ABOVE: In 1786 John Trumbull painted the surrender of Hessian commander Johann Rall, who stands mortally wounded, to Washington, who offers his hand in assistance. Although inaccurate, this was one of a series of historical paintings Trumbull completed to memorialize the American Revolution.
If one was to define the life and legacy of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall (Rahl) they may use the term “victim of circumstance.” His is the ironic tale of a military man, whose stubborn nature and bad luck resulted in an untimely death. As the commander of the Hessian Troops garrisoned at Trenton New Jersey, Rall was the unfortunate recipient of General George Washington’s surprise attack that followed his brilliant crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776.
There have been many different versions of this story, but a reexamination of the events by modern military historians has yielded a more redeeming conclusion to Rall’s defeat. Whereas it was once believed that the Hessian troops were celebrating the holiday and simply too intoxicated to properly defend the garrison and themselves, experts now believe that Rall and a sober regiment of German soldiers may have underestimated the resolve of their adversaries.
One aspect of this story that hasn’t changed took place prior to the attack…
According to most accounts, a young boy had been given a spy report from a local Loyalist with directions to deliver it to a Hessian colonel who was in occupation of the City of Trenton. The note was intended to inform the commander that the Continental Army was crossing the river and planning to attack. It is said that the colonel did not want to be interrupted during his Chess game (some versions say cards), so he put the unread note in his pocket. The story concludes with the note being found, still in his pocket, unopened, after he died in battle.
As both a Chess and Rev-War aficionado, I decided to do a little research into this specific part of the story to see what information was available. What I found was completely different than I had originally anticipated.
First, I think we need to take a brief look at our main character from a military standpoint. According to an essay titled “Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall: Guilty of Tactical Negligence or Guiltless Circumstances?” written by Donald N. Moran for the November/December 2007 Edition of the The Liberty Tree Newsletter:
Rall was highly respected, and in fact, liked by the men he commanded. Lieutenant Jakob Piel wrote in his diary: “ ….considered as a private individual, he merited the highest respect. He was generous, magnanimous, hospitable, and polite to everyone; never groveling before his superiors, but indulgent with his subordinates. To his servants he was more a friend than master. He was an exceptional friend of music and a pleasant companion.” He was outspoken with his superiors, most of whom lacked his combat experience, which he often brought to their attention. Colonel Carl von Donop treated Rall with contempt. Captain Johann Ewald of the Jagers, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, noted in his diary: when it came to fighting, they were not fit to carry Rall’s sword. Colonel William Faucitt, the British commissioner and plenipotentiary to the various German States arranged for the employment of the Hessian Army. He had become familiar with Colonel Rall and described him as “...one of the best officers of his rank in the Landgrave’s Army.”
A career soldier, Rall had fought in the War of the Austrian Succession and participated in campaigns in Bavaria, on the Rhine, in the Netherlands, and served in Scotland during the Jacobite Rebellion. He fought in the Seven Years' War (also called the French and Indian War) and was involved in many battles. From September 1771 until August 1772, he was in Russia and fought for Catherine the Great under Count Orlov in the Fourth Russo-Turkish War. By 1776, Rall belonged to the German infantry regiment of the 1st Division under General Phillip Leopold von Heister and commanded approximately 1,200 men fighting for Great Britain against the Continentals. He saw action at the Battle of Brooklyn at Flatbush, the Battle of White Plains, Battle of Long Island, and of course, the Battle of Trenton.
If any German commander could have proved his mettle against Washington (at least at this point in the war) it was probably Rall. On November 15th his Hessian force of over 3,000 men attacked Fort Washington, which was located at the northern end of Manhattan. A private in Rall’s regiment named Johann Reuber later recalled that his colonel personally led the final assault. He said that Rall moved onto the field and called out to his men saying, “All that are my Grenadiers, march forward!” Although they were able to take the fort and capture their objective, Rall lost 177 men. This was just a hint of what was to come. Marching on to Trenton, Rall and his troops were met with heavy militia resistance and suffered casualties at the hands of multiple ambushes. Despite remaining in control of the town, the Hessians quickly lost control of the surrounding New Jersey countryside. A seasoned soldier, Rall was completely aware of his situation. He sent escorted dispatches to British headquarters informing them of his condition and requesting reinforcements. They never came.
Due to the frequency of attacks Rall ordered his men to remain armed at all times, even while sleeping. That way they would be prepared to fend off an attack no matter when it occurred. Each and every morning Rall himself left the relatively safe confines of the town and led a detachment up and down the nearby river hoping to engage the militia that plagued their position with unrelenting assailments. Some of his superiors suggested that the Hessians construct redoubts to which Rall replied, “I have not made any redoubts or any kind of fortifications because I have the enemy in all directions.” With few options, the Hessians hunkered down, remained vigilant, and set up the standard security measures for any army in their position.
