Christmas 1776 was a crucial turning point in America’s war for independence. It brought a most heroic and unexpected victory on the heels of humiliating retreat from New York through New Jersey. Few people recall that bleak moment in December, 1776 when the very existence of the American cause of liberty was so severely threatened. The Declaration of Independence was only six months old. Thomas Paine’s immortal words describe this critical period as the “American Crisis”. He said: “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 his country but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
The magnificent courage exhibited by Washington and his men on Christmas 1776 must never be forgotten. It was truly a miracle and a sign of further blessings yet to come. The significance of that Christmas night along the Delaware River was perhaps best expressed almost five years later in a Virginia town near the Chesapeake Bay. The occasion was a victory dinner after America’s final victory at Yorktown. As was the custom in those days, the victorious General Washington had just proposed a toast to the defeated British General Lord Cornwallis (the same man who five years before drove Washington and his rapidly diminishing troops from New York and on through New Jersey and across the Delaware to the safety of the Pennsylvania shore). The British General looked squarely into the eyes of the man who had been his skilled and determined opponent for more than half a decade. Who, better than Cornwallis, could accurately assess the strategies and abilities of America’s Commander-in-Chief? All awaited Cornwallis’ answer to the toast offered by General Washington. Surely, it would refer to Washington’s decisive victory in the just concluded battle of Yorktown. Instead, however, Cornwallis said: “When the illustrious part which your Excellency has born and the long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels from the banks of the Delaware rather than those of the Chesapeake.”
To what was Cornwallis referring when he described the “banks of the Delaware?” Many there that night likely did not understand the reference but it was not lost on General Washington. His thoughts turned back to that Christmas night in 1776 when he crossed the icy Delaware and with his men achieved the unthinkable. The crossing took much longer than what he had anticipated when he began the march with his thinly clad men (many of whom walked barefoot on the frozen ground or wrapped their feet in rags). It was nearly 3 AM and it soon became evident that the Americans could not reach Trenton before daybreak. Would it still be possible to surprise Colonel Rall and his Hessian mercenaries who were some of the best trained soldiers in all of Europe? The watchword for the American troops was, “Victory or death”. They lived up to that noble creed.
PRIOR EVENTS AND EXTREME HARDSHIPS
To fully understand the whole story behind the miraculous victory at Trenton, we must understand the events that preceded it. We must go back to July 4, 1776, a most stirring day for the American cause of liberty. General Washington gathered his officers and troops and shared with them the momentous Declaration of Independence that had just been issued by the assembled delegates of the Thirteen Colonies in Philadelphia. Said Washington:
“The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be Free men….; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses and Farms, are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness, from which no human effort will probably deliver them. The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission; that is all we can expect. We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die; our Own Country’s Honor all call upon us for vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions. The eyes of all our countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other and shew the whole world that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth. . .”
At that most hopeful moment, nearly 17,000 hired German Hessian soldiers were arriving in America. On August 27th, the disastrous battle of Long Island took place. 600 Americans were killed and over 1,000 were taken prisoners. Setbacks continued throughout the fall. By mid-November, the American troops were in a pitiful condition. In addition to the loss of troops, Washington lost substantial quantities of invaluable equipment and supplies. He was forced to flee across New Jersey. He had already lost over 5,000 men during the past three months. He prepared to retreat across New Jersey with less than 4,000 men and somehow managed to escape being trapped by the British.
On November 19, Washington wrote to his brother, John Augustus, “It is impossible to give you any idea of our situation, of my difficulties and of the constant perplexities . . . I meet with derived from the unhappy policy of short enlistments . . . I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things and I solemnly protest that a pecuniary reward of 20,000 pounds would not induce me to undergo what I do.” Frequent desertions were a common reality. Washington could not help but feel discouraged in his efforts to get reinforcements both from the State of New Jersey and the slow and often indecisive Congress.
AMERICAN TROOPS RETREAT FURTHER AND ARE FORCED TO FLEE FROM NEW JERSEY
Washington and his men were forced to abandon their post at Newark New Jersey just as the British, 12,000 strong, were entering the City. The Americans were hard pressed to keep going and conceal their weakness. Washington was forced to rely on local militia from place to place rather than a true standing American army. The terms of enlistments of the Maryland and New Jersey militia were set to expire on December 1st. They demanded their discharges and left for home. This encouraged many more desertions. Many of the American soldiers, insufficiently clothed and fed, were bribed and persuaded to join forces with the well fed and well outfitted British. Enthusiasm for the American cause of Independence was as low as the spirits of the hungry American troops. Nevertheless, General Washington refused to succumb to the growing spirit of general gloom. He was always planning and looking ahead. To preserve such options, he was forced to literally burn bridges behind him as he retreated to safety and worked to block the British in their pursuit and attempts to capture his troops.
