We hope you are enjoying friends and family the Christmas season. While we enjoy loved ones, gifts, good food, and warm fires in 2022, George Wahington was enduring a season of suffering. Thankfully, his suffering led to a season of success.
As you enjoy the season, please stop to consider the sacrifices made by those who struggled to secure our liberty in the cold winter of 1776. The following is Chapter 15 from the book The Real George Washington. Enjoy, and have a merry Christmas.
With the arrival of Sullivan’s troops, Washington decided to make one last strike against the British before the year’s end. Most of his six thousand men were due to go home at the end of December, barely a week away, and Washington wanted to utilize them one more time. General Howe, assuming that Washington would sit out the winter now that he was safely across the Delaware, retired to New York, leaving a series of posts to hold New Jersey. One of those posts became Washington’s target: the Hessian stronghold at Trenton. It would be a dangerous move—the entire American army would be at risk, and if they failed in the venture, retreat would be virtually impossible. But “necessity, dire necessity, will nay must, justify an attack,” Washington said.
On December 23 Washington had his men form in ranks and, seeking to prepare their tremulous hearts for the coming battle, ordered the first of Thomas Paine’s stirring Crisis papers read to them. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” it began. These agonizing words captivated the cold and hungry soldiers. They had indeed been tried. Paine’s words vividly recalled to mind the loss of Long Island, New York, Fort Washington, Fort Lee, the march across New Jersey, and the difficulty to “both officers and men,” who, “though greatly harassed and fatigued, frequently without rest, covering, or provision, the inevitable consequences of a long retreat, bore it with a manly and martial spirit.”
Paine’s Crisis had the desired effect. The harsh cold of the New Jersey winter blew through their fragile garments—but the men resolved to bear up with manly spirits and be everything Paine’s eloquent lines had attributed to them.
Washington divided up his forces carefully for the attack on Trenton. Brigadier General James Ewing was to take about nine hundred men, cross the Delaware directly opposite Trenton, and capture a bridge, sealing off the Hessian retreat to the south. General John Cadwalader, with about two thousand men, was to cross downriver. There he would engage the Hessians stationed in Bordentown, preventing them from assisting their fellows in Trenton to the north. Washington chose to lead the dangerous main attack personally. With some twenty-four hundred men, he would cross upriver and march down to Trenton, arriving an hour before dawn. The chosen day of attack was December 26.
The Americans celebrated apprehensively on Christmas Day, but the Hessians were carefree and self-secure. Colonel Johann Rall, commander of the Hessians at Trenton and a hero from the capture of Fort Washington, spent Christmas evening in a supper party, then called for wine and cards. The night storm howled around the home of the wealthy local merchant with whom he was visiting, but Rall paid it no heed. Was not this the night of the Nativity, the time for gaiety and celebration? He put the cares of war far from him. He had sentries posted along the roads, and they would certainly notify him if the Americans made a move. Besides, what army would be foolish enough to venture out on a stormy night like this?
As the cold evening darkened, Washington and his men began to move. Boats were waiting for Washington’s contingent at McKonkey’s Ferry, about nine miles above Trenton. The oarsmen, wrapped in heavy blue coats, were John Glover’s skilled Marbleheaders, a remarkable corps of fishermen from Massachusetts who were more comfortable on water than on land. Glover, a heavyset redhead, had led his men in performing the phenomenal evacuation of Long Island; now they would perform a similar feat in taking Washington’s twenty-four hundred men across the Delaware, this time fighting a heavy storm and sub-zero temperatures.
The men stood stoically on the river banks, waiting their turn to cross. The sleet mixed with snow pelted their faces, dripped under their collars. Some had covered the firelocks of their muskets with rags, attempting to keep them dry for the battle. Others, having no rags—or no foresight—watched miserably as their muskets became useless burdens.
Ice floated down the river, smashing against the boats and threatening to dump the passengers into the river. Hour after long hour passed, rows of weary men shifting in place as they waited on both sides of the freezing water. Washington hoped to have the crossing completed by midnight, but the stormy weather and ice-choked river slowed the movement. It wasn't until four in the morning that the army was ready to march.