As with most gentlemen of this period, Rall was an avid gamesman and Chess player. On the evening of Christmas day, it is said that he was playing a match at his headquarters (which was setup either in the house of Stacy Potts, or the home of merchant Abraham Hunt depending on what report you read). A young Loyalist arrived to deliver an intelligence report which suggested that the Continental Army was in the process of conducting a river crossing with the intent to attack Trenton. According to some reports the note said “Washington is coming on you down the river. He will be here before long.” Deeply contemplating his next move, an aggravated Rall accepted the note, but refused to read it immediately in favor of putting it in his pocket. This seemingly minuscule decision led to a disaster for the Hessians.
After successfully moving his entire force across the icy river, Washington committed his men and artillery, who entered Trenton from multiple sides, dealing a devastating blow to the Hessians. During their counterattack Rall was struck twice in the side and was taken by his men to a nearby church. He was later moved to the Stacy Potts house. Soon after, all three Hessian regiments surrendered themselves and the town. General Washington and General Greene visited Rall at his headquarters, and through an interpreter Rall secured a promise that his captured men would be treated humanely. He died the following day, and was buried in the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church in Trenton on East State Street. The worn inscription on his tombstone reads, “Here lies Colonel Rall, for him, all is over.”
What I find most interesting about the story of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, or more specifically, the “Chess” story of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, is how many times it has been used as a storied example of distraction, obsession, and misplaced priorities. In essence, the story of this Hessian commander ignoring a military dispatch in favor of seeking checkmate, whether true, legend or folktale has become an allegory.
B.H.Bentzman, a modern writer and Atheist poet wrote a piece on the inherent dangers of Chess which used Rall as the example:
In the winter of 1776, not far from where I write, General George Washington led a tattered army, on the verge of disintegration, in a daring crossing of the Delaware River at night. A local Loyalist observed them gathering on the New Jersey side and this Tory spy rushed to Trenton with the warning. As the Continental Army formed into two columns and advanced on Trenton, the Tory spy found Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, leader of the Hessian regiments that were bivouacked at Trenton. Rall was at the house of a local merchant, Abraham Hunt. He handed Colonel Rall a note to warn him of the advancing army. Colonel Rall couldn't be bothered with reading it but put it into his pocket, because he was too busy playing - and here some histories say cards, yet others say chess. I should think it was chess. A game of cards wouldn't hinder conversation or the reading of short notes, whereas chess can be all-consuming. Rall never read the note. Washington caught him and his troops by surprise. Rall was shot while retreating, the note still in his pocket. This historic victory was the turning point of our Revolution. It gave hope to what had been the waning faith of the American soldiery and the young nation. If this anecdote is true, it demonstrates the peril of this intensive game of chess and the dangers inherent to playing it.
On the opposite side of the spectrum Ronnie Scherffuis, a contributing writer for The Lay Lake Christ Church, penned a thought-provoking piece on Rall’s actions titled Because He Was Too Involved:
How incredible that a commander of men, a colonel of a standing army, would be so lax as fail to keep watch. In fact, Colonel Johann Rall was so careless in his vigilance that, even when a message of alarm was delivered, he did not even take the time to consider it! The result was not only the loss of his life but also the lives of many of his men! Do any of us resemble this Hessian commander? Have we become so negligent in our lives and too involved in things that pertain to this world that we are not giving heed to our souls? Have leaders of the church become too involved in matters of such little importance that the guarding and protecting of the flock has passed from their minds? What about parents; have mothers and fathers become so preoccupied with their work, careers and recreational activity that the dangers of the world have invaded their homes and already led away captive the heart and minds of their children? Well would we all do to take to heart and to put into practice the exhortation of Paul to Timothy: “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” (1 Timothy 4:16).
Author Gerald Abrahams wrote an interesting book called Not Only Chess which he referred to as a selection of “Chessays.” On page 42, Abrahams tells his version of the story with some additional details about what might have been:
An English settler sent a small boy with a message to the British Commander General Rahl warning him that George Washington was about to cross the Delaware River. The general was so immersed in a Christmas chess game, that he put the note in his pocket unopened. There it was found when he lay mortally wounded in the subsequent battle (shot while on his horse). Actually, Rahl was a Colonel, not a general. Col Gottlieb (Johann) Rahl had 1,500 Germans (Hessians) in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington tried to crossed the Delaware in 3 places on Christmas Day in 1776. The only crossing near Trenton took 10 hours with 2,400 men. They crossed 9 miles away from Trenton and marched in sleet and rain at night. Washington attacked Trenton in broad daylight on December 26, 1776 around 8 am. Rahl, the commander, and 40 men were killed and a thousand men surrendered. The Americans had 4 wounded and 5 frozen to death. The battle took less than one hour. The note and the chess playing (some say it was card playing) may not have happened. This story appeared in 1897 in American Chess Magazine, page 160, and repeated in Lasker's Chess Magazine in 1907. By the way, if Rahl had won the battle, he would have killed George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton. All took part in the raid in Trenton.
Who would have thought that a simple game of Chess, unwittingly played in the wrong place at the wrong time, would still remain in the public’s consciousness? Today, 235 years later, Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall’s decision to play on, still echoes as a tale of both tragedy and irony. Without it, he would have likely faded away in historical memory like so many other officers who fell in America's fight for independence.