Alexander Hamilton, although not yet twenty years of age, became an experienced fighter and a loyal assistant to the General he came to love and revere above all men. Washington’s army now numbered barely 3,000. Many of his men were without shoes, stockings and even shirts. Blankets and supplies had to be abandoned because there were no wagons to carry such equipment. Remaining tents were ordered burned to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. The men could only think longingly of such abandoned tents and blankets as they lay close together on the bare ground. Most of the soldiers wore linen hunting shirts. They were filthy, ragged and infected. Fevers, pneumonia and dysentery were rampant. General Greene referred to their conditions as “beyond description and shocking to humanity.” There were no bandages or medical supplies. General Washington, himself, fared little better than his men. He and his secretary and aides often slept on the bare ground as well. As Thomas Paine had so movingly written, these truly were “the times that try men’s souls.” These Americans were, indeed, no “summer soldiers”. Their greatest desire was that their fellow countrymen would help them drive the enemy back. They were united in a glorious common cause and that was the cause of freedom. This was “the American Crisis.”
Washington reached Princeton, New Jersey by December 2nd. From there, he led his barefoot and almost naked army to the edge of the Delaware River. He made sure that not a single boat remained in which the enemy could pursue them across the River. He personally supervised the destruction of all bridges and the felling of trees across the road to block the British in their pursuit. The American forces crossed the river on December 8th. General Howe and the British troops were then marching into Trenton. The British could not find a single boat in which to pursue the Americans. Cornwallis led some of his troops up the river but they could find no boats to pursue the Americans. General Howe sent his men down the river but the answer was the same – “No boats to be found anywhere.” Among General Washington’s troops was a young James Monroe, age 18. (He was wounded in the battle at Trenton). He later became President of the United States. He was then a serious young officer with great promise. Colonel Henry Knox, 26 year old bookseller from Boston, fought at the battle of Bunker Hill and would later serve in Washington’s first cabinet once the Constitution was adopted and the new government established. A Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginia Regiment was Chief Justice Thomas Marshall, father of the future United States Supreme Court Chief Justice.
In a letter to Congress on December 16, Washington wrote, “The clothing of the troops is a matter of infinite importance. Their distresses are extremely great, many being naked, and most so thinly clad as to be unfit for service.”
THE BRITISH PREPARE TO RETIRE FOR THE WINTER AND ASSUME THAT THE WAR FOR AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE IS NEARLY OVER
It was believed that the British had settled into winter quarters and, if so, that meant temporary safety for the Americans. One American soldier, Joseph White, wrote: “The privation and suffering we endured is beyond description. No tent to cover us at night; exposed to rains night and day; no food of any kind but a little raw flour”. He reported that when they managed to enter a Pennsylvania tavern and found attractive food items, which tempted them, the store keeper refused to sell them to them because their paper money from the American colonies was deemed worthless. These conditions explained why volunteers were so scarce. One reporter wrote that the spirits of the people seem much depressed and that unless something turned up more favorable, “I dread the consequences.” New England Governor Turnbull asked, “Is America to be lost? Is she to fall a victim to the rage of a lawless tyrant? …. God Almighty forbid. . . . Our army to the westward naked and barefoot, fleeing before the enemy . . . . May God give us a spirit of wisdom, fortitude and resolution in this evil day!”
Cornwallis was so sure of a quick and easy victory that he planned a trip home to England over the winter months. He would be back in the spring “if there is another campaign, which we doubt.” In England, it was believed that the war was over. Benjamin Franklin, in Paris, struggled to overcome the French unwillingness to help a failing cause.
Washington was forced to fight essentially a defensive war. He knew that affirmative action must be taken but he did not have the resources to mount an offensive campaign or so it seemed. He had previously written that they must “on all occasions avoid a general action, or put anything to the risk, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.” General Washington kept his numerable problems mostly to himself. On December 18th, however, he disclosed to his brother: “No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them. The game is almost up.” Still, he had an unshakable confidence in the justice of the cause and the fighting ability of his men and an overriding Divine Providence.
The King of England hired German mercenaries (“Hessians”) to fight their battle. They were told that they could find private fortunes in America and that they were free to loot and steal at will. They did so. They plundered the homes and barns of the American colonists and had no respect for private or public property.
On December 23, Washington wrote to his Generals, “Christmas day at night, one hour before day, is the time fixed for our attempt on Trenton. For heaven sake, keep this to yourself as discovery may prove fatal to us. Dire necessity will, nay, must, justify attempt.” The watchword for the attempt was “Victory or Death” and victory or death it surely would be. Not only death to the American troops but also to the cause of liberty itself. General Washington was keenly aware that his men, hungry as they were for food, needed spiritual nourishment as well. He had copies of Thomas Paine’s stirring words rushed to his camp. They were written just a few days before. He ordered it read to all the men and there were none who were not made braver by them.
