Victory or Death: George Washington and the Daring Campaign That Saved the American Revolution
Few moments in American history have ever looked as bleak as the desperate December days of 1776. Although American independence had been declared earlier that July, the war to secure self-determination from Great Britain was not going well and the hopes and dreams of the young nation were fading fast. After suffering several dispiriting losses to British forces under General William Howe and being driven from New York City in the fall of 1776, General George Washington and his beleaguered Continental Army retreated across New Jersey and eventually crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Ill-clad and poorly supplied, few of Washington’s men were prepared for the bitter cold that descended on the region. As the Commander-in-Chief reported himself, many of his troops were “entirely naked” or “so thinly clad as to be unfit for service,” and Colonel John Glover noted seeing men “Go on Duty without Stockings Breeches or Shoes, nothing to cover their nakedness but a Blankett.” Some soldiers were in such desperate straits that they did not even have blankets or tents. In his book Almost A Miracle, the historian John Ferling writes that “during that November and December every common soldier at times experienced the pangs of hunger.” The want for food was so severe that one officer described that a frightening number of troops resembled “animated scarecrows.” During this desperate hour of the war, it was “Victory or Death” for General Washington and his men.
In his address to the Continental Army before the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, Washington reminded his soldiers, “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.” The clash itself was a complete disaster for the Americans and the defeat proved that Washington still had much to learn as a commander, but even after this setback and those that followed, he refused to give up because he never forgot what was at stake in this war. No matter how hard he worked to keep everything from falling apart, the cause that Washington and so many others devoutly believed in was in mortal danger in December 1776. Not only were British forces occupying New Jersey, but the Commander-in-Chief also had to worry about the enlistments of the bulk of his troops expiring on January 1. Washington needed all the manpower he could get, and although General Charles Lee’s troops made it to him after completing a brutal march from northern New York, Lee, one of the most experienced military men in the American army, was captured by the British while staying apart from his soldiers. In his book Founding Father, the historian Richard Brookhiser also points out that “the British were offering pardons to all in New Jersey who would rally to the crown and finding many takers,” including one signer of the Declaration of Independence. People were clearly losing faith in the Revolution, and unless a blow was struck against the enemy soon, it would be very difficult to keep the fight going much longer.
General George Washington. (Photo: George Washington's Mount Vernon)
Thomas Paine had joined a militia unit shortly after July 4 and witnessed the American struggle firsthand while marching with the Continentals across New Jersey. The author of Common Sense, which was published in January 1776 and called for American Independence, Paine’s work was “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire Revolutionary era,” according to the historian Gordon S. Wood. During the desperate December of 1776, Paine used the power of his words again, producing a pamphlet titled The American Crisis in which he famously wrote, “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 men and women.” It was up to General Washington and every winter patriot to rise to the occasion and save their country during this dark hour.
With Washington’s army appearing to be finished and believing that his own lines were overextended, General Howe opted not to pursue the Americans across the Delaware River. Instead, the British commander decided to enter winter quarters, breaking down General Charles Cornwallis’s army and “posting it in seventeen cantonments across eastern New Jersey,” as noted by Ferling. After Cornwallis asked for a leave to return to England, Howe placed General James Grant in charge of the occupation army. Like General Howe, Grant did not believe the ragtag rebels were in any shape to cause trouble, declaring that the “Enemy… in fact does not exist in the Jerseys,” and that there was “nothing more despicable than the Continental Troops.” As Howe, Grant, and everyone else in the British command were about to rudely discover, trouble was indeed on the way.
General William Howe. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
With the enemy divided into numerous small units of occupation, Washington saw his chance to strike. According to Brookhiser, “Trenton, on the Jersey side of the Delaware, only thirty miles from Philadelphia, was the foremost British post,” and this is where Washington and his troops would attack. The cantonment was held by some 1,500 Hessians (skilled German soldiers hired by the Crown to fight in America), and Washington planned to use small river craft, Durham boats, and large ferries to transport his army and its equipment across the Delaware River on Christmas night in three divisions. Once across, each division was to march to its designated objective and be in position to attack before dawn on December 26, taking the enemy by surprise. Ferling notes that “crucial aspects of this operation went awry,” but with the fate of the Revolution hinging on its outcome, there was too much at stake to give up at this crucial hour. The password for this secret mission said it all: “Victory or Death.”
As the Americans began to set out under the cover of darkness, a severe winter storm hit them hard. Wind, rain, snow, hail, and sleet all combined to make the crossing of the ice-choked river a harrowing ordeal. Ferling writes, “The operation was three hours behind schedule when the last man stepped ashore in New Jersey,” and, “Unbeknownst to Washington,” only his force of 2,400 men made it across the Delaware that night. Because of the hazardous conditions, the other two American divisions were forced to turn back. Even with the river crossing behind them, once on land Washington’s troops still needed to undertake a long march “over squashy, mud-bogged, and unfamiliar roads in the dead of night,” as Ferling points out. With the operation hours behind schedule and recognizing that his attack would not come before sunrise as originally planned, Washington seemed to have lost the crucial element of surprise, and while that was greatly troubling, there was no turning back now. As the Commander-in-Chief later explained to John Hancock, “I well knew we could not reach it [Trenton] before day was fairly broke, but as I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the river, I determined to push on at all events.”
