Skip to comments.The Great Christmas Night Raid
Posted on 12/22/2006 4:29:21 AM PST by Molly Pitcher
Continental Army General George Washingtons celebrated Crossing of the Delaware has been dubbed in some military circles, Americas first special operation. Though there were certainly many small-unit actions, raids, and Ranger operations during the Colonial Wars and there was a special Marine landing in Nassau in the early months of the American Revolution no special mission by Americas first army has been more heralded than that which took place on Christmas night exactly 230 years ago.
Certainly the mission had all the components of a modern special operation (though without all the modern battlefield technologies we take for granted in the 21st century): A secret expedition is how John Greenwood, a soldier with the 15th Massachusetts, described it, as quoted in Bruce Chadwicks The First American Army.
If nothing else, all the elements for potential disaster were with Washington and his men as they crossed the Delaware River from the icy Pennsylvania shoreline to the equally frozen banks of New Jersey, followed by an eight-mile march to the objective the town of Trenton.
The river swollen and swift moving was full of wide, thick sheets of solid ice. And unlike the romanticized portrayal of the operation in the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze (the one with Washington standing in his dramatic, martial pose; his determined face turned toward the far side of the river), the actual crossing was made in the dead of night, in a gale-like wind and a blinding sleet and snowstorm. Odds are, Washington would have been hunkered down in one of the 66-ft-long wooden boats, draped in his cloak, stoically enduring the bitter cold with his soldiers, some of whom were rowing or poling the boats against the ice and the current.
WASHINGTONS STRATEGIC CONCERNS
The decision for the crossing and the subsequent raid on Trenton was based on Washingtons belief that he had to do something. Otherwise as he penned in a private letter the game will be pretty near up.
To the easily disheartened and the cut-and-runners, it might have seemed the game was indeed already up. After all, many of Washingtons Continental Army were wounded, sick, and demoralized. Recent losses to the British had been severe. Desertion numbers were rising, and enlistment terms were almost up. Reinforcements were poorly trained and ill-equipped. Ammunition was in short supply. The soldiers were not properly outfitted for extreme winter conditions: Clothing was spare. Many men were in rags, some naked, according to Washingtons own account. Most had broken shoes or no shoes at all.
The mission itself, though a huge gamble, was tactically simple.
Washington, personally leading a force of just under 2,500 men, would cross the river undetected, march toward Trenton, and attack the enemy garrisoned in the town at dawn.
Two of Washingtons other commanders, Generals John Cadwalader and James Ewing, were also directed to cross: Cadwaladers force was to cross and attack a second garrison near Bordentown. Ewings force was to cross and block the enemys escape at Trenton. Both commanders, discouraged by the weather and the river, aborted their own operations. But according to Maurice Matloffs American Military History (the U.S. Armys official history), Driven by Washingtons indomitable will, the main force did cross as planned.
Speed of movement, surprise, maneuver, violence of action, and the plans simplicity were all key. And fortunately, the elements all came together.
The factors in Washingtons favor were clear: The weather was so bad that no one believed the Continentals would attempt a river crossing followed by a forced march, much less at night. The Continentals were numerically and perceived to be qualitatively inferior to the British Army. The Hessians, mercenaries allied to the British and who were garrisoned in Trenton, had a battlefield reputation that far exceeded their actual combat prowess. And no one believed the weary Americans would want to attempt anything with anyone on Christmas.
Hours before kickoff, Washington had his officers read to the men excerpts of Thomas Paines The American Crisis, a portion of which reads:
These are the times that try mens 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.
By 4:00 p.m. the force was gathered at McKonkey's Ferry, the launching point for the mission. The watchword, Victory or death, was given. When darkness set in, the men climbed into the boats and began easing out into the black river.
Back and forth thoughout the night and into the wee hours of the 26th, the boat crews ferried the little army, a few horses, and 18 cannon across the Delaware. The crossing was complete by 4 a.m., but two hours behind schedule, and the temperatures were plummeting. At least two men, exhausted and falling asleep in the snow, froze to death.
The next obstacle was the march toward Trenton in blinding snow, sleet, even hail; and on bloody frostbitten feet. Keep going men, keep up with your officers, Washington, now on horseback, urged as he rode alongside his advancing infantry.
