Saving the Revolution General Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton
In the December following America's bold Declaration of 1776, the newly proclaimed Americans were losing the war against their formidable opponent - the ancient country of England. The Rebels were in dire need of a miracle in order to keep their bid for independence alive. That miracle took the form of General Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and subsequent Battle of Trenton - two of the most important events in the Revolutionary War; events that almost didn't happen.
The dire circumstances leading up to the crossing pressured the Revolutionaries for success. The Americans had lost each of the previous battles, and over half of the soldiers' enlistments expired at the end of the year - less than a week away. Washington needed to end the year on a positive note to boost morale and attract volunteers to the army (Murphy 52). The Declaration seemed as beaten as the troops, and scores of former Patriots, including a signer of the Declaration, swore allegiance to King George III. In this nearly hopeless situation, Washington needed drastic measures and a crucial victory to prevent the collapse of the Revolution (Lass).
Washington and the Rebels formulated a three-pronged plan of attack. First, 1,500 soldiers formed from the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island Militias would cross at Bristol and advance to Burlington. Seven hundred Pennsylvania militia would cross at and directly attack Trenton. They would also hold a nearby bridge to block a possible escape route. The final group, 2,400 led by Washington, Nathanael Greene, and John Sullivan would cross at McKonkey's Ferry nine miles upstream from Trenton, then march south. Halfway to Trenton, they would split into two columns each preceded by four cannons (McCullough 272-3; "Washington"). Their combined force of 4,600 would be attacking a garrison of soldiers containing 2,000-3,000 Hessians - highly trained German mercenaries hired by the British. The Hessians, led by Colonel Johann Rall, were on constant alert. They had been informed of an impending attack. When an American patrol fired upon a Hessian guard outside of town on the afternoon of the 25th, Rall investigated and assumed this was the attack of which he had been warned. He thought nothing more would happen (McCullough 279; Fischer 205).
By crossing at midnight, Washington's troops hoped to arrive at Trenton at five and attack at six, an hour before daylight. To preserve surprise, only a few senior officers knew the plan. Timing of the attack was of the utmost importance (Murphy 55-7; Fischer 207-12; Lass).
At midnight on December 26, 1776, the three forces went to their respective launch points on the Delaware. The river was 850 feet across, much deeper than usual, with an extremely strong current and clogged with formidable ice. An intense winter storm had hit at 11 pm, which covered the noise of the crossing, but also slowed the Rebels' progression considerably. Washington's group finally made it across three hours behind schedule (McCullough 274-5; Fischer 218). Washington faced a very difficult decision with the loss of the cover of night and potentially the element of surprise. He and his soldiers still had many miles to march in the frigid cold. Should General Washington call off the plan and cross back, or continue with the dangerous scheme? The decision could not be delayed, and had great risk either way. Downstream, the two remaining battalions of soldiers had not made it across because of the ice and snow. Washington had no way of knowing this, yet had to decide how to proceed. As he would later explain to John Hancock, "I well knew we would not reach [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 detennined to push on at all events" (Fisher 219
; Lass). Thus, of the three attacks, only one was going to happen, and it was desperately behind schedule, which could have spelled certain disaster.
After crossing the river, Washington's troops made the harrowing nine-mile march south in the intensifying storm. They marched along rutted dirt roads, traversing steep hills and ravines, and crossing Jacob's Creek. The soldiers walked slowly, stopped frequently, and suffered terribly from the cold. At Birmingham, the 2,400 split and Sullivan's column kept right while Greene and Washington veered left. Both columns had four miles left on slick, icy, snowy roads. Men and horses kept slipping in the dark, and many guns were too wet to fire. Both groups reached Trenton at about the same time - just before eight and one hour after daybreak (McCullough 276-8; Fischer 226).
The attack began at eight in the white blur of the storm on the 26th• The Americans had the storm at their backs, hindering the Hessians' view of the approaching offensive. The columns converged on the town while Washington kept an eye on the battle from higher ground. The Americans, who were soaked, cold, and exhausted, went into the fight "as if everything depended on them" (McCullough 280).
The Hessians responded quickly and professionally to the shouts of their officers and the beat of their drums, coming out of their barracks and the houses and forming up. The American artillery was just as fast. Cannons opened fire and within minutes, King and Queen Streets were cleared. The Hessians retreated into the side streets, but Sullivan's men were waiting, bayonets armed and fixed. "It was all happening extremely fast, in wild confusion and swirling snow made more blinding by clouds of gunpowder and smoke" (McCullough 281). Colonel Rall joined the fray and ordered a charge. The line faltered, so he ordered a retreat. Rall was shot and mortally wounded and American forces were closing in quickly. Surrounded, the Hessians surrendered (McCullough 280-1; Murphy 60-1 ).
The battle was a stunning victory, with twenty-one Hessians killed, ninety wounded, and about 900 taken prisoner. Five hundred others escaped over the bridge that the Pennsylvania Militia would have been holding. Miraculously, in a battle of such extreme viciousness, only four Americans emerged wounded. No Americans died in the battle, but the number lost from all causes during the campaign is unknown (Fischer 254; "Battles").
The crossing and victory at Trenton had an immense impact on the Revolution. The Americans were able to win the war largely because of the success of that day. It was the Rebels' first major victory in the entire war. After the Battle of Trenton and other triumphs, the army received a surge of enlistments, freshening the army and bolstering their courage. The spirits of the people lifted as well, and for the first time, people believed that the amateur Continental Army truly could defeat the British (Murphy 76; "Washington").
Because of the bravery and perseverance of George Washington and the Continental Army on that frigid morning, America is an independent nation with freedom and liberty for all. It truly was, as Washington said, "a glorious day for our country'' (Murphy 66).