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As if circumstances weren’t already difficult enough, few of the troops were properly clothed for this severe weather and as the Historian David McCullough notes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book 1776, “In fact, in the course of the night, two of the men did freeze to death.” One soldier explained that getting lashed by wind and sleet cut “like a knife,” and Ferling describes that some troops “were barefoot or had tied rags about their feet. More than one soldier subsequently remembered seeing bloody footprints in the snow.” Through it all, Washington stayed by his men, making his way up and down the line and encouraging them to keep moving forward. Destiny awaited them at Trenton.
The Hour of Victory by Edward Percy Morgan. (Photo: George Washington's Mount Vernon)
On December 24, General Grant, the commander General Howe had placed in charge of the British occupation forces in New Jersey received “certain intelligence” that the enemy intended to attack Trenton. Grant had previously expressed his low opinion of the rebels and did not consider them “equal to the attempt,” but he still alerted the commander of the outpost, Hessian Colonel Johann Rall, advising him to be on alert. Grant’s message found its way into Rall’s hands on the afternoon of December 25. Shortly after receiving the communication, an American patrol fired on a group of Hessian soldiers guarding a road beyond town and quickly withdrew. Rall went out in the winter storm to assess the situation and according to McCullough, “concluded that this was the attack he had been warned about.” Besides, under such extreme weather conditions it seemed illogical that any further enemy operations could be conducted. Some might have turned back if faced with such unfavorable circumstances, but unfortunately for Rall and his Hessians, no hardship or setback seemed able to stop Washington and his troops that night. As Ferling writes, the storm led the Hessians “to let down their guard,” and by cancelling the regular dawn patrols, Rall would pay a fatal price in the morning.
Shortly after 8:00 a.m. on December 26, 1776, Trenton was in sight and the American attack began. After a night of misery, Washington was finally able to shout the order: “Advance and charge!” The Commander-in-Chief had divided his force on the outskirts of Trenton, placing General Nathanael Greene in charge of one group and General John Sullivan in command of the other. Greene’s troops were broken down into three columns and continuing to stand by his warriors, Washington personally led the men in the center. According to Ferling, “The amazed Hessians realized that they were under attack only when the American guns opened up.” Everything happened very quickly as Greene’s men attacked the north and west side of Trenton and Sullivan’s soldiers struck the south side. Colonel Rall did his best to rally his stunned troops, “shouting in Dutch, ‘My brave soldiers, advance,’” according to one American soldier who heard the Hessian commander’s plea during the heat of the battle. Ferling explains that Rall was, “Mislead into believing that the village was surrounded,” and choose to stand and fight, making no attempt to escape. Hoping to ultimately launch a counterattack, Rall tried to organize a fallback to a defensive position, but proper coordination proved impossible in the face of the American onslaught. It was all over in forty-five minutes or less. General Washington and his faithful soldiers had finally conquered the enemy.
Trenton by H. Charles McBarron Jr. (Photo: U.S. Army Center of Military History)
As Ferling points out, Washington was “the least demonstrative of men,” but after everything the Commander-in-Chief and his troops had been through together, he could not hide his emotions and grabbed the hand of a young officer, declaring, “This is a glorious day for our country.” Every winter patriot felt the same way, and they had much reason to be proud, suffering countless privations and achieving a victory that was so desperately needed words can hardly describe it. Washington’s troops had performed valiantly, and considering the intensity of the fight, McCullough notes that incredibly, “not one American had been killed.” Four Americans were wounded during the battle, one of whom was the future fifth President of the United States, James Monroe, but as McCullough explains, the only fatalities during the operation “were the two soldiers who had frozen to death” earlier that night during the hazardous march to Trenton. Hessian losses were more severe, suffering 21 killed, 90 wounded, and approximately 900 taken prisoner. About 500 Hessians managed to escape, but Colonel Rall was not one of them. The Hessian commander met his end at the Battle of Trenton, sustaining two fatal gunshot wounds to his side.
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776 by John Trumbull. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Washington had previously expressed his belief that a “lucky blow” against the enemy would “rouse the spirits of the people,” but as McCullough writes, “he could hardly have imagined how stunning the effect of the news of Trenton would be on the morale of the country.” Within days of the victory, the public was reading newspapers oozing with details about the daring operation Washington and his men had just triumphantly conducted. Just when all seemed lost, people now had reason to renew their faith in the cause. As a Massachusetts sergeant serving under Washington correctly predicted, the army’s achievement would “string anew every nerve for our liberty and Independence.” With this victory under his belt, the commander in chief might have decided to enter winter quarters, but Washington was not done just yet. After hastening back to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, Washington convened with his generals and decided to send American forces back across to the town the Hessians had lost. He was determined to hit the enemy a second time.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Washington: A Life, the historian Ron Chernow writes that the second crossing back to the New Jersey side of the Delaware River was “even more ambitious than the first,” encompassing “eight crossing points and twice as many cannon.” Once again, harsh weather conditions, especially ice, made the execution of the operation very difficult and the last troops did not successfully cross over until December 31, 1776. On that day at Trenton, many of the most experienced troops in the Continental Army were only hours away from their enlistments expiring. After all they had sacrificed, these men certainly deserved to go home, but Washington simply could not afford to lose them. The Commander-in-Chief possessed the gift of silence, but he knew when his voice needed to be heard and this was unquestionably one of those times. Therefore, Washington made an impassioned appeal to these veteran troops: “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.” Between those words and the efforts of Robert Morris, a wealthy Philadelphia financier who rushed Washington funds to pay his soldiers, Ferling records that, “Slightly more than half of those who were about to go home agreed to stay on.” With this matter taken care of, the fight could continue.
