The Crossing: Christmas Day, 1776

By:  Robert A. Biggs, III

In early December, as I was driving to lunch listening to my car radio, I landed on a channel while searching for Christmas music. The narrator featured an interview with an author who was promoting his recent book. The subject of his new book centered around the soldier mariners who played a prominent role in the Delaware River crossing of George Washington's Continental army on the snowy night of December 25, 1776. The book is entitled, "The Indispensables" and the author's name is Patrick K. O'Donnell. My unanticipated exposure to this radio interview led me to a quest for more concentrated study of the subject and provided the inspiration for this article. As American citizens embark on a new year blessed with the freedoms wrought by considerable sacrifices of brave men who came before us, it seems more than appropriate to reflect on an epic series of events occurring on Christmas day and the day following in 1776, which are indelibly etched in the fabric of American history. December 25-26, 2021 marked the two hundred 25th year anniversaries of the icy crossing of the Delaware River by American revolutionary forces, near Trenton, New Jersey, and the ensuing Battle of Trenton. As a young grade school student, I first learned of this historical event as a normal consequence of my school curriculum. Every child who is born or becomes a citizen of this great country, and enjoys the blessings attendant therewith, should be made aware of its significance in our nation's history. The account of these events begins in the context of a dark time. George Washington's army had experienced multiple defeats in battle, and there was growing sentiment among Continental leaders about replacing him as commander of the green revolutionary army. Morale of the army was alarmingly low as it faced a bitterly cold winter. Simply put, something had to be done to change the fortunes of war. Washington had devised a daring plan, which he hoped, if proven successful, would provide both a catalyst for improved morale of his existing forces and the incentive for further enlistment in his army. The bold strategy was for his army to cross the Delaware River to attack, at dawn, an unwary force of 1200 Hessians garrisoned in the town of Trenton, New Jersey. Once across the river, the plan called for another ten mile march over snow and ice covered roads in order to initiate the attack. Military operations rarely go perfectly as planned, and Washington's operation was no exception. Washington's army was exhausted, hungry and ill-clothed for the extreme weather they were about to face when they began encampment for the winter of 1776 . Washington's plan called for a twenty-mile march on a snowy night in order to even reach the appointed launch site for the crossing of the Delaware River. The designated site was at one of the narrowest sections of the river, some three hundred yards, but a combination of winter storm weather, dangerous currents and ice pockets on the river were to prove formidable obstacles to the crossing. By the time the soldiers had reached the launch point for the boats, a drizzle had turned into a heavy storm with accompanying snow and sleet, which further greatly impeded their progress. Washington's planned timetable had fallen three hours behind, ensuring that a dawn attack would not be possible. Apart from the bitterly cold and extreme winter storm conditions, Washington's forces also faced a veteran Hessian army camped across the river in Trenton, New Jersey. To further potentially complicate matters, deserters from the American forces had earlier sent word to the Hessian Commander alerting him that an attack was imminent. Fortunately Washington was able to utilize the experience of local watermen who had considerable experience as seamen. The now famous Marblehead regiment was filled with New Englanders, who were familiar with this stretch of the river and whose services proved an essential contribution to the success of the crossing. Washington's forces did, however, enjoy certain advantages in the ensuing Battle of Trenton. First, he had the undeterred resolve of a leader. This was evidenced by the account of a first-hand observer. During the final march on the road to Trenton, Washington when advised that many of the muskets of his men had been rendered inoperable due to wet powder which had been exposed to the rain, he remained resolute, reportedly responding, "put the enemy to the bayonet." Secondly, the overly confident Hessian Leader, Colonel Johann Rall, had become overconfident. Although earlier having been advised that an attack was imminent, Colonel Rall wrongfully reasoned that it would not be forthcoming from the American forces that day owing to the treacherous weather occurring on the previous Christmas night. Many of Colonel Rall's men, as Washington had hoped, were sleeping and suffering from hangovers from a late night of revelry in the early morning hours of the attack. The Hessians were caught by complete surprise. The result was a glorious victory for Washington's forces. It is interesting to note, that among the men that participated in the operation were notable American leaders, including future President James Monroe (who was among the six American's wounded at the Battle of Trenton), future Chief Justice John Marshall, future Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and Arthur St. Clair, who later served as President of the Continental Congress and Governor of the Northwest Territory. On December 26, 1776, 2400 tfued and hungry Americans engaged 1200 well trained, battle hardened soldiers Europe had to offer, and defeated them in only ninety minutes. In so doing, they captured 1,000 €rms, several cannon, ammunition and much needed supplies. Only three Americans were killed and six wounded, in contrast to twenty-two deaths and ninety-eight wounded from the Hessian forces. The impact of the miraculous crossing of the Delaware River and ensuing victory by American forces at the Battle of Trenton cannot be overstated. It provided badly needed confidence to the revolutionaries affirming that they could overcome overwhelmingly adverse conditions and fight toe to toe with Europe's best seasoned troops. It further provided the American forces with the resolve essential to prosecute the war against England. Americans should revisit these proud moments on an annual basis and make their children and grandchildren aware of the valor, courage, fortitude and bravery which were all necessary to forge a new nation which has provided the unparalleled individual freedoms we all now enjoy. Too little is written today about our proud American history in this writer's judgment. It is my hope that this article will work, in some small measure, to engender a greater awareness of our blessed heritage as citizens of this great country.

REFERENCES: Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, Oxford and New York, 2004 Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling, Oxford, 2007, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), The Indispensables, Patrick K. O'Donnell, Atlantic Monthly Press