Already well-known as a political writer, having published the pro-independence screed Common Sense the previous spring, Paine saw the army faltering. He wrote a series of essays beginning with The American Crisis, which he addressed specifically to the army but which is widely remembered for its stirring opening:
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 by it now, deserves the love and thanks of 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.
Washington had the essay read to every man in the army. Many of the hard bitten Continentals were probably beyond the kind of appeals to patriotism offered up by Paine, but it certainly cheered the Americans still loyal to the cause in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And it laid the groundwork for the political comeback that was to occur after Trenton.
Howe set up a supply dump at New Brunswick, New Jersey, and maintained communications by establishing a 500 mile string of outposts between Hackensack and his base of supplies. Two of those outposts — Trenton and Princeton — now became the object of Washington’s plans. An inveterate gambler (he was an avid Wist player), Washington now was preparing to gamble the future of the nation on what seemed like a preposterous scheme. He planned to fight a “War of Posts,” rolling up the lightly defended British outposts, forcing Howe to shorten his lines and free New Jersey of British regulars and the hated Hessians.
Washington had barely 2,400 regulars in camp, supplemented by 1,900 New Jersey militiamen. His first planned strike involved crossing the Delaware River and hitting Trenton at dawn on December 26 with three converging columns. Uniting his forces, he then proposed to move on Princeton and, if conditions warranted, the British base at New Brunswick.
The plan came a cropper on Christmas night when two of the columns were unable to cross the ice choked Delaware River. Only the heroic efforts of the famous Marblehead regiment which manned the oars and rowed beyond exhaustion allowed Washington to get 2,400 men and two precious cannons across the river. But instead of taking a few hours, the crossing took all night. It wasn’t until dawn that Washington began the slow and painful march on Trenton. Since Washington’s unconventional but highly effective intelligence operatives had given him a detailed layout of the Hessian positions — including the placement of sentries — he felt confident that he could still achieve the surprise he so desperately needed to succeed.
It was a nightmare march made in the absolute worst conditions imaginable. Snow and sleet ripped through the holes in the men’s coats so that they wrapped themselves in blankets to try and keep warm. It was said you could gauge the progress of the army by following the bloody footprints in the snow as many of the men had no shoes and had wrapped rags around their feet. Frostbite was common among the soldiers. Two died from exposure. But Washington pressed on.
Reaching Trenton around 8:00 AM, they quickly overcame the sentries and entered the town. The Hessians never had a chance and it was over in a matter of minutes. Washington had his victory and tons of blessed supplies along with 900 prisoners. But the rest of his army was still on the Pennsylvania side of the river and Washington was forced to retreat. He knew that the attack on Trenton would draw the wrath of the British, so on December 30, he recrossed the Delaware planning to meet their attack just outside of Trenton at Assunpink Creek where he set up a very strong defensive position.
Meanwhile, the British under General Cornwallis were having a devil of a time, being harassed by a suddenly aroused New Jersey militia, heartened by Washington’s spectacular victory a few days earlier at Trenton. Cornwallis left 1,600 men at Princeton and set off for Trenton to crush Washington, but the guerrilla tactics of the militia slowed him considerably. It was nearly dark by the time he had marched his 5,500 men the 11 miles from Princeton to Assunpink Creek, and Cornwallis only had time for three futile charges that broke on the American breastworks. Calling a halt to the battle, Cornwallis figured to finish the Continentals the next day.
But Washington had plans of his own. Leaving a couple hundred men to tend fires in order to make the British believe he was still in Trenton, he marched his 6,000 men all the way around the British Army, falling on Princeton in the morning.
At first, the battle went badly for the Americans. Washington had once again divided his forces and one wing of his army ran smack into a British column that was on its way to support Cornwallis at Trenton. After a fierce fight, the Americans began to retreat in confusion. But Washington, coming up with reinforcements, rode straight into the teeth of the British fire and with bullets rending the air all about him he reportedly cried out to his men:
Parade with me my brave fellows, we will have them soon!
The retreating men stopped in the tracks and the entire contingent surged forward to route the British. Then, cool as a cucumber, Washington marched his men to the heights above Morristown, where Howe realized his suddenly energized opponent could swoop down and overcome any of his small outposts dotting the New Jersey countryside. Reluctantly, after three defeats in a little more than a week, Howe was forced to pull his troops out of New Jersey.
The victory at Trenton would have been enough to make George Washington a beloved figure for all time in American history. But it was his subsequent victories at Assunpink Creek and Princeton that changed the course of the war. It reignited patriot fervor in the colonies. Enlistments in the army skyrocketed. The patriot spirit spread across the land and church bells tolled from New England to Georgia in joyous recognition of the victories.
A fortnight earlier, the cause of American independence was thought to be lost. There was little to celebrate for patriots that Christmas. But by the beginning of the New Year, the entire tenor of the war had been altered and the people who were fighting it found renewed hope in that cherished cause.
George Washington would go on to suffer more defeats at the hands of the British and other crises would confront the former colonies in the long years ahead. But there is no doubt that Washington’s victories in the waning days of 1776 redeemed his reputation and set the United States on the path to winning their independence.