When Christmas arrived in 1776, a few Americans gave us the
first installment of a gift we have all but lost.
After the makeshift American army under George Washington's
command ousted the redcoats from Boston in early 1776, the
British moved to New York City, where they launched an
invasion in August. Washington met them head-on and
suffered devastating defeats, and survived only by heading
the other way.
By the time he escaped across the Delaware River into Bucks
County, Pennsylvania, the General had only 3,000 of his
original 20,000 troops. Congress, seeing the army in
retreat only 12 miles from where they sat, gave Washington
dictatorial powers and escaped to Baltimore, 110 miles to
With winter moving in, Washington set up headquarters on
the west side of the Delaware. British commander William
Howe made plans to go into winter quarters in New York,
leaving his men spread over numerous New Jersey outposts,
ready to march at a moment's notice. He admitted, though,
that the chain of outposts was too extensive.
Lord Charles Cornwallis, Howe's field commander, decided to
garrison the outposts with Hessian mercenaries and send the
British troops back to New York. He left command of New
Jersey in the hands of the cocky and thoroughly mediocre
General James Grant.
In the 100-house village of Trenton, the outpost closest to
Washington, the 1,600 Hessians were under command of
Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, a hard-drinking gambler whose
troops had a reputation for plunder and rape. Once
encamped, they proceeded to earn their reputation. Hessian
brutality swung many New Jersey neutrals to the American
Making excellent use of spies, Washington led the British
to believe his condition was completely hopeless. Thus,
when Rall complained to General Grant that his position was
too much exposed, Grant dismissed it as ludicrous, since
Washington's troops were in rags and starving. Besides,
after December 31 Washington would not even have an army,
since the term of service would expire for most of his men.
Knowing he needed a victory to keep the American cause
alive, Washington decided to attack Trenton while the
Hessians slept off the effects of their Christmas
celebration. On a scrap of paper he scribbled "Victory or
Death," the watchword for the attack.
Earlier that month Tom Paine had written a new essay that
Washington ordered read to his troops on Christmas Day. As
the men prepared to cross the Delaware with a winter storm
kicking up, officers addressed their troops, reading from
Paine's pamphlet, the American Crisis. "These are the
times that try men's souls," it began. The men had no
Washington's crossing at McKonkey's Ferry was part of a
four-pronged assault on Trenton. A detachment under James
Ewing was to cross closer to Trenton to cut off a possible
enemy escape over the bridge leading out of town; John
Cadwalader's troops were to cross further downstream to
distract the Hessians garrisoned at Bordentown, while
Israel Putnam was to lead a contingent of militia from
Philadelphia into New Jersey as another distraction. But
none of them made it. Putnams's troops didn't march, Ewing
couldn't get his men across, and Cadwalader could get his
men over but not the artillery -- the ice floes proved
Washington, fortunately, had John Glover and the Fourteenth
Continental, a unit composed of rugged and well-disciplined
fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts. They had already
pulled the General out of a jam back in August, on Long
Island, where they rowed the American army out of Howe's
grasp under cover of darkness and fog.
To ferry about 2,400 men to the New Jersey side of the
Delaware, a distance of roughly a thousand feet, Glover
used big, black Durham boats, which ranged in length from
forty to sixty feet. A small company called the Durham
Iron Works had begun building the boats in 1757 for
transporting ore, pig iron, grain, whiskey, and produce
from upcountry down the Delaware rapids into Philadelphia.
After disgorging their cargo, the crew of six would load up
with manufactured goods and pole the boats back upstream.
Looking like big canoes with slightly pointed ends, the
boats had an eight-foot beam and a light draft. Even when
fully loaded they drew only twenty-four to thirty inches,
which meant they could get close enough to shore for the
troops to wade the rest of the way.
The heavily laden boats began pushing off from McKonkey's
Ferry around two in the afternoon on Christmas Day. The
surging Delaware current sent chunks of ice at them like
"white torpedoes," smashing the sides of the craft and
snarling their progress. Snow, wind, and darkness
compounded Glover's difficulties.
Meanwhile, in Trenton, Rall had eaten a hearty meal and
retired for a game of cards with a few of his aides and his
host, a man named Abraham Hunt. Shortly after midnight a
shivering Loyalist from Pennsylvania showed up at Hunt's
door with a written message, handing it to a servant. Rall
refused to be disturbed and tucked the note into his
waistcoat pocket without reading it.
By 3:00 a.m. Glover's Fourteenth had ferried men, horses,
and artillery across the river. It took another hour to
round up the troops and begin the nine-mile march to
Trenton along River Road. Washington, from his tall
chestnut horse, urged his men to keep moving and stay with
their officers. Two men stopped to rest -- and froze to
When they arrived at Trenton at 8:00 a.m. the General gave
the order to storm the town. As the men fell upon the
enemy, many of them shouted, "This is the time to try men's
souls!" With their muskets' priming pans soaked from
the snowstorm, the Americans relied on the bayonet and
artillery to roust the Hessians out of the houses.
Sodden from the previous night's celebrations, Hessians
threw on their coats and tried to form ranks in the
streets. As they stumbled about, Henry Knox's six-pounders
cut them down from the high end of Trenton's two main
Rall finally broke from the Hunt house, jumped on his horse
and galloped toward his regiment, which was being showered
with grapeshot. "Lord, Lord, what is it, what is it?" he
cried out repeatedly. His world had become a swirl of
snow, shouts, smoke, and explosions. As he tried
desperately to organize a bayonet charge, he was shot twice
and fell from his horse. While the battle raged on, two
soldiers assisted him into a Methodist Church, where, in
his final moments, he read the note tucked in his pocket:
the American army was marching on Trenton.
Minutes later the Hessians surrendered. The Americans had
suffered four casualties to the enemy's 25-30 killed and
about 80 wounded.
It took Washington twelve hours to recross the Delaware
with captured weapons, supplies, and over 900 prisoners.
When the Continental troops finally collapsed into their
tents, they had gone forty-eight hours without food, almost
as long without sleep, and had marched twenty-five miles in
They also won a critical victory for independence. While
no war is good, defensive wars are sometimes necessary. Our
forefathers knew this. That's why some of them went
marching, 227 years ago.