At the time of the American army’s greatest scarcity and defeat, George Washington decided to make a strategic attack against the British in Trenton, New Jersey. A Hessian stronghold, Washington knew it would be a dangerous move—the entire American army would be at risk, and if they failed, retreat would have been nearly impossible.
On December 23, 1776, Washington had his men form ranks and seeking to prepare their tremulous hearts for the upcoming battle, he ordered Thomas Paine’s compelling Crisis papers to be read to all of them. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” it began.
As the book, The Real George Washington, written by Jay A. Parry and Andrew M. Allison describes:
These (Paine’s) agonizing words captivated the cold and hungry soldiers. They had indeed been tried. Paine’s words vividly recalled to mind the loss of Long Island, New York, Fort Washington, Fort Lee, the march across New Jersey, and the difficulty to “both officers and men,” who, “though greatly harassed and fatigued, frequently without rest, covering, or provision, the inevitable consequences of long retreat, bore it with a manly and martial spirit.
Paine’s Crisis had the desired effect. The harsh cold of the New Jersey winter blew through their fragile garments—but the men resolved to bear up with manly spirits and be everything Paine’s eloquent lines had attributed to them.
Washington began carefully dividing up his forces for the attack on Trenton. He chose to personally lead the dangerous main attack. With approximately 2,400 men, they would cross the Delaware upriver and march down to Trenton, arriving before dawn. The chosen day of the attack was December 26, 1776.
The Real George Washington book describes:
The Americans celebrated apprehensively on Christmas Day, but the Hessians were carefree and self-secure. Colonel Johann Rall, commander of the Hessians at Trenton and hero from the capture of Fort Washington, spent Christmas evening in a supper party, and then called for wine and cards. The night storm howled around the home of the wealthy local merchant with whom he was visiting, but Rall paid it no heed. Was not this the night of the Nativity, the time for gaiety and celebration? He put the cares of war far from him. He had sentries posted along the roads, and they would certainly alert him if the Americans made a move. Besides, what army would be foolish enough to venture out on stormy night like this?
As the cold evening darkened, the American army made its move. Washington’s 2,400 men began crossing the Delaware, fighting a heavy storm and sub-zero temperatures.
The Real George Washington describes:
The men stood stoically on the river banks, waiting their turn to cross. The sleet mixed with snow pelted their faces, dripped under their collars. Some had covered their firelocks of their muskets with rags, attempting to keep them dry for the battle. Others, having no rags—or no foresight—watched miserably as their muskets became useless burdens.
Ice floated down the river, smashing against the boats and threatening to dump the passengers into the river. Hour after long hour passed, rows of weary men shifting in place as they waited on both sides of the freezing water. Washington hoped to have the crossing completed by midnight, but the stormy weather and ice-choked river slowed the movement. It wasn’t until four in the morning that the army was ready to march.
Once all men were across, they still had a nine-mile march ahead of them. Not even the slick, icy roads could stop the American army from their mission to take Trenton. From The Real George Washington:
Lowering their heads and pulling their wraps tight against the storm that whipped about them, the men forged ahead. Once officer scribbled in his journal, “It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm settling in. The wind…beats the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes.”
The officer’s words proved to be sadly prophetic. Jagged ice on the road cut through the worn-out shoes and threadbare stockings. The next day, Major James Wilkinson, coming behind, could follow their root by the bloodstains in the snow.
Shortly after daybreak, the American army converged on Trenton. Shocked Hessians had no time to prepare. Then the gunners, under a young American officer named Alexander Hamilton, lit the touchholes of the cannons. Grapeshot roared from the cannons’ mouths and screaming Hessians fell back.
While muskets were practically useless because of wet firelocks, the untrained Americans were forced to rely on the bayonet for the majority of the attack. However, the muskets dried just in time to knock the Hessian commander, Rall, from his horse with two well-aimed slugs.
From The Real George Washington:
It was a glorious and almost unbelievable victory for the beleaguered American commander and his troops. Nearly 1,000 Hessians were taken captive; another 115 were killed or wounded. Four Americans had been wounded, but not a single one was lost in battle—although in the fierce night before, two had tragically frozen to death.
The enemy had fled before us in the greatest panic that ever was known, “one of the patriot soldiers wrote after the victory. ‘Never were men in higher spirits than our whole army is.’
On December 27, General Washington sent a detailed letter to Congress reporting the victory. “The attack had been a huge success,” he explained.
To fully appreciate this 1776 Christmas story is to understand the severely harsh conditions our American army endured at this time and throughout the entire Revolutionary War. The American forces had suffered much defeat after agonizing defeat before becoming victorious.
Up against the British, the wealthiest and most powerful military in the entire world, the American army battled on incredibly scarce resources. Many of the men were clothed in garments that were terribly inadequate for the harsh winter weather. A British officer once even described that, “many of the rebels who were killed without shoes or stockings.”
Food supplies were also often scarce, and a deadly combination of contagious diseases swept into camps, killing many of the soldiers. General Washington and his “rag tag” army faced a myriad of dreadful problems.
Needless to say, such conditions did very little to encourage new recruits to the American cause, and the American army was outnumbered by the British by nearly 3 to 1.
As historian Douglass Southall Freeman wrote, “To have called (Washington’s) situation desperate would have been to brighten the picture.”
Yet, General Washington and his “ragamuffin” army pressed forward despite all the odds. There’s so much hope and inspiration our Modern-day Patriot can take from the Christmas Storm of 1776.