The American victory at Trenton demanded a strong response from the British and General Howe moved swiftly, canceling General Cornwallis’s leave and sending him back to New Jersey at the head of an army of 8,000. After reaching Princeton, McCullough writes that Cornwallis “left part of his force there, and with 5,500 strong, set off down the road to Trenton, ten miles away.” The British march to Trenton on January 2, 1777 was a grueling endeavor. Slowed by muddy roads and endlessly harassed by American marksmen, the lead elements of Cornwallis’s force arrived so late that according to Ferling, “Less than an hour of daylight remained.” Washington had established a defensive line just outside of Trenton on a slope behind the Assunpink Creek and sharp fighting took place as Cornwallis’s troops pushed through the town and tried to storm the Assunpink’s crossing points. Washington’s troops repulsed the enemy, killing several hundred Redcoats and Hessians. (The Hessian soldiers had been particularly eager to fight and exact revenge on the Americans for the recent defeat of their comrades.)
Etching of the Second Battle of Trenton by George A. Bradshaw. (Photo: Today in History)
As the light faded on that savage winter day, Cornwallis and his commanders discussed whether to unleash their main attack or to wait until morning to finish off the Americans. “If Washington is the general I take him to be,” Sir William Erskine reportedly said, “he will not be found in the morning.” General Cornwallis supposedly replied, “We’ve got the Old Fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” As it turned out, Erskine was right. The “Old Fox” slipped away and he would make the British pay.
In danger of being encircled by the enemy, Washington summoned a council of war and it was decided that the Army would pull away under the cover of darkness and as McCullough explains, travel “on little-known back roads to attack Cornwallis’s rear guard at Princeton.” The Commander-in-Chief was a master of deception and he proved it once again during this pivotal moment. To convince the British that his army was settling in for the night, some troops were left behind to keep the campfires burning and to make noises while Washington set out with a force of some 5,500 men, horses, and cannon. For soldiers who had already endured so much, many of whom were poorly clothed and had broken shoes or no shoes at all, the frigid 12-mile march to Princeton down dark and icy lanes was another agonizing ordeal. Pushing past their hunger, exhaustion, and the other countless hardships they faced, the unbreakable soldiers of the Continental Army followed their leader and went on to the very end, winning another great victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777.
General Washington leads his troops at the Battle of Princeton. Painting by Don Troiani. (Photo: dontroiani.com)
The American attack at Princeton took the enemy by surprise, and although the British were outnumbered, intense fighting did take place. Washington continued to prove that no matter what, he would personally stare down any danger and stand by his men. One young American officer expressed his admiration for the courage displayed by the Commander-in-Chief during the battle: “I shall never forget what I felt … when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.” Fierce British resistance allowed most of the garrison to flee toward Brunswick, New Jersey, but the Crown had suffered another stunning blow, suffering around 450 soldiers and officers killed, wounded, or captured. This second incredible victory cost the Americans some 37 killed, including a colonel and a general, and approximately that same number wounded. By the time General Cornwallis discovered that Washington had outwitted him, he rushed toward Princeton, but by the time he arrived, the Americans were long gone. The “Old Fox” had won.
Washington Rallying the Americans at the Battle of Princeton by William T. Ranney. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Faced with “Victory or Death,” General Washington proceeded to conduct one of the greatest campaigns in military history. Under his leadership, the soldiers of the Continental Army had faced every hardship imaginable and went on to achieve two major victories in the span of ten days. From Trenton through Princeton, Ferling records that British losses “exceeded two thousand men,” and approximately “two hundred Americans were lost in that period.” By achieving these victories, Washington and his troops not only had restored people’s faith in the Revolution, but also had proven to the British that the Continental Army was a force to be reckoned with. As Washington led the army to Morristown, New Jersey and entered winter quarters, the British withdrew toward the coast to lick their wounds, giving patriot militia groups the chance to take back control of local areas that British troops had been occupying. As McCullough writes, America had survived “as dark a time as any in the history of the country,” and although there would be many more despairing moments in the war, Washington remained steadfast in his devotion to the cause and persevered to engineer his nation’s ultimate victory. While he certainly did not do this alone, Washington, as one of his most famous biographers anointed him, was “The Indispensable Man.” What the Commander-in-Chief and his faithful warriors achieved together changed the world forever, and for the better.
1776 by David McCullough.
Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.
Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Address to the Continental Army before the Battle of Long Island.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Crossing of the Delaware.
The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.