“Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia (from Washington’s Crossing by D.H. Fischer).”
By Christmas eve of 1776, George Washington had retreated into Pennsylvania with what was left of his army, many of which were due to leave as their enlistments expired. Behind him were the elite forces of the British army, supplemented by the brutally effective Hessian troops. Only the Delaware River separated the Americans from certain annihilation.
These were the darkest of days for the fledgling colonial army. But many great leaders are defined by their actions in times of crisis, and Washington was up to the task. He chose to attack.
His target was Trenton, New Jersey, where 1200 crack Hessian troops under the command of Commandant Colonel Johann Rall defended the town (TheAmericanRevolution.org). If Washington failed, his defeat would almost certainly spell the end of the American Revolution.
He assembled his troops on Christmas day and divided them into three divisions, two of which were to cross the Delaware and attack the regions south of Trenton. The largest force was to cross further upriver and approach from the north under command of Washington himself.
The Americans began their crossing at dusk, and almost immediately things began to go wrong. A strong Nor’easter began to blow, driving sleet and freezing rain into the eyes of the soldiers. More ominously, the wind blew chunks of ice against the far side of the river, making the landing extremely hazardous. The conditions were so bad that the two southern divisions couldn’t get across the river in sufficient strength and eventually called off their assaults altogether. Washington, far to the north, faced similar conditions.
Nevertheless, he made the decision to go. To reach Trenton at sunrise, Washington figured, he would need to get his 2400 men across the river by midnight. But the weather and ice slowed the crossing and it wasn’t until 4AM that the troops started moving. Planning to reach the edge of town at sunrise (around 6AM), they didn’t arrive until 8 O’clock.
Washington had split his troops into two parts – the first, under General John Sullivan, marched parallel to the Delaware River and approached from the west. The rest went with General Washington (under the command of General Nathanael Greene) and marched along back roads approaching the town from the north. Both armies – miraculously – reached the outskirts of Trenton at nearly the same time.
The Hessians were caught completely by surprise. The Americans, who had done little more than run away from the Europeans in previous battles, fought tenaciously and routed their enemies. In the end, the Hessians lost 918 men (most of these surrendered); the Americans lost two killed and five wounded in combat. Four or five soldiers died of exposure during the march to Trenton (Washington’s Crossing).
The Battle of Trenton was the beginning salvo of a series of important battles that winter – at Trenton again (the Second Battle of Trenton) against a large British assault, and at Princeton a few days later. More importantly, the victory inspired an angry and determined militia to harrass the British and German forces for the next few months in multiple engagements called the Forage War. The British were stunned, and although they didn’t realize it at the time, they had begun their long journey toward defeat.
The spirit of the American soldier was crystalized that day. After months of defeat and embarrassment, the Americans had found their center. Beginning in the winter of 1776-1777 and continuing throughout their proud history, American fighting forces would be known for their cunning, tenacity, and humanity.
The brilliant conduct of today’s American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world can be attributed to good leadership and strong character, yes. But they are also the descendants of those cold, tired, and brave soldiers who crossed the Delaware with George Washington and changed the course of history.
“When the illustrious part that your Excellency has borne in this long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels rather from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake (Lord General Cornwallis, in a toast to General Washington after the Battle of Yorktown, 1781; from USHistory.org).”