Guns and Gear

Guns & Politics: General Washington’s Christmas Of 1776

There is such hope, and such joy this Christmas, and so much to anticipate, to look forward to.  There are so many great things ahead of us, so many positive changes that we are going to make, that we can now make because of the one huge change that we made just a short time ago.

We should remember another Christmas, though, 240 years ago, in a cold, snowy and windswept New Jersey encampment where dispirited patriot troops led by their frustrated leader General George Washington who was contemplating how to reverse their miserable military record.  Morale, along with supplies, was low; in fact, the only thing on the rise was the rate of desertions.  Also, enlistments were due to expire at any moment, and too many men were contemplating leaving Washington’s army.  Congress was hopeless, as usual, the enemy seemed invincible, and the only help that seemed to be able to ride to the rescue was from General Charles Lee, who was not a fan of Washington and thus seemed to be taking his time.  The useless fellow was then captured by the British anyway, along with his dogs, it was discovered later, on his way to an assignation.  Nothing seemed to be going the Americans’ way.

The only thing they had was George Washington.

Admittedly he hadn’t won any battles in a long time, and he knew he had to think boldly, and act daringly.  He also knew he had to do it with less troops, with lower morale and fewer supplies.  But General Washington always had the love and the trust of his men, and he always had his own genius, along with his absolute certainty that what he and the others were creating was the greatness of a land of freedom from tyranny, a land that was worth fighting and dying for.

So he came up with a completely crazy idea, and this crazy idea was to be carried out on the even crazier time of Christmas night in a snowstorm!

And the troops they were going to attack by surprise weren’t even British, they were German!

How could this not work?

Some positive developments started occurring, however, when reinforcements arrived from General Lee’s division (though without the General himself) under the command of General John Sullivan; other reinforcements arrived as well from General Gates’ division, (he had been held up due to severe weather conditions months before); and another 1000 militia men from Philadelphia under Colonel John Cadwalader also joined General Washington.  All in all George Washington now had 6000 troops fit for duty.

In planning the sortie Washington wished to undertake to attack the Hessians at Trenton, it was realized that half these troops needed to remain in place to protect supplies and to guard the sick and wounded when the army crossed the Delaware River.  This left Washington with about 2400 men able to “take offensive action against the Hessian troops in Central New Jersey.”

General Washington’s developed his final plan for crossing the Delaware River, which would be three separate crossings, with his leading the largest contingent, and Colonel John Cadwalader and Brigadier General James Ewing leading the other two.   The elaborate plans were finalized, and boats of every possible size and volume needed to bring the three army divisions across the Delaware were brought down from “Malta Island to New Hope and hidden behind Taylor Island at McKonkey’s Ferry, and security was tightened there.”

The plot thickened:

“On the morning of December 25, 1776, Washington ordered his army to prepare three days’ food, and issued orders that every soldier be outfitted with fresh flints for their muskets…At 4pm Washington’s army turned out for its evening parade, where the troops were issued ammunition, and even the officers and musicians were ordered to carry muskets.  There were told they were departing on a secret mission.  Marching eight abreast in close formations, and ordered to be as quiet as possible, they left the camp for McKonkey’s Ferry. “

The weather was getting progressively worse.  “It blew a hurricane,” as one eyewitness reported.

There was another rather vital man involved in this operation, and that was a short, portly Bostonian by the name of Colonel Henry Knox.  Colonel Knox had the impossible job of being in charge of transporting eighteen articles of artillery, several individual pieces weighing as much as 1,750 pounds apiece, along with the horses needed to transport them, across the river, and subsequently across the land.  Knox later wrote of the trip that it was made “with almost infinite difficulty.”  It was later said that the “whole operation might have failed but for the stentorian lungs of Colonel Knox.”

The weather continued to worsen, with the drizzle having turned into a driving, freezing, rain, with snow, and terrifying winds.  It was said that “snow and sleet lashed Washington’s army.”  Nonetheless. Washington was among the first of the troops to cross, plowing through the near frozen Delaware, leading Virginia troops who, when they landed, formed a sentry line around the landing area with the password being “Victory or Death.”

The carefully choreographed attack plan was far behind schedule.  The amount of ice on the river prevented the artillery from finishing the crossing until 3:00 am on December 26, and the General’s men were already exhausted, hungry and ill clothed.  They still had to march many more miles through the dark, and ice, and snow, yet the troops couldn’t even begin this march until 4 am.

It was at this time that Washington was seen “brooding on a crate near a fire,” and he later wrote of this desperate time: “ 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.”

The two other crossings were not as successful as General Washington’s.  General Ewing was “prevented by the fierce weather and the ice jams on the river from even attempting a crossing below Trenton,” and though Colonel Cadwalader was able to cross a significant number of his men to New Jersey, he could not do the same with his artillery, so he felt he had to recall his men.

General Washington decided to go it alone and split his troops in two.  There were about 1400 Hessians in Trenton at the time, most of whom it seemed had been celebrating the holiday the evening before. Though known to be fierce fighters, the Hessians were not at their most alert upon the arrival of the American troops.  It was a complete rout, and as a result, the Americans “captured 1000 prisoners and seized muskets, powder and artillery.”  Only three Americans were killed, and six wounded, while 22 Hessians were killed, with 98 wounded.

In a rather amusing aside, the second crossing, from the site of the victory back to the American encampment, turned out to be even more difficult than the initial crossing.  It seemed that part of the spoils seized by the patriot troops were casks of rum, and the jubilant Americans got a bit carried away with the results being having to negotiate the difficult Delaware River waters in a drunken state with hungover German prisoners in tow.  It was reported that a large number of troops had “to be pulled from the icy waters on the return crossing.”

Nonetheless, “the victory had a marked effect on the troops’ morale.  Soldiers celebrated the victory.  Washington’s role as a leader was secured, and Congress gained renewed enthusiasm for the war.”

There is no more wonderful Christmas story than that of Washington’s remarkable feat of crossing the Delaware.  What he did was to recapture the imagination of the American people thus restoring the morale needed to carry us through to victory in the Revolutionary War.

But Christmas 2016 comes pretty close, doesn’t it?

Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.