and the Hessians resistance collapsed. Almost two thirds of the 1,500 man garrison was captured, excepting a few who escaped across Assunpink Creek.

Despite the battle's small numbers, its effect was enormous throughout the colonies. The revolution itself had been in doubt only a week earlier, and the army seemed on the verge of collapse. However, with this victory, soldiers agreed to stay and new recruits came and joined the ranks.


In the time before the battle, American morale was low. The Americans had been ousted from New York by the British and Hessian allies, and the Continental Army was forced to retreat across New Jersey. Ninety percent of the Continental Army that were at Long Island was gone. Men had deserted, feeling that the cause for independence was lost. Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, expressed some doubts. He wrote to his cousin in Virginia, "I think the game is pretty near up." [Ketchum p.235]

At the time a small town in western New Jersey, Trenton was occupied by three regiments of Hessian soldiers commanded by Colonel Johann Rall, which totaled about 1,400 men, while Washington's force comprised 2,400 men. He was aided by Major General Nathanael Greene, Brigadier General Hugh Mercer and Major General John Sullivan. [Stanhope p.129]

The Americans were aided by John Honeyman, who gathered intelligence in Trenton and misled the Hessians. [Fischer p.538] He was responsible for estimating the strength of the Hessian defenders and for convincing them that the Americans were confused and in no condition to attack. The weather made Washington's crossing of the Delaware River next to impossible, which further enhanced the element of surprise. The Hessians sent out a patrol every night to check for nearby enemy forces, but were canceled that night due to the storm.Lengel p.185]


American plan

The American plan relied on launching coordinated attacks from three directions. General John Cadwalader would launch a diversionary attack against the British garrison at Bordentown, New Jersey, to block off reinforcements. General James Ewing would take 700 militia across the river at Trenton Ferry, seize the bridge over the Assunpink Creek and prevent enemy troops from escaping. The main assault force of 2,400 men would cross the river convert|9|mi|km|0 north of Trenton and split into two groups – one under Greene and one under Sullivan – to launch a pre-dawn attack.Brooks p.56] Sullivan would attack the town from the south and Greene from the north.Savas p.84] Depending on the success of the operation, the Americans would possibly follow up with separate attacks on Princeton and New Brunswick.Brooks p.55]

During the week before Christmas, American advance parties had begun to ambush enemy cavalry patrols, capturing dispatch riders and attacking Hessian pickets. This became so effective that the Hessian commander was forced to send 100 infantry and an artillery detachment to protect his letter to the British commander at Princeton. Washington ordered that Ewing and his Pennsylvania militia try to gain information on Hessian movements and designs.Fishcer p.195] Instead of doing this, Ewing launched three successful raids across the river. On December 17 and 18th they attacked a Jagers outpost and on the 21st, set fire to several houses. Washington also ordered that all possible crossings near their encampment on the Delaware were to be watched day and night, as he believed that Howe would launch an attack on Philadelphia if the river froze over. [Ketchum p.242]

On December 20, 2,000 men arrived to join Washington's army.Savas p.83] They were under the command of Charles Lee and had been retreating across northern New Jersey when Lee was captured. That same day, an additional 800 troops arrived from Fort Ticonderoga under the command of Horatio Gates.

Hessian moves

On December 14, the Hessians arrived in Trenton. [Fischer p.188] Trenton had two main streets, King (now Warren) Street and Queen (now Broad) Street, and the town consisted of about 100 houses. [Ketchum p.233] Carl von Donop, Rall's superior, had marched south to Mount Holly on December 22 to deal with the resistance in New Jersey, and clashed with the New Jersey militia there on December 23. [Rosenfeld p.177]

Donop, who despised Rall, was reluctant to give command of Trenton to him.Ketchum p.229] Rall was known to be loud, and a drunk, and was unacquainted with the language,Ketchum p.229] but he was also a 56-year soldier with a great deal of battle experience. He had requested reinforcements and been turned down by British commander General James Grant. Grant regarded the Americans with great disdain and sent no reinforcements. Despite his experience, the Hessians at Trenton were not fond of their commander.Lengel p.183] They believed that he was too nice, and was not ruthless enough to be a successful military commander. His officers complained saying "His love of life was too great, a thought came to him, then another, so he could not settle on a firm decision ..." Rall avoided hard work and had little concern for his troops' comfort.

