“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 their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
From The American Crisis by Thomas Paine and quoted by George Washington to his troops before crossing the Delaware.
A Historic American Christmas
At midnight on the Christmas of 1776, George Washington and the Continental Army were weathering pelting snow and sleet as they as they ferried across the Delaware River to battle the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey. You are probably familiar with Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famous painting of the occasion. His 21 foot long 12 foot tall rendering has mesmerized young and old alike for generations and is still the most popular exhibit at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even book-sized replicas convey the spirit of indomitable determination with which George Washington faced crisis after crisis during the American Revolution.
More intriguing than the painting is the story of what actually happened that night. Washington’s surprise defeat of the British ally Hessians has become the stuff of lore and legend. Many believe his unlikely victory changed history saving what was left of the dispirited Colonial Army from disbanding and the revolution from collapsing. Washington’s first biographer, David Ramsay wrote of the event; “The drooping spirits of the Americans were revived. The gloomy apprehensions which had lately prevailed, of their being engaged in a hopeless cause, yielded to a confidence in their General and their army, and in the ultimate success of their struggles for liberty and independence.”
No one knows for sure if the American Revolution would have failed if not for George Washington’s victory at Trenton that night. His advocates make the case that it would have. What do you think?
The official Washington Crossing Historic Park website provides a detailed account of the crossing and battle. The site also links to the Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute providing a plethora of junior high and high school topic related lesson plan ideas. Here is a quick summary of the crossing events from the site and some interesting anecdotes with which you may not be familiar.
• Having been repeatedly defeated by the British, suffered numerous desertions, and low on food and clothing, the dispirited Continental Army had retreated to Pennsylvania for the winter.
• Apparently having little faith in the army’s prospects, the Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia to Baltimore.
• To turn the tide, Washington had secretly planed to cross the Delaware River to attack the Hessian post in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day. Underscoring the severity of their plight, he designated the password for the battle, “Victory or Death.”
• Patriot Thomas Paine was among those who had retreated to Pennsylvania with the army during which time he penned his first chapter of The American Crisis. Washington reportedly read from the manuscript to inspire the troops before the crossing.
• Future President James Monroe participated as a young 18-year-old lieutenant, was wounded in the battle, and carried an embedded musket ball in his shoulder the rest on his life. Little did he know that he would one day shape America’s foreign policy via the Monroe Doctrine and impact the entire hemisphere for generations.
• Another young soldier, 21 year old Alexander Hamilton, also crossed the Delaware that night, checking himself out of the camp hospital to make the journey. Little did he know he would soon champion the Constitution that would establish a new nation or that his face would grace that nation’s ten dollar bill 235 years later.
• It took twelve hours, from 4:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., for 2,400 soldiers and 50-75 horses to ferry across the river using flat bottomed Durham boats. The severe weather, which Washington called “vicious,” and ice packed river almost thwarted them.
• Over a half of Washington’s army under the command of officers Cadwalader and Ewing were unable to make the crossing because of the bad weather, disrupting the attack plan. Washington decided to proceed to the battle without them.
• Upon landing in New Jersey the army marched 9 exhausting miles through the storm, and engaged the Hessians in battle, taking them by surprise. About 25 Hessians were killed, including their commander, and another 600 fled. Washington captured 900 prisoners! And not a single colonial soldier lost his life in the conflict.
• Immediately after the battle, the army retraced the 9 mile march to their boats with prisoners in tow and safely completed the long treacherous return crossing, enlisting the Hessians to help break the river ice.
• Years later, defeated British General Cornwallis himself credited the Delaware campaign as Washington’s pivotal achievement.
At midnight on Christmas of 2010 I will be celebrating with my family at midnight Mass, being grateful for many blessings and for all that Christmas represents. Being the anniversary of the crossing I will also be reminded of the Christmas 235 years ago when General Washington forged the Delaware and won a great victory that paved the way for this remarkable country. And I hope from now on, when seeing George Washington standing in the boat in Leutze’s famous painting, you too will recount the details of what happened on that historic American Christmas.”
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