Just before 8:00 a.m., the advance elements of the American army were spotted on the outskirts of town by a Hessian lieutenant. But by the time he was able to sound the alarm, all hell was breaking loose. Americans were rushing into Trenton with fixed bayonets. The Hessians some still in their underwear, and nearly all with hangovers from too much Christmas Day celebrating were attempting to form ranks, but were quickly overrun. Many fled in a panic. Hundreds surrendered. Those who resisted were shot down or run through with the bayonet. The Hessian commander, Col. Johann Rall, was desperately trying to rally his men. But he was shot from his horse, and died later that day.
One of Washingtons junior officers, Lieutenant James Monroe was leading a charge against a Hessian position in the town, when he took a musket ball in the chest and collapsed. Amazingly he survived, and would ultimately become the fifth president of the United States.
The fighting lasted about an hour. Four Americans had been killed and ten-times as many Hessians lay dead in the snow. Some 900 enemy prisoners were rounded up, along with weapons, ammunition, and other desperately needed stores. And Washingtons victorious army was soon marching back along the river road to the waiting boats and the return crossing.
WHAT IT MEANT FOR AMERICA
Days later when many enlistments were up, Washington ordered his commanders to form ranks. He then rode out before the troops, and appealed to their sense of duty as well as the criticality of their fight:
My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake The present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny.
Indeed it was in December of 1776, just as it is in December of 2006.
Washington held his little army together. Many of the continentals renewed their enlistments. They then capitalized on their Trenton victory with wins over the British at Trenton (the second go round) on January 2, and Princeton on January 3.
The initial Delaware crossing and the raid on Trenton was the bold, high-risk shot-in-the-arm the nearly disintegrated American army needed in late 1776. The fighting was far from over, and there would be many setbacks for the Americans before the Treaty of Paris was signed formally ending the war in 1783. But the great Christmas night raid in 1776 would forever serve as a model of how a special operation or a conventional mission, for that matter might be successfully conducted. There are never any guarantees for success on the battlefield; but with a little initiative and a handful of good Americans, the dynamics of war can be altered in a single night.
I just love this history!
I wonder when he wrote this if Thomas Paine even imagined that 230 years later these words would still ring so true.
As understanding and brilliant as he was, he probably did believe they were words for the ages.
A most important victory of the Revolution. Today's MSM would have never reported it.
That stood right out to me as well...
I agree, it is totally applicable today!!!
Good snag there!!!
Marine Vignettes #86-89
General John Glover
& His Marblehead Mariners
By John Glover Eastman
August 27, 1999
Again and again the question is raised by Marines, "Just what is meant by the Old Corps?"
The answers to that question are arguable on into infinity it seems, with the opinion of each one differing in some degree from all others. The answer is ultimately different and unique for each individual Marine. Probably in no other military organization has so much emphasis been placed on its history and traditions. And so Marines are especially well versed in the events that have occurred in our Corps since November 10, 1775 and Tun Tavern.
"...but its roots go back much further. The use of fighting men aboard ships was well established by the time of the Phoenicians, and their duties were remarkably similar to those of today's Corps--fighting in naval engagements, boarding enemy ships, and making raids into enemy territory... The Greeks and Romans picked up the ideas of marines from the Phoenicians, and marines have been used by every maritime country since....Official recognition of marines came first from Charles II of England . In 1664 he decreed the formation of the Admiral's Maritime Regiment, later renamed The Regiment of Marines, still later, the Royal Marines. In 1740 three regiments of marines were raised in the American colonies. An early commander was William Gooch of Virginia, and his troops became known as Gooch's Marines....When the revolution came, the Americans found they needed marines of their own...Samuel Nicholas, a Quaker innkeeper, was commissioned the first Marine officer, and recruiting began at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia."
(Re The Marine Book, by Chuck Lawliss, Thames & Hudson, NY 1992)
BTW, there seems to be some disagreement in the matter of Tun Tavern.
"...the story is untrue. It probably got its start from the fact that Samuel Nicholas, effectively the first Marine Commandant, actually did own a tavern in Philadelphia, the Conestoga Wagon, which apparently served as his headquarters for a time. However, the owner of the Tun Tavern did become a Marine officer, about a year after the creation of the Corps, which probably gave rise to the legend."
