During the bleakest December of his life, George Washington took stock of his situation and grimly concluded that the American experiment in liberty would end less than six months after it had begun. By the end of 1776, he would be lucky to have 1,500 men capable of fighting, and that was presuming they would be willing to. Simply put, the stuffing had been knocked out of the Continental Army, and Washington would have agreed it was largely his fault. At the end of his first campaign as commander-in-chief, he almost unraveled as he fell into a mental haze. Ultimately, the option was to run like a wounded hare, and the army had seized it with a will. It would have tucked its tail between its legs, if it had not lost its tail during a retreat that all but cut off its legs.
It was Washington’s nature to assess this nightmare with cold hindsight. When the British landed on Long Island that summer, his staff failed its first test of leadership and command. At every turn, men he had felt were reliable had displayed inexperience and bad judgment. Especially disappointing was Brig. Gen. John Sullivan, who spoke with confidence but botched the defense of Long Island. And during the fight for New York, Nathanael Greene had made recommendations that nearly destroyed the army. By trusting these men, Washington had made his judgment a matter of dispute. Congress grumbled.
As the Continental Army was being shooed out of New York State, it shed men and materiel into the New Jersey countryside where the people were of melting convictions, the only things thawing during that frigid December. Their towns and villages were soon occupied by Redcoats or, worse, the German mercenaries George III had hired to do a thorough job of quashing the American rebellion. These Hessians were professional soldiers, which in the 18th century meant they weren’t always careful about civilian sensibilities or respectful of private property. The people in their path usually decided independence wasn’t a good idea, and British officers found almost entire communities ready to forsake the Patriot cause and pledge allegiance to the king. Washington heard about this and factored it as another sign of total collapse.
He also heard that many were saying that since he was the author of the catastrophe, he was hardly the man to mend it. It was mainly muttering, but it could have been a shouted chorus for all it mattered. America was out of luck and out of time. His letters betrayed his growing despair. If the thermometer fell just a few degrees more, the Delaware River would freeze enough to support a British crossing from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. He could not stop them from becoming “masters of Philadelphia.” Washington warned Congress to pack its bags. “I think,” he said, “the game is nearly up.”
Yet, as Washington’s shrunken army shivered on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, the thermometer held steady. A few days before Christmas, the blinding snow even let up, and there was a slight thaw. With it, Washington’s mind seemed to clear as it took a strange turn. He spread a map and pondered: Yes, he thought, perhaps. And then he straightened to a posture more like himself. It clearly meant: Yes, we must.
He summoned his officers and hatched a plan. On the map, he pointed out the little town of Trenton just across the river. He knew that no British forces were there, only Hessians with at most a half dozen artillery pieces. The officers warmed to the idea. It meant no more running. It meant more than just staying put and waiting. They were a courageous bunch — they wouldn’t have been there otherwise — but the commander-in-chief’s firm voice and daring idea encouraged them. Working out the details of what they were to undertake obsessed them as the days passed, and they had a plan by Christmas. It was simple on paper but would prove complex in execution, in many respects impossibly so. Its keys were coordination, speed, and surprise.
Here is what they came up with. The majority of the Continental Army, still about 2,400 men, would march almost ten miles up the Delaware River to cross over to New Jersey. The maneuver took them away from Trenton but was necessary for surprise, and Washington hoped Pennsylvania’s hilly terrain would mask the march. Enough Durham Boats had been moored for a crossing, but they were narrow and temperamental crafts. However, Massachusetts seafaring men were to handle them in the stormy wind and the Delaware’s swift current. Meanwhile, militia would stand ready across from Trenton while another contingent farther upstream at Bristol would do the same, both to time their crossing to join the main force while Trenton was under attack.
Speed was as necessary as coordination. Washington had calculated that he would have his boats loaded with men, horses, and artillery to land on the Jersey side of the Delaware by midnight on December 25. A forced march would get them to Trenton by 5 AM, but this part of the plan was further complicated by Washington’s desire to attack Trenton from above and below the town. It required the force to split into two columns about four miles outside of town and take separate routes with the goal of arriving at their objectives simultaneously. It was quite risky, for half of the force without the support of the other would be fatally outnumbered by the enemy. Even riskier was Washington’s decision to put the columns under the command of John Sullivan, who had lost Long Island, and Nathanael Greene, who had nearly lost the army at New York.
Nevertheless, late on Christmas Day, the rank and file turned out smartly and commenced their march as if on parade. That alone was a tribute to Washington’s resolve and the infectious optimism of his officers, the only good fortune in store for this operation. The buoyancy hardly sustained everyone as things immediately began to go wrong.
