’Twas the early evening of Christmas Day in 1776 and Gen. George Washington was on the verge of losing the Revolutionary War. His armies felt defeated and discouraged, his countrymen had lost confidence in his abilities, his adjutant-general Joseph Reed had conspired against him, his second in command Charles Lee had been captured two weeks prior on Friday the 13th, and Gen. Horatio Gates was off currying favor at his expense with the Continental Congress, which had fled Philadelphia for Baltimore days earlier.
A Desperate Gamble
With his men’s enlistments expiring in one week, Washington had no choice but to risk everything on a desperate gamble he hoped would save the cause. His plan was to split up the approximately 5,000 men left under his command into three coordinated strike teams, cross the Delaware River, surround the Hessian-occupied town of Trenton, and attack an hour before sunrise.
As he looked across the river from McConkey’s Ferry toward New Jersey, Washington must have reflected on the disastrous events that had led him to this point. When independence was declared in July, he commanded approximately 20,000 men, albeit undisciplined and poorly trained. His opponent Gen. William Howe commanded 32,000 highly-trained and better-equipped British soldiers and German mercenaries.
After a series of defeats in Brooklyn, Kips Bay, White Plains, and Fort Washington, as well as the abandonment of Fort Lee, what was left of the Continental Army found itself retreating across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. An entire New York unit had abandoned the campaign and gone home. Many Americans accepted the offer of amnesty by swearing allegiance to the British crown.
‘Times That Try Men’s Souls’
The situation was so bleak that Thomas Paine, author of “Common Sense” and one of the few who still believed in Washington, felt compelled to write “The Crisis” in hopes of rallying the men and inspiring the nation to continue the war. As inspiring as St. Crispin Day’s speech in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” Washington had it read to his beaten, demoralized men:
“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 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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ‘Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value.”
Crossing the Delaware River
Heavy winds, snow, and sleet blew into the faces of the 2,400 men as they crossed the ice-covered Delaware River. What should have taken six hours took nine. Washington knew his men were bitterly cold and tired, and thought about calling off the attack. But the country needed this victory. He needed this victory and was determined to carry it through to the end as he encouraged his men, “Press on! Press on, boys!” He was unaware that further down river his two other strike teams led by John Cadwalader and James Ewing had aborted the operation due to the worsening weather.
With him were Nathaniel Greene and John Sullivan, who led the two divisions as they marched the nine miles to Trenton. Many of the men were improperly dressed for the bitter cold. Two soldiers would freeze to death. Those without shoes left blood trails in the ice and snow. But the men didn’t complain. Rather, they marched on in hopes of victory. Among those marching that day were John Stark, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Arthur St. Clair, William Alexander (aka Lord Stirling) and future president James Monroe.
Victory at Trenton
While causing great misery for the Americans, the blizzard was heavy enough to convince the Hessian brigade that no army would dare attack under such appalling conditions. Their estimation of the Americans’ determination to fight proved fatal as the attack commenced early in the morning.
The Hessian commander in Trenton, Col. Johann Rall, was sleeping when the shooting began. He got up and rallied his men in the chaos before two rounds slammed into his body. Americans charged down the street with bayonets and cannon. The 90-minute battle turned into a route as the town was captured, along with an estimated 920 Hessians. Twenty-three to 25 were dead or dying, including Rall, while 400 managed to escape across the Assunpink Creek Bridge (James Ewing’s objective). Only four Americans were wounded.
Word of the success in Trenton spread. Having felt despair for so long, patriotic Americans suddenly found themselves celebrating and rejoicing this rare victory. The British were in disbelief that undisciplined rebels could pull off such an attack during winter and annihilate a well-disciplined German brigade.
Gen. Howe had already retired to his winter quarters in New York City, since armies typically ceased fighting in winter before commencing military operations in the spring. With the rebel army smashed and on the verge of quitting, Howe was convinced he could reason with the Continental Congress and end the conflict the following year. The raid on Trenton changed everything. A distraught Lord Charles Cornwallis, who had prepared to depart for London and visit his ailing wife, found himself instead traversing New Jersey on New Year’s Day in the rain, commanding a unit assigned to crush the rejuvenated rebellion.
Washington wasn’t satisfied with the lone victory. He requested money from Philadelphia banker Robert Morris to finance further operations before retiring for the winter. He then addressed his men and asked them to stay for six more weeks. When none volunteered, Washington pleaded with an anguished face and begged in the name of their country and all that was at stake. His second appeal won them over.
On the evening of Jan. 2, an exhausted Cornwallis finally reached Trenton and engaged Washington and his men who were deployed across Assunpink Creek. His plans were to rest for the night and finish off the rebels in the morning. Cornwallis believed his enemies were trapped with nowhere to retreat. But Washington had no intention of retreating. Instead, he and his men quietly slipped away and attacked Princeton the following morning, where Cornwallis had left behind a brigade of men and much-needed provisions.
The Winds of Fortune Shift
What at first appeared to be a British victory turned into an American one as Washington charged into the battle on his white horse, rallied the retreating men, and personally led them back to the fight. The British and Americans were only 30 yards apart when Washington rode between the two lines and shouted at his men “Halt!” before yelling “Fire!” Both sides fired volleys and filled the scene with smoke. When the smoke cleared, Washington could still be seen on his horse as the enemy ran away. He not only secured another victory but unwittingly achieved the status of a mythical figure. The news of the victory and Washington’s courageous actions inspired Americans across the nation to volunteer and continue the fight.
Despite the overwhelming odds, the defeats, people’s skepticism about his ability to lead, and the bleak outlook for both the war and the revolution itself, Washington refused to quit. His determination and persistence made all the difference when a localized New England rebellion between the Sons of Liberty and British authority metastasized into a worldwide conflagration when France, Spain, Vermont, Mysore, and the Netherlands joined the war. When all seemed lost after a dismal 1776, fortune changed for America in only nine days as 1777 began with hope and optimism.
If 2019 was a tough year for you, think of George Washington, press on, and have a Happy New Year in 2020.
Alan Wakim is the co-founder of The Sons of History, a YouTube series and weekly podcast. He travels to interview and document historical figures and sites for his video series. He holds a business degree from Texas A&M University.