Four hours earlier, an American Tory had stopped at the home of Colonel Rall’s host. The Tory said he had a vitally important message for the Hessian commander. Rall refused to see him. Nothing of great importance could be happening out in that storm, nothing that could not wait until morning. The Tory, desperate to convey his message, wrote Rall a note that could have undone everything Washington had so painfully planned. In substance it said, “The Americans are on the move, coming toward Trenton.” A servant passed the note to Rall. He disdainfully stuck it into his pocket without even looking at it and returned to his wine.
While Washington was struggling across the Delaware, Cadwalader and Ewing, commanders of the support contingents, were holding back. Ewing briefly agonized about crossing the icy water, then shook his head and decided not to attempt it. The river was impassable, he said. Cadwalader at least made the attempt. He successfully shipped men across for several hours, but when he tried to transport the heavy cannon, the riverbanks were too slick, too perilously coated with ice. Some of the cannon slid out of control and disappeared into the water. He finally recalled his men and canceled the march.
With one lone contingent left for the attack—but unaware of Cadwalader’s and Ewing’s failure—General Washington organized his men into two divisions and began to march. John Sullivan’s division was to march along the river and attack the town from below. Nathanael Greene’s division, which Washington accompanied, was to enter the town from above.
The men had a nine-mile march ahead of them, traveling slick, icy roads. Lowering their heads and pulling their wraps tight against the storm that whipped about them, the men forged ahead. One officer scribbled in his journal, “It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm setting in. The wind…beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes.”
The officer’s words proved to be sadly prophetic. Jagged ice on the road cut through worn-out shoes and threadbare stockings. The next day, Major James Wilkinson, coming behind, could follow their route by the bloodstains in the snow.
As the soldiers marched, a worried report came to Washington that the sleet was wetting their muskets. For some, even the precautionary rags were proving inadequate. Washington’s determined reply: “Use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”
Shortly after daybreak, about eight o'clock, the two columns converged on the town. Shocked Hessians had no time to prepare. Rall hurriedly dressed and formed a regiment on King Street. Another regiment, wearing scarlet uniforms, formed on the parallel Queen Street. The American artillery was waiting for them. Both armies hesitated, and time seemed to stand still. Then the gunners, under a slender young American officer named Alexander Hamilton, lit the touchholes of the cannon. Grapeshot roared from the cannons' mouths and the screaming Hessians fell back.
On Queen Street the Hessians rolled out their own cannon and fired back. Bayonets at ready, a troop of Virginians sprinted toward the enemy, racing straight at the cannon. Captain William Washington, cousin of the commander in chief, and Lieutenant James Monroe courageously led the charge. In only moments the Americans had captured the cannon—but both Captain Washington and Lieutenant Monroe had fallen with serious wounds. Monroe likely would have bled to death had a doctor not been present. Through the doctor’s careful ministerings, Monroe survived to become the fifth President of the United States.
Sullivan’s men fought their way across town to meet Greene’s group. Their muskets generally useless because of wet firelocks, the untrained, awkward Americans were forced to rely on the bayonet. Frustrated, some wisely crept into houses and stores and dried their firelocks. When Rall formed a counterattack they were ready, dropping the Hessian commander from his horse with two well-aimed slugs.
It was a glorious and almost unbelievable victory for the beleaguered American commander and his troops. Nearly 1,000 Hessians were taken captive; another 115 were killed or wounded. Four Americans had been wounded, but not a single one was lost in battle—although in the fierce night before, two had tragically frozen to death.
“The enemy have fled before us in the greatest panic that ever was known,” one of the patriot soldiers wrote after the victory. “Never were men in higher spirits than our whole army is.”
On December 27 General Washington sent a detailed letter to Congress reporting the victory. The attack had been successful, he explained, but still had fallen short of his secret hopes. “Could the troops under Generals Ewing and Cadwalader have passed the river, I should have been able, with their assistance, to have driven the enemy from all their posts below Trenton.” But he was nevertheless proud of his men and what they had accomplished: “Their behavior upon this occasion reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the river in a very severe night, and their march through a violent storm of snow and hail, did not in the least abate their ardor. But when they came to the charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward.”
