The Battle of Trenton
Try to picture it. Try to feel it.
It’s cold. It’s East Coast cold, where the wet humidity makes the bitter cold cut right through to the bone. You’re freezing even with a thick parka and good snow boots on. Your fingers are numb in your designer gloves. You hold your hot coffee/chocolate, thankful for the warmth making its way down your throat, as you walk down the paved, de-iced sidewalk.
But in 1776, you don’t have a parka – or boots, hats, gloves, scarves. You’re lucky if you have a shirt on your back and something on your feet between your skin and the ice and snow. You can’t remember the last filling meal you had. You don’t even mind picking the weevils off the chunk of stale bread you get for your day’s ration, and the something warm to drink is hot water with some old vegetables floating in it. You’re a soldier in the Continental Army, and it’s December in Pennsylvania.
You’ve just lost New York to the British, abandoned Fort Lee in the face of a British invasion, you’re on the run, demoralized, cold, hungry, with the British under Gen. Cornwallis – the warmly clothed, well-fed, well-supplied British – hot on your heals determined to obliterate once and for all the “rebellion in the colonies.”
You and 5,000 soldiers reach sanctuary behind the Delaware River on December 7, but sickness and desertions cut your ranks relentlessly. The soldiers’ contracts with the Continental Army are set to expire on December 31 and no one is getting paid anyway, so many of the demoralized just go home early to get out of the miserable conditions. The Continental Army is quickly unraveling in defeat.
General Washington sends out scouts to scour the countryside looking for food, horses and ammo. The horses have already been confiscated by the British, no ammo is found, and your countrymen sold their crops to the British for a better price than they were offered by the Patriots and their worthless Continental dollars, supposedly backed by a do-nothing Congress. What resources not commandeered by the British are burnt to the ground to keep it out of Patriot hands.
Can you feel it? The desperation? The cold? The hunger? The hopelessness?
Even the stoic George Washington writes to his brother, “I think the game is pretty near up,” the “noble cause lost.” The British agree with him, so they quarter up in warm colonial houses and prepare to watch the Continental army freeze/starve to death. Washington knows he has to do something quick and drastic to save the army, the cause, and that flickering dream upon which so many willingly staked so much.
Knowing the position and strength of the enemy troops (thanks to his dedicated spy network, and John Honeyman in particular), Washington and his officers hatch a desperate, dangerous plan. Rather than hunker down licking their wounds as the British expect, the Continental Army will launch a surprise attack! And they will launch it against the feared Hessian allies of the British: those vicious, professional German mercenaries. Seven days before the contracts expire for the Continental Army. One last all-or-nothing campaign. It’s in the hands, once again, of Divine Providence.
Washington stealthily rounds up every boat he can find. On Christmas night, in the midst of a bitter sleet storm, Washington loads the entire Continental army, horses, cannon, cooking kettles, and supplies into the boats and crosses an ice-swelled Delaware River in the dark in transport wave after wave.
They get behind schedule because of the treacherous conditions, but finally move everything across – without a single mishap! – by four in the morning on December 26. There are still 9 miles to cover before dawn. Frozen, hungry men, many without shoes, march in absolute silence towards Trenton. Total surprise is essential for the plan to work
Soaked muskets and ammo become useless, so Washington directs his troops to use bayonets, and for once bayonets are available. Ice forms on the roads, men fall and are pried to their feet to stumble on in the dark and cold. Two men freeze to death on the road, Washington’s only casualties this day.
Dawn is approaching, so the exhausted men break into a long trot to reach their destination under the element of surprise.
Washington’s plan works! In 45 minutes the battle is over: 900 Hessians are captured, hundreds more flee in terror, their commander, Col. Rall, is killed, and the Continental army wins six desperately needed cannon, 40 horses and a vast array of much needed supplies.
Morale is greatly improved after this brilliant victory, and Washington wants to compound it by attacking Princeton next, but the men are too exhausted. And they had found the stores of rum . . .
BUT WAIT!! . . . . . that’s not the end of this amazing story!!
When the British found out what happened in Trenton, they were stunned and ENRAGED, and immediately started moving troops to capture Washington’s army and “bag the fox.” Cornwallis left 1,200 troops in Princeton as a rear guard and proceeded to march towards Trenton with 5,500 troops.
During this march, the British encountered some American resistance intent on slowing their progress. The Americans gradually fell back, joining the main body of Washington’s army along the main bank of the Assunpink Creek. Several attempts by the British to cross the creek were thwarted, but Cornwallis believed he had the Continental Army cornered, so decided to wait until the next day to finish the battle.
Washington, in the meantime, had another master plan in the works. He left 400 men in the camp to stoke bonfires and “make digging noises” so the British would think the Continental army remained just across the creek preparing defenses. In actuality, a mass evacuation was underway. The main body of the Continental army wrapped rags around their wagon wheels, horses’ hooves, and feet and – in the middle of the night, with the aid of muddy roads quickly freezing – silently crept around the entire sleeping British contingent.
The next morning, the British attacked the American camp . . . only to find a few still-smoking bonfires—it was completely deserted! . . . By that time, Washington’s army was miles away attacking and taking Princeton.
The results of these two bold strokes by Washington, and the ensuing victories, were enough to convince France to support the Patriots with badly needed supplies.
And the rest, as they say . . . is history.
So this Christmas season, as we share time with our families and friends over a holiday feast in the warmth of our lovely homes by blazing fireplaces, please take a few moments to read this story to your children and dwell on the hardships, the bitter cold, the lack of food and shelter, the supreme sacrifices our forefathers made with honor and commitment a little over 200 years ago to pursue a wisp of a dream we are all living today.
Merry Christmas and God, please continue to Bless America!