Trenton had no walls or fortifications, which was common with American settlements.Fischer p.189] Some of the Hessian officers advised Rall to fortify the town, and two of the engineers and advised that a redoubt be constructed at the upper end of town, and that fortifications should be built along the river.Fischer p.189] The engineers went as far as to draw up plans, but Rall disagreed with them.Fischer p.189] When Rall was once again urged to fortify the town, he replied by saying "Shit upon shit! Let them come ... We will go at them with the bayonet."Fischer p.189]

As Christmas approached, Loyalists came to the town with reports that the Americans were planning something.Ketchum p.235] Even some American deserters told the Hessians that rations were being prepared to cross the river. Rall publicly dismissed all of this talk as nonsense, but privately in letters to his superiors, he expressed that he was worried of an imminent attack.Ketchum p.235] He wrote to Donop that he was "liable to be attacked an any moment". Rall said that Trenton was "indefensible" and asked that British troops establish a garrison in Maidenhead, which was closer to Trenton and would help keep the roads open from Americans. His request was declined. [Fishcer p.197] As the Americans began to disrupt the Hessian supply lines, the officers started to share Rall's fears. One wrote "We have not slept one night in peace since we came to this place."Ketchum p.236] On December 22, a spy reported to Grant that Washington had called a council of war; Grant told Rall to "be on your guard". [Fischer p.203]

The main force of 1,500 men was divided into three regiments: Knyphausen, Lossberg and Rall. That night they had not sent out any patrols because of the severe weather. [Wood p.65]

Crossing and march

. Haslet was quickly pulled out of the water. No one died during the crossing, and all the artillery pieces made it over in good condition. [Fischer p.219]

Two small detachments of infantry, of about 40 men, each were ordered ahead of main columns.Fishcer p.221] Their job was to set roadblocks ahead of the main army, and take prisoner whoever came or left the town.Fischer p.221] One of the groups was sent north of Trenton, and the other was sent to block River Road, which ran along the Delaware River to Trenton. [Fischer p.222]

The terrible weather conditions delayed the landing in New Jersey, which were supposed to be completed by 12:00 am until 3:00 am, and Washington realized it would be impossible to launch a pre-dawn attack. Another setback also occurred for the Americans, as both General Cadwalader and Ewing were unable to join in the attack due to the weather conditions.

At 4:00 am they began to march towards Trenton. [Fischer p.223] Along the way, several civilians joined as volunteers, and led as guides because of their knowledge of the terrain. [Fischer p.225] After marching convert|1.5|mi|km|0 through windy roads into the wind, they reach Bear Tavern where they turned right.Fischer p.226] The ground slippery, but it was level, making it easier for the horses and artillery and they made better time.Fischer p.226] They soon reached Jacob's Creek, where, after a difficult process, the Americans made it across. [Fischer p.227] The two groups stayed together until they reached Birmingham, where they split apart. Soon after they reached the house of Benjamin Moore, and the family offered food and drink to Washington.Fischer p.228] At this point the first signs of daylight began to appear.Fischer p.228] Many of the troops did not have boots, so they were forced to wear rags around their feet. Some of the men's feet bled, turning the snow to a dark red. Two men died on the trip. [Scheer p.215]

As they continued their march, Washington rode up and down their line, encouraging the men to continue on. [Ferling p.176] While they were marching, General Sullivan had a courier tell Washington that the weather was making it difficult to fire. Washington responded, "Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton." [cite web |url=|title=The Crossing And Battle At Trenton - 1776 |accessdate=2008-08-14 |publisher=Bergen County Historical Society |author=Kevin Wright]

About convert|2|mi|km|0 outside the town, the main columns reunited with the advance parties. [Fischer p.231] However, 50 armed men suddenly appeared, but it turned out that they were American. Led by Adam Stephen, they did not know of the plan to attack Trenton, and therefore had attacked a Hessian outpost.Fischer p.232] Washington feared that this would have put all the Hessian on guard, and he angrily shouted at Stephen, saying "You sir! You Sir, may have ruined all my plans by having them put on their guard."Fischer p.232] Despite this, Washington ordered that they continue to advance towards Trenton. The raid turned out to favor the Americans, as Rall believed this was the attack that Grant had warned him about, and believed that there would be no further action that day. [McCullough p.279]


