Things weren't going well for the Continental Army. Annual enlistments were about to run out, the Congress was threatening to cut funding and Washington's troops were in Eastern Pennsylvania in the cold, many with no winter clothes or shoes. Washington knew that the Army would not survive much longer without a big victory. They needed something to boost morale and garner the financial support required for supplies and equipment and to gain reenlistment by the troops. Nothing improves morale like victory, decent food and appropriate clothing, plus weaponry.
The Army had been run out of New York decisively and came to Pennsylvania since Philadelphia was the seat of power and thus far remained secure. But even Philadelphia and its surroundings couldn't last forever and all who had joined the Revolution would be dealt with violently by the British should Washington fail. He decided to take a big risk as his last stroke, for if it succeeded it would breathe new life into the cause. Failure would be the same fate he and his men would face if they did nothing, likely death and perhaps by torture.
On Christmas Eve, the troops were gathered and put on display, preparatory to movement. Then they spent most of Christmas Day moving out toward the Delaware River where, when other supporting forces joined them at a pre-determined time, they would cross the Delaware by boat to New Jersey. Their target would be the contingent of Hessian troops quartered in Trenton. Supported by one large group of British soldiers as well, the Trenton troops were well trained, well fed, well equipped and battle ready.
Contrast the two sides on the eve of the battle. The Hessians, under Colonel Rahl, were warm, well clothed and enjoying a Christmas night party, unaware of the fate awaiting them in the morning. Washington's men, exhausted from their march and with chattering teeth and many with bloody feet, were now getting ready on the banks of the river to cross. Washington himself was amazed at how well his men were standing up and he knew he needed to make sure their courage was rewarded with a victory.
There were two very bad signs for Washington in these final hours on Christmas night. First, a significant number of his forces never made the rendezvous, meaning they would cross without them. And then, during the early stages of crossing, between eleven and midnight, a heavy storm with snow and sleet came down on them as they rowed through the water which was running fast and was loaded with large chunks of ice. The normally docile river was swollen to a width of nearly three football fields and over seven feet deep, meaning that any man overboard would die before he could be retrieved.
But Colonel Rahl's men had a disadvantage as well. Their haughty leader thought so lightly of Washington's forces that he disobeyed orders to fortify his lines and disregarded a message delivered by a spy telling him the Continental Army was on the move. Had he taken the Americans more seriously, his men could have been ready and Washington's Army of twenty-four hundred could have been decimated by Rahl's smaller but highly trained and disciplined force of only fourteen hundred. Another factor, his lack of sufficient cannon power (he only had six of the lightest caliber cannon) would be no match for Washington's eighteen heavier cannon if only they could be properly deployed. If they had been challenged early on, they would have never been properly placed to accomplish the outcome.
Safely making it to the Jersey shore, the Colonials maintained strict noise and light discipline and made the trek to the edge of Trenton in utter darkness. Washington put his men in position, one group on the north end of town and another on the south and waited for dawn on this day after Christmas to attack. A third force would seal off the town from escape. The heavy cannons were now in position to cover the entire center of town where he knew the Hessians would accumulate. And, at precisely the right moment, the assault commenced through the outer edges of town.
As the Hessians came awake, hurriedly put on their boots and grabbed their muskets, they did just as Washington expected and were met with a hail of cannon right on the mark. The British dragoons attached to the foreign mercenaries just vacated the area, unwilling to fight and die with the Hessians. Colonel Rahl was mortally wounded and in less than an hour, the battle was done.
Casualties were surprisingly light with the Americans losing four to injury with two men frozen to death. For the Hessians, twenty were killed, one hundred wounded and one thousand captured.
A striking feature of the Continental Army action is found in the names of men who participated. They include the future President Washington, of course, as well as Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, future presidents James Monroe and James Madison, as well as future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshall. Even though they would squabble over the specifics of the future new nation's organization, they were patriots all.
Washington got his much-needed victory, the battle would go on for nearly five more years and Americans would eventually gain their freedom. And I know way down deep in my heart that the prayer, depicted in the picture of Washington shown below, played a major role in the outcome. For God works in mysterious ways, but he does answer prayers if they are said in earnestness and there is no doubt that Washington was serious. Things don't always turn out the way we want exactly when we want them to, but with patience they were answered for the Colonials.
So, while you're enjoying Christmas and all that it represents, remember the hardships and bravery shown by these men who played an important role in the creation of America. We would likely not have the freedom and opportunity that we have today had they not acted resolutely way back then in 1776. MERRY CHRISTMAS!