The Crossing of the Delaware, December 26, 1776
NOTE FROM STEWART: My Christmas message the other day focused on how Christmas is traditionally a time of peace. However, we should not forget that it has also been a time of war, when necessary. Today, December 26, is the anniversary of the battle of Trenton, New Jersey, which was a critical battle in the American Revolution, giving the patriot cause a much needed morale (and material) boost after a string of stinging defeats. The march and crossing of the Delaware river had begun on December 25, but the actual battle occurred in the early morning of the 26th.
That battle showed that men fighting for their freedom were more than a match for mercenaries fighting only for money – and making it a surprise attack at dawn the day after Christmas rather than a formal set-piece battle certainly helped too. It is a classic example of maneuver warfare, working inside the enemy’s OODA loop by striking when and where least expected, and under the most advantageous circumstances (when it came to the actual fighting). It was a hard, dangerous crossing and a miserable march, in a snow storm, in the dark, but a hard march made for an easy fight. The American patriots walked away from that battle with only four injured, none killed (except for two men who froze to death during the night march), nine hundred Hessian prisoners, and lots of nice new boots, muskets, and cannon. What a Christmas present for the American cause! It was a good day!
Below is a wonderful article about it, written by Oath Keeper Jennifer Terhune, and originally published in The Oath Keeper newspaper (http://www.theoathkeepernews.com/).
Lest We Forget … Christmas 1776
The Oath Keeper
Christmas Day, 1776, was a dismal, freezing day for the troops of the Continental Army serving under General George Washington. The Americans were camped on the banks of the Delaware River in temperatures well below freezing. In the afternoon of that Christmas Day, a raw, icy wind began to blow in from the northeast. The soldiers didn’t really have anything resembling uniforms. Many of them had no shoes; the best they could do was to wrap rags around their feet. The troops were constantly battling illness caused by exposure and disease.
Even worse, morale was at an all time low. Washington’s army had just retreated across the Delaware River after a long line of disastrous campaigns in New York. The ranks were dwindling as more men deserted every day. Many men thought the war was over, that the Americans had lost. Even General Washington had his doubts. In a letter to his brother, he worried about “a noble cause lost” and wrote: “I think the game is pretty near up.”
The British certainly thought so. General Howe, commander of the British troops, felt he had the Americans beaten and bottled up. He left a battalion of Hessians under command of Colonel Johann Rall in Trenton to keep the Americans at bay. Howe himself returned to the comforts of New York City to enjoy the holiday season.
Washington decided that the time was ripe for the Americans to strike a decisive blow. Activity was preferable to waiting out the miserable winter without supplies, and with disease and desertion ravaging his troops. The New York campaign had convinced Washington that direct, army versus army battles with the British were not winnable for the Americans. There were simply too many British and Hessians, who were too well equipped and too well trained. The Americans were sadly lacking in all those areas. The Americans were too few, they were poorly trained, and they were undersupplied.
Washington decided that until these deficiencies were fixed, the Americans needed to stick to small engagements and surprise attacks; in effect, “guerilla” warfare. And Washington knew that the best time for such a blow was when the enemy least expected it. The element of surprise was essential.
And so, as the wind began to mix with icy sleet and snow, on December 25, 1776, the main body of Continental troops got the orders to march to a narrow point in the Delaware River known as McKonkey’s Ferry. The troops did not know where they were going or why, but as one soldier, John Greenwood, later wrote: “I never heard soldiers say anything, or trouble themselves, as to where they were or where they were led…for it was all the same owing to the impossibility of being in a worse condition than their present one, and therefore the men always liked to be kept moving in expectation of bettering themselves.”
Secrecy was the order of the day. Complete silence was imposed on the marching troops, and the password for the expedition, decided on by General Washington earlier in the day, was “Victory or Death.”
Two smaller forces of troops, commanded by General John Cadwalader and General James Ewing, were set to cross the river at different points, to join in the attack or at least create a diversion from the real target, the Hessian garrison at Trenton. But the weather became fiercer. The temperatures dropped and the wind began to roar with all the ferociousness of a full-blown nor’easter. The wind was filled with icy sleet, snow, and hail. The river began to rise ominously and the rough, black water was surging with chunks of ice. The generals commanding the diversionary troops decided the river was impassable. Their troops would have had to travel over a hundred yards of ice to even reach the water’s edge. They decided to halt the attack and turn back. However, at the narrow point of McKonkey’s Ferry, General Washington did not appear to have any second thoughts. He stood watching the troops embark across the river, a solitary, silent figure wrapped in his cloak.
