January 2, 2019
Crossing the Delaware – Washington’s Big Gamble
The story of Washington’s Christmas 1776 crossing of the Delaware is one of the most famous in American history. Imagine having declared independence from the British empire and pushing them out of Boston, only months later to find yourself pushed out of New York City by the Redcoats and trying to regroup in New Jersey in winter. That was the situation Gen. George Washington faced in December 1776. His Continental Army troops were strained from expiring enlistments, desertions, and poor morale. Washington has been considering making some kind of bold move for a while and his luck was about to change. So what made the victory at Trenton possible?
Motivation – Common Sense author Thomas Paine published a new pamphlet entitled American Crisis featuring the stirring line, “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. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” Washington ordered it read to all of his troops and morale greatly improved.
Reinforcements – Troops and militiamen serving under Gens. Lee, Gates, and Col. Cadwalader arrived in Washington’s camp. With these reinforcements and local volunteers, Washington now boasted 6,000 troops fit for duty. Large portions were assigned to guard ferries and supplies in Pennsylvania, while some were to remain behind to guard the sick and wounded. That left 2,400 men to take into battle. Provisions, including much-needed blankets, also arrived.
Hubris – After pushing the Continentals into New Jersey, the British were happy to return to New York for the winter, so generals could regroup, re-supply, and strategize for the upcoming campaign season in the spring. They left mainly Hessian troops in New Jersey who manned small outposts in and around Trenton. British Gen. Grant didn’t give much credence to intelligence that Washington was looking to attack north of the river. He commanded Hessian Col. Johann Rall to be vigilant, but Rall dismissed the threat saying, “Let them come … Why defenses? We will go at them with the bayonet.”
Homefield Advantage – Washington’s plan of attack included three different crossings of the Delaware River in a logistically challenging and dangerous operation. Two crossings were called off due to the conditions from the growing “nor’easter.” But in Washington’s favor was the large number of experienced watermen to be found at the crossing site, especially experienced watermen from the Philadelphia area familiar with the exact stretch of river who had congregated in the area and were able to make the perilous nighttime crossing. Militia from the surrounding counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with the assistance of the Pennsylvania Navy, were able to gather many boats and other water craft, as well.
All of these factors certainly helped. Washington’s fatigued and cold troops had to march miles through the increasingly dangerous night storm to just reach the crossing site before they could even board the boats. As a result, the plan was already delayed over three hours before the crossing even began. But Washington’s gamble worked. Three crossings between Christmas and New Year’s yielded 1,000 prisoners, muskets, powder, and artillery. On January 2 and 3, 1777 Washington’s army defeated British reinforcements under Lord Cornwallis.
The victory was celebrated by soldiers and Americans alike. The winning gamble renewed enthusiasm for the war. Yet without Washington’s bravery and providence, the story may have ended differently.
Did You Know …
Conrad Heyer, one of the soldiers who made the crossing, lived long enough to be photographed? In this photograph taken around 1852, Heyer would have been almost 100 years old and is believed to have the earliest birth date of anyone who has ever been photographed.