American attack

An outpost was set up by the Hessians, at a cooper shop on Pennington Road, about one mile north-west of Trenton. George Washington himself led the assault, riding in front of his soldiers.Fischer p.235] The Hessian commander of the outpost, Lieutenant Andreas von Wiederholdt, came out of the shop to get some fresh air, and an American fired at him.Fischer p.235] Wiederholdt shouted "The Enemy!" and other Hessians came out.Fischer p.237] The Americans fired three volleys at them and the Hessians returning one of their own.Fischer p.235] Washington ordered Edward Hand's Pennslyvania Riflemen and a battalion of German-speaking infantry to block the road that led to Princeton, and they did so attack the Hessian outpost there.Fischer p.237] Wiederholdt soon realized it was more than just a raiding party, and he saw the other Hessians retreating from the outpost on the Princeton Road, and he decided to do the same. Both of the Hessian detachments led an organized retreat, firing as they fell back.Fischer p.237] They fell back to the high ground at the north end of Trenton, where they were joined by a duty company from the Lossberg Regiment.Fischer p.237] They engaged the Americans, retreating slowly, keeping up continuous fire and using houses and other building for cover. [Ketchum p.255] Once in Trenton they began to receive support from other Hessian guard companies on the outskirts of the town. Another guard company nearer to the Delaware River rushed east to their aid, leaving open the River Road into Trenton. Washington ordered that the escape route to Princeton be cut off, sending infantry in battle formation to block it off, while artillery formed at the head of King and Queen streets. [Ketchum p.256]

General John Sullivan, leading the southern American column entered Trenton on the abandoned river road, and made hard for the only crossing over the Assunpink Creek, which was the only way out of Trenton to the south, in hopes of cutting off the Hessian escape.Wood p.68] Sullivan briefly held up his advance to order to make sure that Greene's division had time to drive the Hessians from their outposts in the north.Wood p.68] Soon after, they continued their advance, attacking the Hermitage, home of Philemon Dickinson, where 50 Jägers under the command of Lieutenant von Grothausen were stationed.Wood p.68] Lieutenant von Grothausen brought 12 of his Jägers into action against the advanced guard, but had only advanced a few hundred yards when he saw a column of Americans advancing to the Hermitage.Wood p.68] He pulled back to the Hessian barracks, and was joined by the rest of the Jägers, who had evacuated the Hermitage. After one volley, they turned and ran, some trying to swim across the creek, while others escaped over the bridge, which had not yet been cut off. The 20 British Dragoons present also fled at this time.Wood p.68] As Greene and Sullivan's columns pushed into the town, Washington moved to high ground north of King and Queens streets so he could see the action, and direct his troops. [McCullough p.280] At this time, artillery from the other side of the Delaware River came into action, devastating the Hessian positions. [Fischer p.239]

The alarm soon sounded and the three regiments began to prepare for battle.Fischer p.240] The Rall regiment formed on lower King Street along with the Lossberg Regiment, while the Knuphausen Regiment formed at the lower end of Queen Street.Fischer p.240] Lieutenant Piel, Rall's brigade adjutant, finally awoke his commander, who found that the rebels had taken the "V" of the main streets of the town where earlier that month the engineers would have constructed the redoubt. Rall ordered his own regiment to form up at the lower end of King Street, the Lossberg regiment to prepare for an advance up Queen Street, and the Knyphausen regiment to stand by as a reserve for Rall's advance up King Street.Wood p.68]

The American cannon that had been stationed at the head of the two main streets soon came into action. In reply, Rall directed his regiment, supported by a few companies of the Lossberg regiment, to clear the guns.Wood p.70] The Hessians formed into their ranks, and began to advance up the street, but their formations were quickly broken by the Americans guns, and fire from Mercer's men who had taken the houses on the left side of the street.Wood p.70] Their ranks broke, and the Hessians fled. Rall then ordered two three-pound cannon into action. The cannon managed to get off six rounds each, but within just a few minutes, half of the Hessians manning their guns were killed by the American cannon.Wood p.70] The remaining men fled to cover behind houses and fences, and the cannon were taken by the Americans.Wood p.71] At once following the capture on the cannon, men under the command of George Weedon advanced down King Street.Wood p.68]

