Friday, December 22, 2023

The Miracle Victory at Trenton: Washington Crosses the Delaware on Christmas, 1776

As the Christmas holiday fast approaches, modern Americans everywhere largely enjoy the celebrations historically dedicated to the birth of Christ from the safety of their homes. Spending the occasion in relative comfort and convenience, while enjoying plentiful food, an abundance of presents, warm and tolerable housing conditions, and overall the general ease that comes with modern living, it is fair to say that the minds of most contemporary citizens are far removed from remembering the plight of their ancestors some 247 years ago. The plain truth of the matter is that had it not been for the sacrifices, courage, and bravery of General George Washington and a ragged band of scantily clothed and barefoot American patriots, the modern state of Christmas affairs in America would likely appear much different. In fact, it is likely there would never have been a United States at all. Therefore, the author found it to be fitting and proper, as we approach the Christmas holiday, to remember the feat of our American ancestors, who crossed an icy Delaware river from Pennsylvania into New Jersey on Christmas night amidst a blizzard, marched 9 miles through the snow and ice (with many in bare feet), and achieved a nation-saving victory at the Battle of Trenton on the early hours of December 26th, 1776. Without these men and the leadership of General George Washington, America would not have survived as an independent country and the cause of independence would have likely been lost shortly thereafter. Below is a narrative of this action and the plight of the Continental army in the weeks prior to its miraculous execution. This year, as Americans enjoy the holiday in ease and relative peace, it would do them well to remember the courage and fortitude of their ancestors and to give thanks and reverence to them, for many of the comforts enjoyed today would not be possible without them.

In mid-December 1776, the remnants of Washington’s ragged Continental army encamped along the Delaware River. The men remained poorly equipped, clothed in tattered summer garments. With little food, no tents, and limited blankets, they braved the elements along the Delaware. Hundreds were sick, and many simply died of exposure and illness while encamped along the Delaware. Washington and the American army had endured months of repeated defeats at the hands of the military might of the British empire. The ragged, citizen soldiers who had so boldly rebelled against the crown and had celebrated the “birth” of their nation with an official declaration of independence by the Continental Congress in July just months prior faced a seemingly hopeless situation. After being obliterated in New York, Washington had no choice but to retreat through New Jersey towards Pennsylvania and the American capital in the face of a vastly superior force in late November. With the weather worsening, the desperate remnants of the army retreated through New Jersey.

General George Washington (as Commander in Chief) faced a dire situation. When the new year would begin on January 1st, 1777, every remaining enlistment in Washington’s army would expire. In sum, his army, demoralized, starving, shoeless and ragged, would all but cease to exist in a little more than a month. The situation was dire. As the historian David McCullough stated:

“In August, Washington had an army of 20,000. In the three months since, he had lost four battles- at Brooklyn, Kips Bay, White Plains, and Fort Washington- then gave up Fort Lee without a fight. His army now was now divided and... he had only about 3,500 troops under his personal command. That was all.” (1776).[1]

[1] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 249.

British General Sir William Howe, triumphant and confident that the war was nearly finished, retired with the bulk of his army to New York. Holding the Americans in contempt, Howe left only a scant number of troops to defend western New Jersey. Most of these men were Hessians, or German mercenaries, with several thousand soldiers being encamped in and around the towns of Bordentown and Trenton, the state capital. At these two posts, troops under the command of Colonels Johann Rall and Karl Von Donop were positioned in a defensive posture, preparing for winter quarters. Encamped with some 3,500 men in early December near McConkey’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, Washington knew something miraculous needed to occur to save his disintegrating army. In just weeks, every remaining enlistment would expire, and the army would effectively cease to exist. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, arrived at Washington’s headquarters on December 23, 1776. Rush noted that the General was depressed. One can only imagine the thoughts and emotions Washington must have felt when facing the seemingly fatal conditions of his army and his country. Rush recorded that Washington sat at his writing desk, scratching the same phrase over and over again onto scraps of paper. Rush wrote:

“While I was talking to him, I observed him to play with his pen and ink upon several small pieces of paper. One of them by accident fell upon the floor near my feet. I was struck with the inscription upon it. It was ‘Victory or Death.’”[1]

This was no exaggeration. Washington knew that unless a monumental and daring action was taken that resulted in an American triumph, the war was likely over, and with it, the cause of a free America and the lives of every person who still dared to fight for it. On December 20th Washington received much needed reinforcements when 2,000 men that had remained under the command of the newly captured General Charles Lee were marched into camp by General John Sullivan. Additionally, 600 men under the command of General Horatio Gates and some 1,000 Pennsylvania militiamen under the command of John Cadwalader arrived. With these troops enjoining his skeleton force, Washington could now muster about 6,000 men. Now convinced that the time was at hand for an attack, Washington decided to attack Trenton. In a bold move, he would cross the icy Delaware river and attack the Hessians under the command of Colonel Johann Rall. After arriving on the New Jersey shore, his men would march nine miles south to Trenton, where he hoped to annihilate the entire enemy force and procure much needed supplies. Washington wrote to his aide, Joseph Reed:

