The year 2008 will not go down as a banner year in American history. It has been, as Queen Elizabeth described 1992, the year of the Diana-Charles divorce, an “annus horribilis.” Financial implosions at home, upheavals abroad, and the specter of unemployment stalk too many families this holiday season.
But no matter how bad we think we have it — no matter how awful we think it can get — our problems are but a pittance compared to the horrors that were staring George Washington in the face during the Christmas season 202 years ago.
We all know the general outline of what happened that December 25-26 in 1776. Washington crossed the ice-choked Delaware River with his little army to attack the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. His victory was a shot in the arm to a flagging cause and helped assure American independence.
That’s the school book version, anyway. The full story is a little more problematic and a lot more frightening. In fact, there is every reason to believe that without Washington’s little excursions into the New Jersey countryside (not just once but again on January 3 at Princeton), the patriot cause would have died and the idea of an independent America would have been delayed — if not destroyed.
There has never been as bleak a Christmas in America as that awful early winter of 1776. The winter at Valley Forge the following year was rough but there was reason for hope; the Franco-American alliance was on the way and the tender ministrations and training of Baron Von Stueben was making the fiercely independent American soldier into a disciplined and effective weapon of war.
But no such hope was evident in the patriot ranks as they shivered in their makeshift camp on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River. More than 90% of the army that had fought in New York the previous summer and fall had been killed, captured, or deserted what they believed was a lost cause. The Continentals had known nothing but defeat and disaster. Washington had been outmaneuvered, outflanked, and outgeneraled at every turn; Brooklyn Heights, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Forts Washington and Lee (where 3,000 Continentals surrendered instead of abandoning the indefensible forts) became a sad litany of failure for the American army.
The British commander, General Sir William Howe, took up the chase of Washington’s disintegrating army across most of New Jersey until early December when winter closed in and Howe decided to go back to the friendly confines of New York and partake of the distractions there. The Continental Army — hungry, cold, and demoralized — sat disconsolately in their camp awaiting the final blow from the British. But winter campaigning back then, while not unheard of, was still considered risky. Howe thought he knew the mettle of the men he was facing and determined that in six weeks there would be no army left to fight anyway.
It appeared the rest of the country felt that way as well. Patriots in New York and New Jersey took advantage of General Howe’s generous offer of a pardon and flocked to the British standard. Fearing capture, the Congress fled Philadelphia for Baltimore. They placed Washington in charge of both military and civilian affairs, thus making him a de facto military dictator. Not that there was anyone or anything to dictate to. Washington himself believed the cause was lost when he wrote his cousin in mid-December “I think the game is pretty near up.”
It may very well have been except for two things: Washington’s fierce determination to go on the offensive and the writings of a dour, New England leveler named Thomas Paine.
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.