During this joyous time of year military history appropriately takes a back seat to Christmas shopping, family and most importantly the reason for the season. That said and wishing all of you the best holiday I’d like to shine a spotlight on a seminal event often forgotten in our military history, the largest, riskiest and most daring raid United States military forces executed in its history up to that time. Failure would have likely killed our fledgling nation in its infancy. Many people don’t realize the post-Christmas raid on Trenton 26 December 1776 was a make or break moment for the Revolution and had it failed the United States may have never been.
It wasn’t until I watched the film “The Crossing” starring Jeff Daniels as George Washington that I took more than a cursory interest in the battle. Many remember the battle because of the iconic and largely inaccurate picture of Washington crossing the Delaware depicted above. It’s deserves much more study though as it was the first amphibious raid for our fledgling Army’s history. The Battle of Trenton came after a stunning number of defeats taking the Colonial Army from twenty thousand to about five thousand troops. The Revolution was at serious risk and Washington gambled the Army which WAS the Revolution, on a daring and desperate amphibious raid featuring a river crossing in the worst weather, an arduous night forced march that actually killed soldiers and climaxed with an assault where Washington split his forces to defeat crack Hessian troops.
Trenton occurred at one off the lowest points of the American Revolution. Washington had lost the Battle of Long Island; British troops occupied New York City & White Plains. Combat losses and desertion had sapped the Army. The public’s morale was at a record low and reflected in the Army whose enlistments would be up at the end of the year with a real risk of the disintegration of the Army and with it the revolution. The Army was the embodiment of armed struggle against Britain. Its disintegration would have left the British Army with only having to police up the rabble rousers for hanging. Washington needed a win as he withdrew to winter quarters at Morristown, NJ to bolster morale in just the few thousand troops that remained and the public from which the future Army and support would come from.
What gave Washington the idea to attack Trenton? His officers were against it and no one knows the full role of the bayonetting of wounded and surrendering colonial troops at the previous Battle of Long Island played in the decision to attack Trenton. The force at Trenton numbered 1,400 Hessian troops under the leadership of Colonel Johann Rall. The same commander for some of the Hessian troops at Long Island. There is little doubt that when the wheels were set in motion the colonials wanted to use their bayonets as the Hessians did who reputedly pinned the dead bodies of colonialist troops to trees and barn doors after Long Island.
In a little over two days, Washington scraped together enough boats to covertly move his 2400 man force across an ice choked Delaware River at night in a driving rain storm that turned to sleet on Christmas night. Everything was difficult. Colonel Knox who commanded the crossing site characterized the operation as “infinitely difficult”. The men heavily loaded with three days supplies moved to the boats continually throughout the evening. The boat crews rowed and “poled” the boats across the river and its current avoiding ice flows in visibility that could sometimes be measured in feet. The Soldiers, many who could not swim, stood in the boats silently as the bottoms of the boats were filled with ice water. The password Washington selected for the raid? “Victory or Death.”
Nine miles separated the landing site from Trenton at 04:00 on 26 December 1776. In the dark with freezing temperatures, sleet and snow Washington force marched his troops and limited artillery to Trenton in four hours. He split his force along two routes to speed movement and surround the Hessians at Trenton. Advance parties of 40 men secured intersections and set up roadblocks ahead of the movement to keep news from reaching the Hessians. Some barefoot soldiers marked the route with the footprints of their bloody feet. Along the march two soldiers died from their exertions.
At 08:00 on the outskirts of Trenton with Washington in the lead, two detachments of Hessians were engaged and withdrew in good order. The action continued into Trenton where lead companies of the Hessians were engaged. They withdrew into the town firing as they went. The firing brought the Hessian company guarding the route of escape into the fight. Washington’s second column entered Trenton along that now unguarded road.
The colonials advanced into Trenton and the Hessians who tried to repulse the attack with assaults of their own supported by artillery. They were quickly destroyed by colonial artillery and Colonial Soldiers firing from the houses. Colonel Rall the Hessian commander had ignored advice to improve his defensive positions in Trenton. Colonel Rall also held Colonial Soldiers in contempt to include their commander, George Washington. Rall was mortally wounded as well as all the colonels of his three regiments by the end of the battle. A small number of Hessians were able to flee the battle but most were casualties. The Hessians suffered 22 dead, 83 wounded and about a 1000 captured. Colonial losses were two dead (along the march) and five wounded including the future President James Monroe. Just as important were the captured Hessian supplies which the colonial army desperately needed.
The day after New Year’s 1777 Washington added another victory for the cause at the Battle of Princeton where he ejected the British from southern New Jersey. The Colonial Army then occupied winter quarters in Morristown. The Battle of Trenton had a larger impact on the revolution than its relatively minor but still impressive military results. Thomas Paine’s words read to the Army three days before Trenton epitomize the national mood. “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.” The victory was a much needed boost to colonial morale that had suffered through months of British victories. The victory also shattered the Hessian image of German invincibility. Most importantly the victory bolstered recruitment for the volunteer colonial Army.
So on the day after Christmas it would do us well to remember how General Washington gambled it all on a raid. It also serves as a warning to those who wish us ill. After all, we are a nation who has an Army that will cross a frozen river, at night, on Christmas to kill you. No kidding, we’ve done it…