(Re Marine Corps Book of Lists, by Albert A. Nofi, Combined Publishing 1997)
That much of the tradition of the U.S. Marine Corps is rooted in the British Royal Marines is self-evident. American colonists had served in the Royal Marines all along. The official colors of both services are scarlet and gold, etc; and later, both services fought together in Samoa, the Boxer Rebellion, World War I, World War II, and Korea, etc.
Eleven states had established their own organized Marine Corps' by the time of the Revolutionary War. And prior to the war, there were those private marines known as "Privateers."
It is hoped that the interested reader here will delve into the references mentioned-- and there are many others--in the interest of finding that things are never quite as they might have seemed, and that there is always more information to be found on any subject; otherwise there always exists the possibility of error by omission as well as for any other reason.
The following 'vignette' is provided courtesy of Mr. John Glover Eastman, and is one of the many items of information that is not as well known as, I think, it should be. It is hereby presented for your attention.
By Editor, Dick Gaines
For my entire life I've heard the family story that General John Glover donated/leased the first armed vessel in our Nation's history to the United Colonies. It was a schooner christened the "Hannah" and was activated on August 1, 1775. General Glover lived in Marblehead, MA but the "Hannah" was berthed in Beverly, MA.
There still exists a "war" of who is to get the historical credit between these two towns. I understand that there were also armed gunboats on Lake Champlain who claim to be the origin of the US Navy, as well. With apologies to extraordinarily courageous men of the "Brown Water" Navy, I feel that the origin of the Navy belongs to ocean going vessels.
I am new to the list and perhaps all of this is old news but for information: Just a few days out of port she recaptured an American vessel that was seized by the British. The Royal Navy started an intensive search for the "Hannah". On 16 October, 1775 she engaged the H.M.S. Nautilus and although heavily out gunned her crew was able to survive this first naval battle of the Revolution. (Note: The 'list' Mr. Eastman speaks of, above, is the Scuttlebutt & Small Chow Marines History List, where this was first posted. -Ed)
As to the importance of General Glover and his Marblehead Mariners to the United States Marine Corps:
Glover's Mariners were comprised of mostly merchant marine sailors and fishermen. When the Continental Army had to be evacuated from their entrapment in New York it was the Marblehead Mariners who placed their muskets in the boats, picked up and heaved the oars. When they reached the evacuation beaches they laid their oars down and picked up their muskets.
When the boats were loaded they reversed the musket/oar cycle and route continually until the entire Army was safely on the other side. Without these Mariners the Continental Army would have ceased to exist and that first Revolution would have been over. That would leave us today with a lot more in common with Canada. ( I strongly believe that if the Revolution had failed, and the reason I referred to it as the "first", was that eventually in the course of history our forefathers would have ousted British rule.)
Into the boats; land on a hostile shore. Sounds like a US Marine to me.
Another event that makes me feel Glover and his unit are the de facto founders of the US Marines is the battle of Treneton. It was, again, the Marblehead Mariners manning the boats that ferried the Army to defeat the British/Hessians at Trenton. ( Regardless of that well known artistic rendering of the crossing, there was no ice and I doubt anyone was standing in the boats.) When the troops were safely across the Mariners grab their weapons and joined in the assault. This victory was another pivotal event in the eventual success of the Revolution. I'm a little shaky on the following point: I believe that the victory at Trenton, besides raising the level of commitment to final victory over the British, caused France to agree to support the Revolution. France's Fleet (Adm. DeGrasse?) trapped the British fleet allowing our victory at the final battle of Saratoga.
Obviously I have family bias but strongly believe that more attention and credit should be given to our Country's first Marines by the present USMC and its previously active duty members.
Nathan Billias, a noted naval historian, showed in his book "General John Glover and his Marblehead Mariners" that my Great Great Great Great Great Grandfather indeed led our first sea going amphibious force and was, at the very least, was the predecessor of the United States Marine Corps. And if you believe that our founding Fathers were Americans and the first citizens of the United States then they should be considered the actual founding of the Corps.
Thank you for listening.
John Glover Eastman
My deepest thanks for your interest in my Ancestor's and his
unit's role in the founding of the United States Marine Corps.
Of course you have my permission to present my writings on the
list. If you can locate Nathan Billias' book it may greatly add to your
publication. I do possess a history of General Glover which contains some of the correspondence between him and Washington and the Continental Congress.
