Christmas 1776: General Washington and his troops had been defeated in September, driven from Brooklyn to Manhattan; from Manhattan to north of New York City, around the Palisades, across New Jersey.
They declined from 30,000 troops in September, to 2500 effectives on Christmas Day. Of the 2500, one-third did not have boots. They were wearing burlap bags wrapped around their feet, and as they marched, they left a trail of blood.
General Washington knew that if he didn’t win a victory soon, the entire Army would disappear, and so he had to do something desperate.
He proposed to cross an icy river at night, in a snow storm, and then march nine miles in the dark to the city of Trenton, a village that had 800 German troops, professional Hessians, to surprise them and to capture them. It was a very dangerous plan.
Because it was harder to get there than they thought, they were four hours late, and yet as a sign of Divine Providence, there was an enormous snow storm coming from the north, from behind them, pushing them toward Trenton. A storm so enormous that the German troops said nobody could be out in this weather. So they didn’t post guards. They didn’t muster at dawn as they normally would, because it was impossible.
For Europeans it probably was impossible, but these were Americans. They were used to the American winter. They were used to deer hunting in the American winter. They were used to traveling in the winter. This was just a terrible winter. It wasn’t a reason to stop.
Washington’s troops surprised the Germans – captured 800 of them at the cost of one American and then ran for the river before the British Army could catch them. They went across the river with their prisoners. Within two weeks 15,000 volunteers showed up, and Washington began driving the British across New Jersey. The Revolution had been saved.
How big a gamble was it? That night as they began to get in the boats, they were told that the password for the evening was Victory or Death, and they meant it. They were prepared to give everything for freedom. Within four months, Washington had been swept off Long Island, chased the length of Manhattan and the forts on the Hudson had fallen. Washington now retreated across the Delaware to Pennsylvania. Raw recruits had been no match for the well trained British army. These disasters undermined French support and the French Foreign Minister ordered a halt to the sale of munitions to America and suspended the sailing of French middleman, Pierre Caron, alias Beaumarchais, ships which covertly supplied America with munitions. If the British had been able to capture the capitol at Philadelphia the war might have ended quickly, but General Howe went into winter quarters in New York City and was sure Washington would do the same - - Philadelphia was spared for the winter.
The 6,000 man Continental army, war weary, footsore, and hungry, with more than one-half of its enlistments up by the New Year, limped through New Jersey. Howe now dismissed Washington's army as a military skeleton. It seemed that Howe might have been right, as the forts along the Hudson River fell and Washington silently watched as his dispirited army withered away. Washington spoke his innermost fears: "I think the game is about up."
During the day, Thomas Paine served as a volunteer Aide-deCamp, and at night by the light of the campfire he began to write a pamphlet which he called "The Crisis". It so impressed Washington that he ordered his bands of downcast soldiers called together, and Paine's essay was read to them. Words do not normally inspire beaten, threadbare, hungry, and shivering men, but Paine's words bolstered up their courage, it made some ashamed, some bolder, and caused others to return and fight. Paine's words have endured ever since as an inspiration to soldiers facing long odds:
"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 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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as Freedom would not be highly rated. "
Washington took his troops across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The Continental Congress, fearing a British attack, then abandoned Philadelphia for Baltimore. A victory was urgently needed if the army was to hold together, and there was but short time to achieve it. Washington planned a surprise move on Christmas Day, a bold attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians were an attractive target. The British had made a mistake in loosing the Hessians on American civilians in New Jersey. British Lord Francis Rawdon claimed it was necessary for the Redcoats to ravage the countryside and the women to teach a lesson to these infatuated wretches. In New Jersey, Redcoats consumed all available fire wood and burned fences, fruit trees, the sidings and roofs of homes, mills, and farmhouses for fuel or to intimidate the populace. Hats and coats were snatched from heads and backs, and horses, sheep, cows, hogs, and dogs were stolen. The Hessians were guided by the European mercenary's manners: whatever is portable is stolen, what ever is fixed is burned down or blown up, and if a woman was not willing, rape was acceptable. For their amusement, the Hessians sent their women camp followers into town dressed in finery stolen from American women. This did not sit well with either Loyalist or Patriot colonists. lace fabric evening wears
There were two approaches to Trenton, a northern road ending at the east end of town and a southern road ending at the west end of town. A Continental force of 2,400 men under Washington's personal command was to cross the Delaware above Trenton and then divide; Greene's force would take the northern approach and Major General John Sullivan's force the southern approach. Both were to arrive at the opposite ends of the main street of Trenton in the early morning of December 26th and control it with cannon. A second force, mainly militia, under Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross below Trenton and attack the Hessian garrison under Colonel Carl Von Donop at Bordentown to prevent it from supporting the Hessians at Trenton. A third force, also militia, under Brigadier General James Ewing, was to take the bridge over Assunpink Creek on the Bordentown road, and block the Hessian's escape from Trenton.