“Christmas day at night, one hour before day is the time fixed upon for our attempt on Trenton… For heaven’s sake keep this to yourself, as the discovery of it may prove fatal to us, our numbers, I am sorry to say, being less than I had any conception of—but necessity, dire necessity will—nay must justify any Attempt.”[2]

On December 23rd along the Delaware river in Pennsylvania, the impoverished writer Thomas Paine wrote his most inspiring piece of revolutionary penmanship. Having authored the famous and widely circulated “Common Sense” pamphlet earlier in the year, Paine now wrote “American Crisis”. The infamous opening paragraph was a call to action, and it did just that. With their spirits flagging, their stomachs growling, and their bodies shivering incessantly in their slovenly clothing, the courageous few American troops who continued to brave the elements in the face of all odds read aloud his new passage:

“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of every man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives every-thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods; and it would be a strange thing indeed if an article so celestial as FREEDOM should not be so highly rated…”[3]

The next day, Washington ordered these words read aloud to every soldier in the army. Inspiring the men, the cold, ragged souls that remained in Pennsylvania prepared for an assault on Trenton. All was at stake. Washington planned to cross the river in three locations. A group of men under John Cadwalader would cross directly below the town of Trenton at Dunks Ferry, blocking the roads south of town. Another group under the command of James Ewing would cross at Trenton Ferry, also to the south. The third and most sizable contingent would cross 9 miles above the town and march south. These 2,400 men would be led by Washington. On the morning of December 25, Washington ordered his army to prepare three days’ food and issued orders that every soldier be outfitted with fresh flints for their muskets. At 4 pm Washington’s army turned out for its evening parade, where the troops were issued ammunition, and even the officers and musicians were ordered to carry muskets. They were told that they were departing on a secret mission. All men were told not to speak, not even in whispers.

By the time the Americans arrived from their camps at the McKonkey’s ferry landings, it was already an hour past sunset. The weather was horrid; the temperature was freezing, and an icy mix of sleet and snow poured from the sky. The wind howled tremendously. The men, still in ragged tattered summer clothing and many barefoot, suffered. Colonel Henry Knox was in charge of the logistics of the crossing. In addition to the 2,400 men that needed to be ferried across the river, Knox also had to ensure that horses and 18 pieces of artillery were also transported across. Knox exerted himself to near exhaustion; according to one account, had it not been for the powerful lungs… of Knox, the crossing that night would have failed.[4] The infamous Marblehead fisherman of Colonel John Glover’s brigade would largely man the oars. These mariners, braving the ice and snow, once again proved their skill and mettle, delivering thousands of men to the shores of west Jersey. Ice jammed the river. Due to this, the other two groups of men that had been supposed to cross further downstream under the commands of Cadwalader and Ewing were unable to navigate the river and had no choice but to remain in Pennsylvania. Washington and his 2,400 men would have to assault Trenton alone. Washington was among the first of the troops to cross, going with Virginia troops led by General Adam Stephen. These troops formed a sentry line around the landing area in New Jersey, with strict instructions that no one was to pass through. The password was “Victory or Death”.

By 4am, hours behind schedule and after nearly ten hours, the entire group was on the New Jersey shore. Washington was faced with a dilemma. Due to the time lost in crossing the river, the Americans would be forced to reach Trenton and attack during daylight. Without any real alternative, he ordered the march to begin. Through thick snow, the American troops began the nine mile march to Trenton. At least two men would die of hypothermia and exposure. In the late evening, a loyalist farmer learned of the American landings in New Jersey. Racing to Trenton, he attempted to warn Colonel Rall, but was not allowed into his quarters. Eventually, he was able to procure a sheet of paper, and after writing his findings on it, he handed it to a sentry, who then passed the note to Rall himself. Rall would simply place the note in his jacket pocket, and never read it. The next day, he would die, never knowing that if he had simply glanced at the message placed in his jacket, he may have lived a long, lively life.

On the nine mile march, Washington divided the army into two columns. In one column, Washington and General Nathanael Greene would lead men down the Pennington road. In another, General John Sullivan led men down the River road into Trenton. In a parallel line of march, these two columns would sweep into Trenton and in a swift maneuver quickly seize the town. The plan worked miraculously. At 8am on December 26th, Washington personally led the opening moments of the assault. Americans attacked a Hessian outpost outside of town and dispersed the enemy. Washington then ordered a group of German speaking infantry and Pennsylvania riflemen to block the road to Princeton, neutralizing any escape northward. Pushing the Hessians into the town of Trenton itself, the Americans rushed forward. Henry Knox quickly formed artillery on Kings and Queens streets; these guns would fire effectively on the enemy. The ragged Americans rushed into town with a fervor and spirit not seen in months, letting out a tremendous battle cry. Henry Knox wrote: “The troops behaved like men contending for everything that was dear and valuable”.[5]

General Sullivan entered Trenton on the River Road and blocked the only crossing over the Assunpink Creek to cut off the Hessian escape. A few lucky Hessians would swim across the creek before the Americans would secure it, along with 20 British dragoons. As Greene and Sullivan’s columns pushed into the town, Washington moved to high ground north of King and Queens streets. At the same time, artillery under the command of John Cadwalader fired across the Delaware river from Pennsylvania, devastating the Hessians. Colonel Rall, arriving on the scene in a delayed fashion, ordered his soldiers to form and advance on the American cannons positioned on Kings and Queens streets. While the Hessians charged at the Americans, they were gunned down by the fire of the guns themselves and also from men under the command of General Hugh Mercer, who fired on their left flank from houses. In the face of withering fire, Rall ordered two three pound cannons to attempt to return fire at the Americans; in just a few short minutes, over half of the German artillerymen were killed by American fire, and the guns were captured by the Americans.

