Skip to comments.The First Christmas Present to America - 1776 - The Revolution is saved at Trenton
Posted on 12/25/2003 9:06:30 AM PST by XRdsRev
In the gloom of this holy Christmas night, a cold sleet fell. It was not a night for man nor beast but yet here they were. Huddled upon the banks of this frigid river, 2000 men contemplated their bleak fate.
The past few months had gone very, very badly. Their hopes had been crushed time and again. The noble experiment in Liberty which had begun with such promise, had by this time deteriorated to the point where every day was a battle just to survive. Defeat after defeat, at places like Long Island, Harlem Heights, Fort Washington and White Plains had destroyed confidence in themselves and their leaders. Driven from New York City, they had been forced to conduct a painful retreat across New Jersey, leaving their bloody footprints in the mud and snow. A few miles behind them followed the finest army on earth, awaiting it's chance to put these men out of their misery, once and for all.
Tonight they suffered, they were tired, cold and wet. Many were barefoot. On the New Jersey and Pennsylvania shorelines the men tried to keep as warm as they could, their ragged clothing didn't provide much protection from the wind or sleet. Officers moved to and fro, trying to organize their men and fretting over the slow progress of the boat crossing. They were behind schedule, far behind schedule and with the coming of the dawn, they would have no place to hide, the enemy would find them, out in the open, exposed, vunerable, darkness their only natural ally would be denied them. The officers knew that the only slim hope of success relied on them attacking the enemy at daybreak. Those slim hopes were quickly draining away. Many times the question was asked "Should we cancel the crossing ?"...the same answer always came back .."No".
On the river, muscle sore Marblehead fishermen rowed the heavy Durham oreboats back and forth, battling the strong current and blocks of floating ice. The boats were laden with men, horses and cannon to be landed on the Jersey shore. The men cursed and prayed...their best and worst emotions all being expressed at once. They were rich, poor, black, white, slave, free. They were from the south, from the north and everywhere in between. Two years ago they had been strangers but tonight they were a brotherhood, joined together in suffering, on their appointment with destiny.
This was a broken army of broken men....it didn't seem like much of a threat to anyone anymore. As they returned to New Jersey, they entered enemy territory. Since early December the British had captured almost the entire state and their powerful garrisons now extended from New York City to the banks of this river....the Delaware River. The British and their Hessian allies were resting, waiting for the Delaware to freeze, when they could push triumphantly forward to the Rebel capitol at Philadelphia and put this Revolution to an end. Victory for the King was certain, everyone knew that now. It was just a matter of time. As news of Crown successes spread across the courts of Europe, the last flickers of sympathy for the Colonist's cause, were being snuffed out. Everyone knew the American Revolution was over......everyone except these shivering men, here tonight.
During the painful retreat across New Jersey, the rebel army had withered away like a dying beast. The sunshine soldiers were all gone now, only the idealists and desperate remained. Tonight, they didn't know where they were going but they knew they were on an important mission. They also knew that wherever they ended up, they were likely to be outnumbered and outgunned. But not a man deserted his post.
There was no turning back now. The die had been cast, the Rubicon crossed. Every man knew that what happened in the next 24 hours would decide if freedom lived or died. Their actions tonight and on the next day would earn the blessings or curses of future generations. They would march into the dark unknown, they would fight and maybe they would die. An American officer wrote "It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow-storm setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty." As they left the boats and struggled up the muddy river banks onto the Jersey shore, the men shouted out the watchwords for this mission......"VICTORY OR DEATH".
Nine miles south in Trenton, New Jersey, a force of over 1500 Hessian and British soldiers rested while the nor'easter blew in. Despite legends to the contrary, they were not celebrating nor drunk. These were professional soldiers, with iron discipline, they were ready and willing to fight. They were however tired. Constant patrolling and attacks by American militia had fatigued these men. The blowing storm gave them a welcome chance to rest and regain their strength. In this very bad weather, it was doubtful that the Americans would cause any problems. Their commander Colonel Johann Rall attended a small Christmas party that night, arriving after midnight. Rall had been delayed by a meeting with his officers to discuss a deadly attack that had taken place upon his pickets that day. Rall was a kind commander to his men and friendly to local civilians. Because of the bad weather he had allowed his officers to cut short their patrol routes that night, so their men would not suffer in the cold and sleet. Shortly after midnight there was a knock on the door and a servant from a local Tory family presented the Colonel with a scribbled note. Not realizing it's importance and wanting to return to his kind hosts, Rall put the note in his pocket without reading it. Too late, the next day when the note was finally found and read, it warned that a force of 2500 rebels were crossing the Delaware a few miles north at McKonkey's Ferry.
At 4 am., the rebel army began it's nine mile march southward. All hope of a surprise attack at dawn now were dashed. They were too far behind schedule. Still they slogged forward along the Pennington and River Roads, there could be no turning back now. The mission's watchwords said it all, the situation now, literally was victory or death, there could be no other result. As they trudged through the rain and sleet, the bad situation became even worse. It was discovered that many of the men's gunpowder had gotten wet and they could not fire their weapons. Word was sent to the rebel commander to ask what should be done....should the attack be cancelled and the army turned around ? The tall Virginia planter turned General listened to this bad news. Everything had gone wrong this night and it seemed that fate had conspired against him and his cause. George Washington in a rare fit of rage, no doubt occassioned by the terrible stress of this night, barked out, the officers have their orders..."use the bayonet and penetrate into the town...the town must be taken and I am resolved to take it". The last chance to retreat, to try to regroup for another effort, was gone forever.
