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The Christmas Crossing That Saved the Revolution


Survival was all that a Patriot could hope for during the desperate December of 1776. Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” With belief in the American cause fading fast, General George Washington needed a victory to raise the spirits of everyone that counted on the conduct of his army.

On Christmas morning 1776, Washington’s men rose from their camps along the Delaware River. The months leading up to this day had been marked by several significant defeats to the British. With enlistments expiring at the end of the year, many soldiers were close to returning home, escaping from the incredible hardships they were facing. General Washington fully understood the sacrifices that so many had made, but he needed his men once more for a great undertaking to save the Revolution.

Washington’s plan was to ferry his army across the Delaware River to strike at the Hessian Garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. Time was of the utmost importance for this sensitive operation. On Christmas afternoon, Washington’s soldiers began to form along the river in anticipation of the night’s crossing. As troops continued to arrive well after dark, it was clear that the harsh winter elements were going to complicate the situation. Crossing efforts were significantly slowed down by a severe winter storm that included wind, rain, snow, and hail. It didn’t end there. The ice choked river and the extreme darkness caused by the storm made navigation extra difficult.

General Washington crossing the icy Delaware River. (Photo: nytimes.com)

Originally devised as a three-pronged attack, two of Washington’s columns were forced to turn back. Only the main army, with General Washington at its head, successfully crossed the river. Upon his arrival, the operation was three hours behind schedule. Washington considered canceling the entire mission, but in these desperate times, retreat wasn’t an option. With his freezing and tired soldiers assembled on the Jersey Shore, General Washington prepared to lead his army to Trenton.

The Battle of Trenton

On December 26, 1776, Hessian soldiers stationed at Trenton awoke from their Christmas slumbers. They were greeted by a band of “Winter Patriots” desperate for victory. Shortly after eight o’clock that morning, General Washington’s army made its move. Three columns of determined American soldiers marched through thick snow to confront the enemy. Like a true commander, Washington personally led the middle charge. The fate of the Revolution rested on his shoulders and all the men that followed him into battle.

As American artillery unleashed fire, German drums beat furiously, calling the Hessians to arms. Colonel Johann Rall commanded the garrison and Washington’s attack had taken him completely by surprise. Rall’s fighters were fierce, but the engagement didn’t last long. American forces furiously pushed through the disorganized enemy. In only one hour of fighting, Washington’s men had won decisively, capturing nearly 900 Hessian officers and soldiers. Mortally wounded during the battle, Colonel Rall met his end at Trenton.

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton by John Trumbull. (Photo: en.wikipedia.org)

Victory didn’t just reinvigorate morale; it also provided desperate relief to the depleted American army. Washington’s forces managed to seize a large supply of muskets, bayonets, swords, and cannons. Perhaps most important of all, the Hessian garrison had been defeated with very light casualties. Only five American soldiers were wounded at Trenton. Tremendous hardships were endured to reach this point, but through victory, General Washington had reignited the fires of hope in the Revolution.

After meeting with his officers, Washington determined that it was in the best interest of his army to return to camp on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. For two straight days, his men had marched and fought through rain, snow, sleet, and hail. The Winter Patriots had gone above and beyond the call of duty to safeguard the American cause.

Sources

Civil War Trust: Trenton.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: Battle of Trenton.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: Crossing of the Delaware.

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