As these Hessians retreated and reformed in fields to the south of town, they were shocked to find Americans under the command of General Sullivan blocking their escape. For perhaps one of the first times of the war, American troops under the command of John Stark performed a bayonet charge, breaking several lines of Hessians. Now bottled up with nowhere to turn, the Germans suffered tremendously, taking heavy casualties on all sides from American musketry and cannon fire. Some confused Hessians that had been ordered to join an attack to the north attempted to break out to the south across a bridge over the Assunpink creek after marching in the wrong direction. Men under the command of John Sullivan quickly broke their attack, inflicting casualties and forcing them to surrender. In one final attempt to break out of the American entrapment, Rall reformed his men in a field and led them against the American flank near town. Attempting to advance up Kings Street, the Hessians received more American fire from three directions. Despite this, they were successful in recapturing their lost cannons and attempted to fire them at the Americans. Henry Knox, seeing this, ordered six of his men to charge forward and retake the guns. After a brief hand to hand struggle, the cannons were recaptured by the Americans. At the same time, Washington led some men forward to crush the last pockets of German resistance, riding at the front of his men, yelling “March on, my brave fellows, after me!”[6] In this final flurry of activity, Colonel Rall was mortally wounded, shot in the thigh and abdomen. Completely surrounded and with their leader ailing, the Hessians surrendered. The battle of Trenton was over.

The Americans had achieved their first true battlefield victory, and it was perhaps the most important in the history of the nation. In total, the Hessians would suffer 22 killed, 83 wounded, and 896 captured. 500 Hessians would escape across the Assunpink creek south of town. Colonel Rall would die later that day from his wounds. He was buried in the graveyard of Trenton’s First Presbyterian Church. Unbelievably and miraculously, not a single American was killed in the action, with only 5 men wounded. Among these men was an 18 year old named Lieutenant James Monroe, the future president of the United States. Besides the two souls who froze to death on the march to Trenton, not one American perished in the battle. The Americans also captured thousands of rounds of ammunition, firearms, and most importantly, hundreds of pounds of flour, salted meat, and other foodstuffs. Tents, shoes, blankets, clothing, and much needed medical supplies also were seized by the Americans. These items were much needed by the ragged remnants of the Continental Army.

They had braved the freezing cold, ice, snow, and sleet. They had marched in silence along the snow covered roads to Trenton. In their tattered clothes and on empty stomachs, these courageous men had somehow achieved a miracle victory at Trenton. Defying all logic and rational reason, 2,400 ragged, starving and half-shoeless Americans had braved an icy blizzard and saved their country from the brink of utter defeat and ruin. The entire country was reinvigorated. The cause of freedom and independence, which hours before had seemed all but lost, was alive and well. Historian George Bancroft noted “Until that hour the life of the United States flickered like a dying flame… (Trenton) turned the shadow of death into morning”.[7] Washington, against all odds, in the face of adversity unrivaled by perhaps any world leader in history, had saved his army and his nation from utter collapse, defeat, and death. Historian John Fiske wrote “At this awful moment, the whole future of America, and of all that America signifies to the world, rested upon Washington’s single titanic will”[8]. Triumphantly, the Americans and their captured enemies marched back to the Delaware river, nine miles north of the town, and repeated the crossing, arriving to the safety of Pennsylvania. Exhausted beyond description, these men had been awake for over 24 hours when they finally arrived back in their camps in Bucks County. And yet, the campaign was far from over.

Every year, when celebrating the Christmas holiday in safety, security and hearty peace, remember the fortitude and unspeakable courage of these few thousand souls, who against all odds, saved their nation and changed history forever. Without them, Americans through the ages, and the world at large, would never know or enjoy the prosperity and liberty that marked the ages since. With their all at stake, they prevailed. In sum, as G.M. Trevelyan so poignantly stated: “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater or more lasting results upon the history of the world”[9]. God bless them, and God bless America.

[1] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 273.

[2] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 272.

[3] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 251.

[4] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 274.

[5] David G. McCullough, 1776 (London: The Folio Society, 2005), 282.

[6] Mark Maloy, Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776-January 3, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018), 58.

[7] Mark Maloy, Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776-January 3, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018), 150.

[8] Mark Maloy, Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776-January 3, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018), 150.

[9] Mark Maloy, Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776-January 3, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2018), 150.


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