It was 243 years ago this Christmas night when General George Washington famously “crossed the Delaware”.
When I read or hear that, I immediately picture the well-known painting of Washington standing at the bow of the boat, looking very regal. But what's the story behind it?
In a nutshell, on December 25, 1776 General Washington quietly crossed the Delaware River with a 2,400-man strike force from his Continental Army to surprise a force of Hessians (German mercenaries hired by the British) stationed at Trenton, New Jersey. For all of its fame, the incident wasn't really very significant as a tactical matter in the grand scheme of things at the time. However, what it did was give Washington's army – and the country – a booster shot of much-needed morale right when it needed it most. For that reason, it is important.
The plan wasn't without hiccups in its execution. For starters, a spy lurked within Washington's camp – at or around his headquarters, in fact – and had already notified the British that an attack on Trenton was likely. Also, American loyalists had reported Washington's army was readying for something big. Fortunately for the rebel side, the British didn't believe Washington would really attack – a winter storm was brewing and it was Christmas, after all – and the Hessian commander laughed it off with bravado.
The plan called for a three-pronged assault, but only the main column – the one with Washington leading – made it across the ice-choked Delaware River, which was about 300 yards wide at that point. There had been a three-hour delay in getting all the troops marched to the boats, boarded and launched. Then the expected winter gale hit the assault force with wind, ice, sleet, and snow just as the army started to cross the river. After the boats finally landed on the other side of the river, the frozen troops still had to march 10 miles in four hours in a winter storm on icy roads to reach Trenton by dawn and surprise the Hessian garrison. It was a rather tall order.
However, the American rebels did it. Some of the soldiers didn't have footwear, which had previously worn out, and marched with bloody rags around their feet. Two soldiers died on the march from exposure. Washington himself rode up and down the lines, encouraging his soldiers to press on. When told that the winter sleet and snow was ruining the troop's gunpowder, Washington replied they would then attack with the bayonet. “I am resolved to take Trenton,” he said.
As dawn approached, the weary rebels fanned out in battle line about a mile north of Trenton and attacked. The 1,400 man Hessian garrison was almost totally surprised. I say almost, because they suspected that there might be some brief skirmishing with American raiders. They soon realized, however, this was no mere raid but a full-fledged assault on the city by a large force. By the time the Hessian commander was shaken awake, Washington's men were already in the streets of Trenton and had already captured key intersections. The Hessians made a stand, were driven from the town (largely thanks to Washington's cannons which he had managed to bring across the river), counter-attacked, were repulsed, their commander was killed, and those that couldn't escape surrendered.
The victory was complete. The Hessians lost 22 killed, 83 wounded, and 896 captured, while the American force only had five men wounded in the combat, not counting the two men who had died on the march. One of the more seriously wounded was future president James Monroe.
“This is a glorious day for our country,” Washington reportedly stated just after the last shot was fired.
And indeed it was for the new nation. Although Washington abandoned Trenton within hours and recrossed the Delaware, the battle gave spirit to the Continental forces and showed them – and the world – that the American rebel volunteers could defeat professional soldiers. The Hessian mercenaries were internationally renowned. Yet, they had just been defeated. They weren't invincible. Which meant neither were the British regulars. This war could be won.
Merry Christmas to our country. Merry Christmas to all.
-Wes Franklin writes a weekly column, That History Guy, for The Neosho Daily News.