Tuesday, December 27, 2016
A Revolutionary Christmas: The Battle of Trenton, 1776
by Susan Frickey, Idaho Center for Self-Governance Student
Try to picture it. Try to feel it. It’s cold. East Coast cold, where the humidity makes the bitterness cut right through to the bone. You’re freezing, even with a thick parka and snow boots. Your fingers are numb in your designer gloves. Holding your hot chocolate, you’re thankful for the warmth making its way down your throat as you walk down the paved and de-iced sidewalk.
Travel back in time to 1776. You don’t have a parka, or boots, or a hat or gloves. You’re lucky if you have a shirt on your back and something between your feet and the ice and snow. You can’t remember the last filling meal you had. You don’t even mind picking the weevils off the chunk of stale bread you have for your day’s ration. The something warm to drink is hot water with a few re-hydrated vegetables floating in it. You’re a soldier in the Continental Army, and it’s December in Pennsylvania.
You’ve just lost New York to the British, abandoned Fort Lee in the face of enemy invasion, and you’re on the run. You’re demoralized, cold, and hungry. Hot on your heels are the Redcoats, commanded by General Cornwallis. The warmly clothed, well-fed, well-supplied British are the most powerful army on earth and they are determined to obliterate once and for all the “rebellion in the colonies”.
You and five thousand soldiers reach sanctuary behind the Delaware River on December 7th, but sickness and desertions cut your ranks relentlessly. The soldiers’ contracts with the Continental Army are set to expire on December 31st and no one is getting paid anyway, so many of the demoralized just go home early to get out of the miserable conditions. The Continental Army is quickly unraveling in defeat.
General Washington sends scouts to scour the countryside looking for food, horses, powder and ball. The British have already confiscated the horses and no supplies can be found. Your countrymen sold their crops to the enemy for a better price than the Patriots offered them. All resources not taken by the British are found burned, lying in a heap of ashes to prevent them falling into Patriot hands.
The stoic George Washington writes to his brother, “I think the game is pretty near up” the “noble cause lost.” The British agree with him, so they quarter up in warm colonial houses and prepare to watch the Continental Army freeze and starve to death. Washington knows he has to do something quick and drastic to save his army and that flickering dream upon which so many willingly staked so much.
Knowing the position and strength of the enemy troops, thanks to his dedicated spy network - John Honeyman in particular - Washington and his officers hatch a desperate, dangerous plan. Rather than hunker down to lick their wounds as the British expect, the Continental Army plans to launch a surprise attack. And they will launch it against the feared Hessian allies of the British: those vicious, professional German mercenaries. Seven days before the contracts expire for the Continental Army, Washington launches one, last, all-or-nothing campaign. He places the fate of the Continental troops and the nascent nation in the hands of Divine Providence.
Washington stealthily rounds up every boat he can find. On Christmas night, in the midst of a bitter sleet storm, Washington loads the entire Continental army-horses, cannon, kettles, men and supplies into the boats. They begin the crossing of the raging, ice-swollen, Delaware River in the frigid dark.
The treacherous conditions put Washington’s plan hours behind schedule, but at last his army crosses the river without a single mishap. By four in the morning on December 26th, there are still nine miles to cover by foot before dawn. Frozen and hungry men, many without shoes, march in absolute silence towards Trenton. Total surprise is essential for the plan to work.
Soaked muskets and powder become useless, so Washington directs his troops to use bayonets. Ice forms on the roads, men fall and are pried to their feet to stumble on in the dark and cold. Two men freeze to death along the way. Incredibly, they will be Washington’s only casualties this day. Dawn is approaching, so the exhausted men break into a long trot to reach their destination and maintain the element of surprise.
Washington’s plan works! In forty-five minutes the battle is over: Nine-hundred Hessians are captured. Hundreds more flee in terror. Their commander, Colonel Rall, is killed. The Continental Army wins six desperately needed cannons, forty horses, and a vast array of much needed supplies.
Morale is greatly improved after this brilliant victory and Washington wants to compound it by attacking Princeton next, but the men are too exhausted. And they had found the British stores of rum.
But the Continental Army’s decisive victory at Trenton is only the beginning, not the end of this amazing story. When news of Hessian commander Rall’s death and defeat reaches British General Cornwallis, he decided to immediately begin moving troops to capture Washington’s army and “bag the fox.” Cornwallis left twelve hundred troops in Princeton as a rear guard and proceeded to march toward Trenton with five thousand, five hundred troops.
During this march, the British encounter American resistance, intent on slowing their progress. The Continental forces gradually fall back, joining the main body of Washington’s army along the bank of Assunpink Creek. Several attempts by the British to cross the creek are thwarted but, believing he has the Continental Army cornered, Cornwallis decides to wait until the next day to finish the battle and annihilate Washington’s forces.
Washington, however, has another master plan in the works. He leaves four hundred men in the camp to stoke bonfires and “make digging noises” so the British would think the Continental Army remained just across the creek, preparing defenses for the coming attack. In actuality, a mass evacuation is underway. The main body of the Continental Army wraps rags around wagon wheels, horses’ hooves and soldier’s feet. In the middle of the night, with the aid of muddy roads quickly freezing, the Americans silently creep around the entire, sleeping British contingent.
The next morning, the British attack the Patriots’ camp, only to find a few still-smoking bonfires—it was completely deserted! By that time, Washington’s army was miles away attacking and taking Princeton.
The result of these two bold strokes by Washington and the ensuing victories, were enough to convince France to support the Patriots with badly needed supplies.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
So this Christmas season, as we share time with our families and friends over a holiday feast in the warmth of our homes and blazing fireplaces, please take a few moments to read this story to your children. Think about the hardships, the bitter cold, the lack of food and shelter, the supreme sacrifices our forefathers made with honor and commitment two hundred and forty years ago to pursue their wisp of a dream we are all blessed to be living today.
Merry Christmas, and may God continue to Bless America!
The Language of Liberty series is a collaborative effort of the Center for Self Governance (CSG) Administrative Team. The authors include administrative staff, selected students, and guest columnists. The views expressed by the authors are their own and may not reflect the views of CSG. They may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, go to CenterForSelfGovernance.com.