Hessian Colonel Johann Rall awoke Christmas morning with his usual hangover. He dressed and prepared to celebrate the Nativity in a hearty German manner, winter quarters were for wine, women, and cards. On Christmas evening, Rall attended a party at the home of a wealthy Trenton merchant and enjoyed wine and cards. In the middle of the stormy night there was a knock on the door and a Tory brought important news for the Colonel, but Rall would not see him. The Tory then wrote a note telling Rall that the American army was on the march. A servant delivered the note to Rall. Rall believed he could control all New Jersey with just a corporal's guard and had railed at a junior officer who suggested the Trenton ferry be fortified: "Let them come! We want no trenches. We'll go after them with the bayonet". Rall stuck the note in his pocket and went to bed without reading it. Washington had chosen his opponent well.
Washington ordered the troops ferried across just after dark, but a storm arose, first snow, then freezing rain, snow, and hail. Colonel John Fitzgerald, Washington's Aide-de-Camp wrote: "It is fearfully cold and raw and as snowstorm is coming. The wind northeast beats into the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for those who have no shoes. Some of them have tied only rags about their feet - - others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain."
The Delaware River was filled with blocks of ice. Total silence was required and no one was to break ranks under pain of death. On the crossing jagged floating ice flows struck the boats so hard that it was difficult to keep them afloat. Colonel John Glover's regiment, mostly made up of sailors and fishermen, manned the boats and managed to get 2,400 men, their horses and 18 cannon across the icy river. The crossing was to have been completed by midnight, but the storm was so severe it was not completed until nearly 4 a.m. After crossing, they marched down icy roads on unprotected feet to Trenton, leaving a trail of blood anyone could follow. General Sullivan sent back word that the men's muskets would not fire due to being exposed to the storm all night. Washington replied: "Rely on the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton."
Hessian Major Friedrich Dechow did not send out the usual predawn patrol because of the severe storm. Greene and Sullivan converged on Trenton just before eight o'clock on the morning of December 26th. The Hessian pickets cried: "Der Feind! Heraus! Heraus! (The enemy! Turn out! Turn out!")
Colonel RaIl formed his blue coated regiment on King Street and scarlet-coated Lossbergs marched to take over parallel Queen Street. At the top of King Street and Queen Street stood two American cannons, but would they fire after all the rain and sleet? Captain Alexander Hamilton's gunners struck their matches in the touch holes and the cannons roared with grape shot. Ralls' regiment disintegrated and fell back. Two other cannon quickly cleared Queen Street.The Lossbergs fired back with cannon of their own, but Captain William Washington (General Washington's cousin) and Lieutentant James Monroe led their men into the cannon's mouths and captured them, both officers were wounded in the action.
Brigadier General James Ewing approached over the Bordentown road but was not able to the cross the bridge over Assunpink Creek and four hundred Hessians dashed over it. RaIl tried to reform his troops and counterattack, but was mortally wounded with two bullets in his body, the fateful note unread in his pocket. Sullivan was able to take the Assunpink bridge and close the escape gap, and one by one the Hessians surrendered. In all about 920 were captured, 22 were killed, and 78 were wounded. American losses were small: two Americans had frozen to death on the march, and two officers and two privates had been wounded in the battle. When Washington learned that the Hessians had surrendered, he turned and said: "Wilkinson, this is a glorious day for our country. "
In twenty four hours the little American Army had gone from the depths of despair to the heights of exaltation.