Victory or Death – Washington Crosses the Delaware

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December 25, 2009 by D Stack

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

– Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

1776 was, for the United States, a pretty awful year. And it’s a good guess that for the Americans of the Continental Army, it was not a merry Christmas.

The year began well enough. In March of 1776 the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga, having been moved all the way to Boston by Colonel Henry Knox, were used to force the British to evacuate Boston. Washington and the Continental Army then traveled to New York City to defend it from the British.

As the Declaration of Independence was being adopted in Philadelphia, the Patriots defending New York City witnessed the full force of what they were facing as a fleet of over one hundred British ships arrived from Halifax.

From late August through October the British gradually drove the Continental Army and American militias out of Long Island and New York City. Washington, still new to his command, had not yet become aware of the type of fighting he would have to use to triumph in the Revolution – he did not possess an army capable of defeating the British in a “fair fight”. As the war continued, he came to realize the most important thing the Continental Army could do was continue to exist and strike at the British where they were weakest.

November and early December saw the Continental Army driven out of New Jersey, chased across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. From commanding a force of approximately 19,000 men, Washington’s forces had dwindled to under 5,000 and due to drop to a mere 1,400 when terms of enlistment expired in the new year. General Lee was actively lobbying the Continental Congress to replace Washington. Fortunately for Washington, Lee was captured by the British in his dressing gown while writing letters to the Continental Congress (oops).

With New York City and New Jersey again under British rule, many of the Patriots renounced the cause of independence. It was during this period that Thomas Paine, traveling with the Continental Army, penned The American Crisis.

With the coming of winter, General Howe in New York City ended operations for the year. British forces, including the infamous Hessians, were used to occupy New Jersey. Hessians under the command of Johann Rall were used to occupy western New Jersey. These occupiers were subject to constant raids by the Americans.

Needing a victory both to preserve his command and to keep the Continental Army alive, Washington and his officers concocted the plan to cross the Delaware River Christmas night. The password of the day was “Victory” with the reply “or death”. This was an accurate assessment of the American situation. Without a victory, the army would fall apart on January 1. Without the Continental Army the Revolution was likely finished. And crossing the Delaware was far from easy – the weather was dreadful – sleet and freezing rain. The water was treacherous and it was only due to the boat handling of John Glover’s regiment (made up of seafaring men from Marblehead, MA) was the crossing made successfully – though of the three attempted crossings, only Washington’s was successful, though horribly behind schedule, ruining his plan for a predawn raid. Despite these setbacks, Washington’s army marched on to Trenton and took the Hessians by surprise, giving the Continental Army the decisive victory it so desperately needed.

Militarily, it was not a major victory. Washington lacked the forces to hold Trenton. But it provided the vital boost in morale the Continental Army desperately needed. It increased re-enlistments and new enlistments. It showed the army could face European regulars in battle. Washington secured his position as leader of the Continental Army. And it set the stage for Washington’s strategy for the rest of the war – hit the British where they are weak, fade away before they can strike back, and keep the army alive and active. The American capital at Philadelphia was soon taken by the British, but so long as the Continental Army endured so could the Revolution.

Many of the participants of the crossing went on to important positions in the new American nation. Washington obviously went on to become her first president. James Monroe was badly wounded in the Battle of Trenton, though he lived to become America’s fifth president. Future rivals Aaron Burr Alexander Hamilton were also present, as was future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.

There’s been some recent video and written work which features the Battle of Trenton. Here are some I recommend:

  • 1776 – This is a fairly short book by David McCullough. It’s been a while since I read it. Overall it was a pretty good book covering the events of the year 1776, starting with the American siege of Boston and ending with the Battle of Trenton and its aftereffects. I found his conclusions a little awkward in the attempt to link the the bad news in Iraq (at the time of its publication) with the events of 1776.
  • The Crossing – A made-for-tv movie by A&E about the Crossing of the Delaware and Battle of Trenton. A good take on it and the chaos experienced by the Americans. I was disappointed to discover A&E wasn’t airing it this year on Christmas Day (they often have done so). The book by Howard Fast which this was based on seems to be out of print but shouldn’t be too difficult to find.
  • The History Channel Presents the Revolution – Does a good job of capturing the desperation of late 1776. I also find their dramatization of the capture of General Lee kind of hysterical (in a good way).
  • Liberty! The American Revolution – My personal favorite, this PBS series really drove home the feeling that the war felt lost as of 1776 and features an excellent reading of The American Crisis.
  • Liberty’s Kids – PBS animated series about the Revolution. Obviously from a kid-friendly perspective, but rather enjoyable. My 7-year old endorses this series. It of course features Washington crossing the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton.
  • Washington’s Crossing – Book by David Hackett Fischer – a very detailed (though very readable) account of the Battle of Trenton as well as the events leading up to it and after it.

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