The weather worsened as they loaded the boats, wind-driven snow stinging their faces and making the enormous blocks of ice floating downriver look like spectral ships. The seafaring helmsmen glanced grimly at one another. The wind and current were wicked, but the ice would be hard to dodge and deadly in a collision. And everything went slower than slow. Midnight came and went with only a fraction of the men and equipment aboard the boats, and by the time the last of them had reached the opposite bank and the soldiers formed for the march, the operation was four hours behind schedule. They had to cover nine miles to Trenton with less than three hours of darkness remaining to cloak their maneuvers.
It was shaping up to be another fiasco, and we can only guess how close Washington came to calling it off at 4:00 on the morning of December 26. Speedy deployment had not happened, and the secrecy crucial to surprise was to be lost in the looming dawn. But if Washington hesitated, it was only for an instant. He had to know that the Hessians would come out of Trenton and cut him to pieces while the army tried to recross the Delaware. He had to continue the march.
About four miles outside of Trenton, where the force was to go its separate ways as planned, Washington gathered the officers one last time, ostensibly to have them set their watches to his but really to stress that whichever column reached Trenton first should attack immediately without waiting for the other. By then, they would be in plain sight, and only by a ferocious attack could they expect to hold their own. Unspoken was the reality that it was the only way to save their lives. Everyone understood.
John Sullivan and his men then disappeared in the snow on the River Road, a lower route along the Delaware to the south of Trenton. Greene, with Washington accompanying him, led the other column on the Pennington Road, the upper route. The weather worsened with the heaviest storm snow developing, and Pennington Road became a sheet of ice. A mounted officer at the column’s rear was puzzled by the dark splotches mottling the road until he realized it was blood. Many of the men were so poorly shod that they were almost barefooted. The officer drew a breath and looked away.
Dawn came, and the Delaware River was a terrifying sight in the light and far too dangerous for a crossing. The 2,400 Continental soldiers were to remain alone in enemy territory, divided by the tactical plan into columns of 1,200, making them even more alone. As Greene neared the first picket post outside Trenton and exchanged fire with Hessian sentinels, he and Washington knew that only a furious assault could save them from the disciplined, battle-hardened German professionals now spilling out their quarters like ants from a kicked mound. They formed for battle, and the firing on both sides became brisk. The precision of the professionals impressed Washington, but so did the calm work of his artillery men who unlimbered their guns and soon were blasting away at the enemy.
On the other hand, the German commander Col. Johann Rall was neither impressed nor worried. He had boasted when his regiments were posted to the forward position at Trenton, “These country clowns cannot whip us!” The paltry number of Americans who had stumbled into his command post did not worry him very much at all.
Col. Rall felt this way for about three minutes, and then he became quite worried all the way up to the time he was mortally wounded. Only three minutes passed from the time Greene opened the engagement at Trenton and the sound of distant musket fire came popping over the roaring wind. Washington heard it and placed its origin as south of town. One of the officers said in wonder what others had only dared to think.
Against all odds, compounded by weather and distance, John Sullivan had pushed his column to the limits of its endurance. As if by a miracle, he was exactly where he was supposed to be and when he was supposed to be on the morning of December 26, 1776. The Americans already engaged suddenly got their second wind when that one word coursed through the ranks. “Sullivan!” Perhaps for the first time in that long and bitter night and forlorn dawn, they believed they would win.
As indeed they did. Over the course of two hours, the fight flared sporadically, sometimes fervid, sometimes pausing, but marked by the gradual surrender of Hessians here and there. By 10:00 AM, all three regiments had put down their weapons and put up their hands. Not one American was killed, and the wounded were only lightly so.
It was not a titanic battle but a relatively minor skirmish, yet the victory it scored was momentous because it was, by all calculations, an impossible gamble. Thus Trenton changed everything for the wounded rabbit of an army that suddenly became a prowling wolf, swaggering with tail up and ears working. Everyone was exhausted but lighthearted, and for the first time in months, men laughed and sang until they fell spent to nap in the snow, the heat of their bodies melting them into the ground. The counterpoint of George Washington’s earlier and now outdated lament about the end of the rebellion was supplied by Captain William Hull as he watched the gaunt and ragged victors of Trenton, country clowns to a man. “What can’t men do,” Hull wondered, “when engaged in so noble a cause?”
Washington and his country clowns had given America the most audaciously conceived Yuletide gift imaginable. In the darkest night of an endless storm, when his country most needed it, they had wrapped a Christmas victory in a noble cause.