On Queen Street, all Hessian attempts to advance up the street by the Lossberg and the Rall regiments were repulsed by guns under the command of Thomas Forrest. Two more Hessian guns were silenced, after they had only fired four rounds each. One of Forrest's Howitzers was put out of action with a broken axle.Wood p.68] The Hessians soon fell back to a field outside the town, taking heavy losses from grapeshot and musket fire. In the southern part of the town, under the command of Sullivan, the Americans began to overwhelm the Hessians. John Stark led a bayonet charge at the Knyphausen regiment, breaking down most resistance as most of the Hessian weapons could not fire, and Sullivan personally led a column of men to block off any more troops from escaping across the creek.Wood p.71]

Hessian resistance collapses

The Hessians in the field attempted to reorganize, and make one last attempt to retake the town so they could make a breakout. [Wood p.72] Rall decided to attack the American flank on the heights north of the town.Fischer p.246] Rall yelled "Forward! Advance! Advance!", and the Hessians began to move.Fischer p.246] Washington, who was still on the high ground, saw the Hessians approaching the American flank and moved his troops so they could be in battle formation where the Hessians approached.Fischer p.246] The two Hessian Regiments began marched toward King Street, but were caught in American fire that came at them in three directions.Fischer p.246] Some Americans had taken up positions inside houses, making it difficult to be hit. Even some civilians joined the fight against the Hessians.Fischer p.249] Despite this, they continued to push, recapturing their cannon. Knox, at the head of King Street, saw that the Hessians had retaken the cannon and ordered that they be taken. Six men ran, and after a brief struggle, seized the cannon, turning them on the Hessians.Fischer p.247] Most of the Hessians were unable to fire their guns and the attack stalled. The Hessians formations broke, and they began to scatter.Fischer p.249] At this point, Rall was mortally wounded. [Fischer p.248] Washington came down from the high ground, and led his troops yelling "March on, my brave fellows, after me!"Fischer p.249] Most of the Hessians retreated into an Orchard, with the Americans in close pursuit, and they quickly surrounded them.Fischer p.251] A German-speaking American offered the Hessians surrender terms, and they agreed.

The remains of the Knyphausen Regiment had been ordered to join Rall, but due to a misunderstanding, they marched in the opposite direction.Fischer p.251] They tried to escape across the bridge, but found it had been taken. The Americans quickly swept in, and a Hessian attempt to break through their lines failed. They were cut off from the bridge, surrounded by Sullivan's men and forced to surrender. The regiment surrendered just minutes after the rest of the brigade.Wood p.74]


The Hessian forces suffered 22 killed, 83 seriously wounded and 896 captured. The Americans suffered only two killed and five wounded, although their casualties may have been heavier than the Hessians if the soldiers who died of exhaustion, exposure, and illness the following days are included. [Fischer p.255] The captured Hessians were sent to Philadelphia and later Lancaster, only to be moved once again in 1777, this time to Virginia. [Fischer p.379] Rall was mortally wounded and died later that day at his headquarters. All four Hessian colonels in Trenton were killed in the battle. The Lossberg regiment was effectively removed from the British forces. Parts of the Knyphausen regiment escaped to the south, but Sullivan captured some 200 men along with the regiment's cannons and supplies. Also captured were about 1,000 arms and some much-needed ammunition. [Mitchell p.43]


The Hessians were surprised and shocked by the sudden attack of the Americans, and it has commonly been believed that they were drunk from celebrating Christmas. Military Historian Edward G. Lengel said "there is no truth to the legend claiming that they were helplessly drunk." [Lengel p.186] Historian David Hackett Fischer said "It wasn't so," and points out that even an American Soldier, John Greenwood, who fought in the battle and looked after the Hessians after the battle said "I am certain not a drop of liquor was drunk during the whole night, nor, as I could see, even a piece of bread eaten." [Fischer p.426]


Following the surrender of the Hessians, Washington is reported to have grabbed the hand of a young officer and said "This is a glorious day for our country." [Ferling p.178] However, he soon learned that Cadwalader and Ewing had been unable to make the crossing, leaving his worn-out army of 2,400 men alone.Wood p.75] Without their 2,600 men, Washington realized that he would not be able to push onto Princeton and New Brunswick at that time.Wood p.75]

This small but decisive battle, as with the much later Battle of Cowpens, had an effect disproportionate to its size. The colonial effort across the colonies was galvanized and the psychological dominance achieved by the British Government troops in the previous months overturned. Howe was stunned that such a substantial Hessian garrison could be surprised and overwhelmed so easily, without putting up much resistance.Wood p.74] However, Fischer argues this was more due to the efforts of Thomas Paine and the New Jersey Militia than it was to the battle itself. [Fischer p.143]