At 8 am, well after daylight, the head of Washington's column reached the outskirts of Trenton, fully expecting to see the Hessians formed up to fight them. Instead the first person they met was a very surprised but sympathetic New Jersey farmer who pointed out a Hessian picket post and volunteered the valuable intelligence that the soldiers were still asleep. Immediately, two American officers, William Washington and future president James Monroe, spurred their horses forward and attacked the enemy pickets themselves. These two men crashed into the sleeping pickets, cutting down several and scattering their weapons across the ground. In a few moments, most of the picket was captured but several got away, running towards Trenton screaming "The Enemy !, The Enemy !, Out !, Out !". Washington turned in his saddle and shouted to his men "Attack..damn you, attack !!". The Battle of Trenton had begun.
All the soldier's fatigue, chill and pain disappeared in a few seconds. Now they saw what they were to do. They were attacking the dreaded Hessians and they had completely surprised their enemy. Wildly cheering American infantry soldiers swarmed forward into town. Now was their chance for just retribution, to pay back the lives of their comrades who had been bayonetted to death on the plains of Long Island or shot to pieces at Fort Washington. Their force was irrestistable. American artillery firing solid shot down King and Queen Streets added to the carnage and confusion.
Disoriented and panicking Hessians ran out into the streets, trying to dress and fight at the same time. Many were cut down before they even knew what was happening. Hastily formed groups of the enemy desperately tried to stem the American tide. Near Third and King Streets about a hundred Hessians formed up and delivered a volley of musket fire into the advancing Americans but soon were pummelled by artillery fire and surrounded by the second American column, which upon hearing the opening shots, ran into the town from along the River Road and commenced their own attack. A group of the 16th British Light Dragoons, looked at what was happening around them, blinked, jumped on their horses and fled away from town without firing a shot.
Colonel Rall heard the commotion at his headquarters and got dressed. He mounted his horse and quickly took command of about 600 men who had assembled in the street. The presence of Rall, calmed his men. Here was their leader, he would save them. Rall marched his men to a meadow near town and formed them in a defensive square, all the while shouting the question "How many (Americans) are there ?". Nobody could accurately answer..except to say...thousands.
The Hessian commander quickly attempted to stem the tide of defeat. Within a few minutes he had his 600 men prepared for a breakout counterattack. He sat upright and resolute in his saddle as he led them forward toward the American guns. The Rebels could see that the tide of battle was shifting and that they were now being attacked themselves but they could not respond. Wet gunpowder prevented many of them from firing and if the Hessians closed to within bayonet distance, all was lost. But not everyone's powder had been ruined and a Pennsylvania Rifleman fired a shot that struck Colonel Rall. In a moment the Hessian soldiers realized that their commander was seriously wounded and they lost their will to fight. As Rall's mortal wound seeped his life out, so did the Hessian resolve to continue the battle.
Through the smoke and rain, General Washington could not see what was going on. He knew there was a large enemy force at his front preparing to counterattack. He turned to a nearby artillery officer and ordered his guns to fired on the enemy. The officer with a clearer line of sight, responded "Sir, they have struck, their colors are down".
Less than a half hour after it had started, the Battle of Trenton was over. A ragtag band of American soldiers had achieved the impossible, in the process capturing over 860 enemy soldiers, killing or wounding 106 and taking over 1000 stands of badly needed arms and cannon. American casualties had been about 4 wounded and 3 frozen to death. It was one of the most stunning and lopsided military victories in history.
While the war lasted for another seven years, never again was the American Army in as desperate a situation as it was on December 25, 1776. For the rest of the conflict, British high command constantly overestimated the strength of the Rebels and drastically altered their military strategy to avoid situations which might lead to another similar defeat. In Europe, news of Trenton devastated England and Germany, destroying public resolve for the war. In France, American agents were able to again muster support for the American cause and secret shipments of French arms commenced in the spring of 1777. Washington and his men had truly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and had saved the American Revolution.
Hessian officer Johann von Ewald, stationed in New York at the time, recorded his impressions of the defeat at Trenton in his journal which he amended and edited after the war.
"Thus the times had changed ! The Americans had constantly run before us. Four weeks ago we expected to end the war with the capture of Philadelphia, and now we have to render Washington the honor of thinking about our defense. Due to this affair at Trenton, such a fright came over the army that if Washington had used the opportunity we would have flown to our ships and let him have all of America. Since we had thus far underestimated our enemy, from this unhappy day onward we saw everything through a magnifying glass.
This great misfortune, which surely caused the utter loss of the thirteen splendid provinces of the Crown of England..."
Written by Ernest R. Bower 2003
A sidebar story to this one is that General Washington brought to his encampment, days before this attack, Thomas Paine, whose American Crisis I had just been published in Philadelphia. Washington directed Paine to read his work before the assembled troops. It began with these words:
"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 his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman...."
Great post. I know Monroe was a young officer at Trenton, and even wounded there taking out some Hessian cannon, but I thought it was Alexander Hamilton who helped take out the pickets.
The undisputed facts are that the socalled professional soldiers were captured by the rag-tag band of colonials with very few casualties and many of the Hessians actually disappeared into Pannsylvania "Dutch" (aka Deutsch) territory. No offense, but I'll stick to the family lore.
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