One of the trickiest parts of the expedition was the actual river crossing. The men were packed standing into shallow boats called Durham boats, and piloted across the river by men of Colonel John Glover’s 14th Regiment of Massachusetts. This regiment was well picked for the job; many were fishermen from Marblehead. They used long poles and oars to ferry the boats across the choppy, icy water.
By three a.m. on the morning of December 26th, 2,400 troops had crossed the river, as well as horses and artillery. They were three hours behind schedule, but the troops moved ahead into the stormy darkness, beginning the nine mile march south to Trenton. The storm continued unabated and, incredibly, grew worse. The soldiers struggled along the road that was hard and uneven with frozen ruts and slick with icy sleet. Men and horses slid and slipped in the dark. One soldier remembered later that he was so cold he was numb all over, “so be-numbed with cold that I wanted to go to sleep. Had I been passed unnoticed, I should have frozen to death without knowing it.” In fact, two soldiers did freeze to death during that bitterly cold march to Trenton.
At the crossroads of Birmingham, the army split, with one force under General Sullivan heading to the right, and General Washington’s troops keeping to the left on Pennington Road. The day dawned around seven a.m., a cold, wintry morning. The rising sun slowly outlined the barren trees along the road with the first rays of milky light, barely shining through the low hanging clouds. The men marched on, utterly silent, through the icy dawn, their feet crunching over the icy, slippery road.
Finally, at eight a.m., both columns were in position, immediately north of Trenton. The attack began as the men moved forward along Pennington Road, picking up their speed into a long trot. The storm was still pouring snow from the sky, and the wind was at the back of the American attackers. The Hessians guarding the road could barely see into the blinding storm and had no idea of the size of the force bearing down on them. They retreated smoothly into the town and kept up a steady fire at the advancing Americans.
General Sullivan’s troops attacked almost simultaneously from the River Road, opening the attack with the boom of artillery. One of Washington’s staff later remembered that “General Washington’s face lighted up instantly, for he knew it was one of Sullivan’s guns.”
The two American columns converged as they entered the town, and the Americans, wet and frozen to the bone, having just marched nine weary miles, threw themselves into combat with a ferocious will. The Hessians tried to form up in the streets, but Henry Knox had his artillery battalions ready, and they went into action with deadly force. The streets were cleared “in the twinkling of an eye”. The Americans had been ordered to fix their bayonets since the powder was wet from the snow and ice. Soon, savage house to house fighting was taking placing all through the houses and streets of Trenton. The air was filled with smoke from the artillery, screams and shouts in English and German, and still with swirling snow.
The Hessians rolled out an artillery gun and tried to take aim at the Americans, but before they could fire, six Virginians led by Captain William Washington (a distant relative of General George Washington) and Lieutenant James Monroe, rushed forward, seized the gun, and turned it on the Hessians.
Hessian Colonel Johann Rall tried to rally his troops and ordered a charge. But the American fire was too fierce, and the Hessians fled into an orchard. They were immediately surrounded, and surrendered when they realized their plight.
The battle, altogether, had taken about forty-five minutes. Twenty-one Hessians had been killed, and over nine hundred were captured. The Americans also captured six brass cannons, forty horses, and over a thousand weapons. Only four Americans were wounded in the Battle of Trenton. The only two fatalities were the two men who froze to death during the night march.
After securing the spoils of battle, the Americans turned around and marched back up the road, nine miles to McKonkey’s Ferry. Back through the freezing wintry day, back along the same icy ruts they had traveled through the long, bitter night, and back into the boats, over the surging, icy waters of the Delaware.
But the army that had marched down to Trenton was not the same that now marched back. They were no longer a demoralized, disintegrating army, but a victorious army that had soundly beaten a battle-hardened foe. Now they were an army that had struck a blow that would rock the British Empire to its core. Now they had won a battle that would allow the cause of freedom to live to fight another day.
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