By noon, Washington's force had moved to recross the Delaware back into Pennsylvania, taking their prisoners and captured supplies with them.Wood p.75] This battle gave the Continental Congress a new confidence because it proved Colonial forces could defeat regulars. It also increased the re-enlistments in the Continental Army forces. The colonials had now proved themselves against a European army and the fear the Hessians inspired earlier that year in New York was broken. [Wood p.72]

Two notable officers were wounded, William Washington, cousin of the General, who was badly wounded in both hands, and Lieutenant James Monroe, the future President of the United States. Monroe was carried from the field bleeding badly after he was struck in the left shoulder by a musket ball, which severed an artery. Doctor John Riker clamped the artery, keeping him from bleeding to death.Fischer p.247.]


The hours before the battle served as the inspiration for the painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by German American artist Emanuel Leutze. The image in the painting, in which Washington stands majestic in his boat as it is crossing the Delaware River, is believed by some, to be more symbolic than historically accurate, because the waters of the river were icy and treacherous, and the flag Monroe holds was not created until six months after the battle.cite web |url=|title=What's wrong with this painting?|accessdate=2008-08-14 |publisher=Washington Crossing Historic Park ] In addition, contrary to the painting, the crossing occurred before dawn.cite web |url=|title=What's wrong with this painting? |accessdate=2008-08-14 |publisher=Washington Crossing Historic Park ] Fischer argues that since the crossing took place in a storm, anyone who sat down in the boats would have been sitting in ice water and thus they would have stood. [Fischer p.216] Nonetheless, the image has become an icon of American history.cite web |url=|title=What's wrong with this painting? |accessdate=2008-08-14 |publisher=Washington Crossing Historic Park ]

The Trenton Battle Monument erected at "Five Points" stands as a tribute to this crucial American victory. [Burt p.439] The crossing and battle is reenacted every year.cite web |url=|title=What's wrong with this painting? |accessdate=2008-08-14 |publisher=Washington Crossing Historic Park ]

ee also

*New Jersey during the American Revolution
*Battle of Princeton
*Trenton order of Battle



*cite book|last=Brooks|first=Victor|title=How America Fought Its Wars |location=New York|publisher=De Capo Press|year=1999|isbn=1580970028
*cite book|last=Burt|first=Daniel S.|title=The Biography Book|location=New York|publisher=Oryx Press|year=2001|isbn=1573562564
*cite book|last=Elson|first=William Henry|title= [ History of the United States of America] |publisher=Macmillan|year=1908|isbn=
*cite book|last=Ferling|first=John|title=Almost a Miracle|publisher=Oxford University Press|year=2007|isbn=0195181212
*cite book|last=Fischer|first=David Hackett|title=Washington's Crossing |publisher=Oxford University Press|year=2006|isbn=0195181212
*cite book|last=Ketchum|first=Richard|title=The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton|publisher=Holt Paperbacks; 1st Owl books ed edition |year=1999|isbn=0805060987
*cite book|last=Lengel|first=Edward|authorid=Edward G. Lengel|title=General George Washington|location=New York|publisher=Random House Paperbacks|year=2005|isbn=0812969502|
*cite book|last=McCullough|first=David|title=1776|url=|location=New York|publisher=Simon and Schuster Paperback|year=2006|isbn=0743226720
*cite book|last=Mitchell|first=Craig|title=George Washington's New Jersey|publisher=Middle Atlantic Press|year=2003|url=|isbn= 097058041X
*cite book|last=Rosenfeld|first=Lucy|authorid=Lucy D. Rosenfeld|title=George Washington's New Jersey|publisher=Rutgers|year=2007|isbn=0813539692
*cite book|last=Savas|first=Theodore|authorid=Theodore P. Savas|title=Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution |publisher=Savas Beatie|year=2003|isbn=193271412X|url=
*cite book|last=Scheer|first=George|authorid=George F. Scheer|title=Rebels and Redcoats|publisher=Da Capo Press|year=1987|isbn=0306803070|url=
*cite book|last=Stanhope|first=Phillip Henry|authorid=|title=History of England: From the Peace of Utrecht to the Peace of Versailles|publisher=GB, Murray|year=1854|isbn=
*cite book|last=Wood|first=W.J Henry|title=Battles Of The Revolutionary War|publisher=Da Capo Press |year=2003|isbn=0306813297|url=

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