Washington was set to cross the Delaware River from McKonkey’s Ferry on the Pennsylvania side with a force of 2,400 men. Every officer was ordered to wear a piece of white paper in his hat to distinguish him in the darkness. As soon as darkness fell, the boats (which had been kept in hiding since their retreat) were brought down to the Ferry landing. The diary of one of Washington’s officers captures the tension of the hour: “Six o’clock PM . . . . It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm is setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the men who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet, others are barefoot, but I have never heard a man complain. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty.”
The snow soon turned to sleet. Bloody tracks in the snow told the tragic story of poorly shod, frozen feet. In the darkness, Washington directed the preparations as the men set out to cross the ice jammed Delaware River. Other regiments were forced to turn back but General Washington and his men successfully crossed the river. One officer wrote, “I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops.” In the midst of it all, the question of the ages lingered. Would this venture mean victory or death to the Country’s struggle for Independence? This was the early American crisis. Yet few were aware of it.
The preparations were so difficult that it was until after 3 AM and not the anticipated midnight when the charge finally began. The snow changed to sleet and cut like a knife. As the men marched towards Trenton, General Greene was leading one column of troops. He sent a message to Washington. He wrote, “Muskets wet and can’t be fired.” Washington’s reply was brief, “Tell your General to use the bayonet. The town must be taken.” General Greene looked on with compassion when he realized that many of his men were without bayonets.
While the Americans drew close, the British enjoyed the peace and comfort of warm and ample accommodations on the Jersey side of the Delaware. Their military leaders received several warnings and news of isolated skirmishes that should have alerted them to the coming attack if they were not so overconfident and complacent. Additionally, they were feeling the effects of a night of drunkenness as part of their Christmas celebrations.
When the American troops successfully confronted their Hessian enemies and were able to trap them with no avenue for retreat, their humanity was demonstrated to a remarkable degree. They fired over the heads of their enemies and took not their lives. The Hessians threw down their muskets and the Americans jubilantly tossed their hats in the air. Victory was theirs in less than two hours after the first shot was fired. And, miraculously, in this swift attack, not a single American was killed. Washington and his brave men had proven beyond measure that they were indeed no “summer soldiers” and through all time deserve the “thanks of man and woman.”
WASHINGTON AND HIS MEN AGAIN CROSS THE DELAWARE AND STRIKE A SECOND TIME
As great as their victory was that Christmas in 1776, Washington knew it would not last unless they pressed on and quickly added to the scope of their triumph. The Americans again crossed the Delaware and were justly proud of themselves. “This is a glorious day for our country,” said Washington to an officer. Still, he knew more was needed. His men’s enlistments were set to run out in just a few days. If he simply settled into winter’s quarters at that time, the battle would have been but a fleeting day of glory and no more. All of New Jersey would be left in enemy hands and Philadelphia vulnerable to further attack. If so, the Battle of Trenton would have been but an isolated raid and not the crucial turning point which it proved to be. Washington knew that they must quickly strike and attack again. To do so, he must persuade his men to extend their service. Thus, he went to them and with great emotion appealed to them as follows:
“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected….You have worn yourselves out with fatigue and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances.”
Fellow patriot Robert Morris of Philadelphia rushed $50,000 in currency for Washington to give to the men as bonuses. When Washington had strengthened and confirmed his army, they again crossed the Delaware River for the fourth time that month. They successfully took the town of Princeton and pushed the British all the way back to New York. With that total victory came a new respect for the American cause of liberty and a new faith in its future.
The effect of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and the American victories at Trenton and Princeton was truly amazing. The self-confidence of British military leaders was shaken. Confidence in the American Commander-in-Chief spread not only throughout the colonies but abroad. The Americans had so long been on the defensive and expected a winter of constant alarm and attacks on Philadelphia but now it was the British who remained anxious and wondered what move Washington would next make. The notion of British invincibility was shattered and the tide of public opinion turned. Recruiting was on the rise and belief in the great cause of liberty soared. The momentum carried the colonists onward through the difficult winter at Valley Forge and onto ultimate victory at Yorktown.
EIGHT YEARS OF DEVOTED AND UNINTERRUPTED MILITARY SERVICE AND SEPARATION FROM HOME FOR GENERAL WASHINGTON
Not until just before Christmas 1783 did George Washington finally return to his beloved home at Mount Vernon. Over eight years, he was only able to spend three days there. That occurred in 1781 when he briefly stopped there on his fateful trip to Yorktown where the Americans would finally win the war with the help of the French naval fleet that blocked British retreat by sea. Again, there would have been no French support if were not for the 1776 Christmas crossing of the Delaware. Cornwallis was right in his tribute to Washington. The successful outcome of the Revolutionary War rested more on the events along the shores of the Delaware than even the Chesapeake.
A renowned British historian later wrote regarding the “American Revolution” that “it may be doubted whether such a small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting results upon the history of the world.”
May the New Year bring us all new hope and appreciation for our heritage and our founding principles and the shared trust and stewardship that are ours as Americans. The charge of President John Quincy Adams echoes still: “Posterity—you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.”
Posted by: LaVar Christensen