Not the brightest moment in then Colonel Glover's career but
maybe of some interest: When the Army was struggling at Valley Forge, Glover received word that his family was starving in Marblehead which I will guess was caused by the British blockade of Boston and loss of revenue. Keep in mind that before the war he was a very successful merchant marine owner and he and his family
lived a life style that coincided with his wealth. His house, which still
stands in Marblehead, attests to that wealth. During the war his fortunes diminished greatly which caused his family's hardship.
He left Valley Forge and headed for his family. He was either
over taken by a messenger or did arrive at Marblehead and shortly after received a personal letter form Washington. Washington was greatly displeased at Col. Glover leaving Valley Forge and used an interesting ploy and very historical phrase to get him to return.
In the letter Washington chastised him for (this is my remembrance of the letter. But it will give you the gist of it.)
" It is men like you who start an honorable endeavor and then
leave it that cause us the most harm. You are like a soldier who will only serve in the summer months and not stay through the harshness of winter." This passage resulting in the term "Summer Soldiers" and "Winter Soldiers".
The letter continued in my thoughts: " You have been with me since the beginning and have made yourself and your unit a most valuable
force in the conduct of the struggle before us. I am aware of the personal issues that confront you but you will do more for your family and all our families by returning to you post. To honor your accomplishments in pursuit of the dream of freedom you are hereby promoted to the rank of General".
The slap and the promotion worked and General Glover returned
immediately to duty. His family went on in a squalid living situation until the blockade was broken. Sadder yet is that when the war was over Glover was almost penniless and died as an impoverished cobbler. The last sentence may be found in Billias' book but I have no recollection of it in that work. This was family lore from generation to generation. I still use this in my work as a Director of a Veterans' Outreach Center in Hyannis, MA. When some one asks how can the country treat its veterans so poorly. I simply reply, "Tradition."
Again my thanks for interest. Any method of telling the story of
General Glover is most welcomed. Two other bits of information just
recalled; There is large statue of the General on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and in 1969/70 the US Navy commissioned the USS John Glover, a missile frigate I believe. The Navy tracked down all the direct descendents to include my brother,my father and his eight brother and sisters. I, unfortunately was in I Corps with 101st at that time and missed out on the Christening.
John Glover Eastman
Americans, 1776: "Victory or death."
Americans, 2006: "Victory or, oh what the heck!"
The Washington Family Coat of Arms
Freepmail me to get ON or OFF this list.
I would encourage you folks to visit Trenton and the Old Barracks to re-live the Battle. You can stand on the hill where Hamilton set up his artillery and The General stood and sent a 17 y/o James Monroe with a few others to take a Hessian cannon (Monroe was wounded in this encounter).
Thanks to Molly Pitcher for posting. Trenton and the closely following Battle of Princeton were sorely needed wins in a tough campaign. It is because of the stick-to-itiveness of those early Americans that we enjoy the freedoms we have today in the greatest country that ever was, is, and ever will be.
Merry Christmas and/or Happy Hannukah to all of those on the list and to Freepers and their families everywhere.
I had ancestors fighting in this operation.
God Bless George Washington and the brave patriots of America's past.
One other interesting fact about Gen. Glover was that as a Congregationalist, he believed in the equality of all men. Because of this, he had--throughout the RevWar--an integrated group of mariners/fighters. Usually about 10% of his men were African American, but it got as high as 25%.
That Washington somehow managed to hold his force together and cobble together that offensive move at Trenton was near-miraculous feat.
Washington and his officers had no qualms about attacking the Hessians in this manner, though. Since these were mercenaries and were therefore not fighting for their own country, they were basically considered something along the lines of "unlawful enemy combatants" of sorts -- and were not extended the same courtesies and concessions as the British would have been given.
I'd certainly have to agree with that assessment. Then too, there were some particularly hard feelings against Rall had his unit among the Continentals because of the alleged atrocities committed by the Hessian troops against both military and civilian personnel in both New York and New Jersey in the not-so-distant past -- as well as the Hessians supposed free use of their bayonets on the American forces who had already surrendered to them after the battle of Brooklyn Heights on Long Island and after the surrender of Fort Washington on Manhattan.
Thanks for posting, Molly.
This was always one of my favorite Far Side cartoons.
Garde la Foi, mes amis! Nous nous sommes les sauveurs de la République! Maintenant et Toujours!
(Keep the Faith, my friends! We are the saviors of the Republic! Now and Forever!)
LonePalm, le Républicain du verre cassé (The Broken Glass Republican)