At the same time Washington was planning his attack on Trenton, he was also taking other steps to keep his straggling army alive. Even though Washington was commander in chief, Congress retained a tight grip on many critical decisions. This tragic flaw in organization severely limited the General’s effectiveness in both strategy and logistics. With a measured argument, Washington applied to Congress for greater powers:
"Ten days more will put an end to the existence of our army…. If therefore, in the short interval we have to…make these great and arduous preparations, every matter…is to be referred to Congress, at a distance of 130 or 140 miles, so much time must necessarily elapse as to defeat the end in view. It may be said that this is an application for powers that are too dangerous to be entrusted; I can only add that desperate diseases require desperate remedies, and with truth declare that I have no lust after power, but wish with as much fervency as any man upon this wide, extended continent for an opportunity of turning the sword into a plowshare. But my feelings as an officer and a man have been such as to force me to say that no person ever had a greater choice of difficulties to contend with than I have."
One week later, on December 27, Congress voted to give Washington sweeping emergency powers for six months. (They repeated this act on September 7, 1777.) With full congressional authorization, Washington could raise and equip sixteen additional regiments (bringing the total number of regiments in the permanent army to 104). He could also set up a system of promotions in the army; arrange for supplies; and arrest hindering, disloyal citizens.
Washington accepted the new authority with sober spirit: “Instead of thinking myself freed from all civil obligations by this mark of…confidence, I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first to be laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.”
Even with his broadened authority, Washington could do little to relieve the tragic physical state of his men—a condition that continued throughout most of the war. Many of the men were clothed in garments that were woefully inadequate for the severe winter weather; the combining of men from many different colonies brought a deadly combination of contagious diseases into the camp; and food supplies were sometimes so scarce that the starving men had to plunder the countryside to stay alive.
These conditions were not beyond notice of the well-supplied enemy. Earlier in 1776 a British officer, in describing the retreat of the Americans across New Jersey, noted that “many of the rebels who were killed were without shoes or stockings.”
Of this period during the war, historian Douglas Southall Freeman wrote, “To have called [Washington’s] situation desperate would have been to brighten the picture.” Then he enumerated the dreadful problems Washington and his troops faced:
"Scores of tents had been lost in the evacuation of New York; incoming militia, as usual, brought none with them. Compelled to sleep on the ground, where ice was formed as early as November 2, many of the recruits fell sick and went to hospitals which were worse, if possible, than camps. Some of the troops had no cooking utensils; others had to man the works all night when they were weary and were shivering for lack of clothing. 'There are few coats among them,' a British officer said of the Americans, 'but what are out at elbows, and in a whole regiment there is scarce a pair of breeches.' Homesickness afflicted hundreds of newcomers to the Army…. In September, when tents were not available for all, Washington’s recourse had been to direct that the troops be 'stored thicker.' That would not now suffice. 'The men,' said a Connecticut chaplain of patriotic stock, 'are worried in a manner to death and are treated with great hardship and severity.' "
Such Conditions did little to encourage new recruits, and Washington was constantly battling the fluctuating size and mixed constitution of his army. His problems were basically twofold: “short enlistments and a dependence upon militia.” These conditions, Washington warned, might well “prove the downfall of our cause.” “It is a…painful consideration,” he wrote to Congress in September 1776,“…to be forming armies constantly, and to be left by troops just when they begin to deserve the name, or perhaps at a moment when an important blow is expected.”
Many short-term enlistees were farmers who planted in the spring, came to war for the summer, then left in the fall to harvest their crops. Others simply were not interested in a career of precarious and rigorous army life. As patriots, they would serve a term—but, having served, they then wanted to go home.
Washington found himself forced into the dangerous position of planning his military strategy around the varied schedules of his men: “We dare not in the beginning of a campaign attempt enterprises on account of the rawness of the men, nor at the latter end of it because they are about to leave us.” In December 1776, thoroughly disgruntled, he wrote, “If 40,000 men had been kept in constant pay…and the militia had been excused,…the continent would have saved money.”
The state militia were a festering thorn in Washington’s side. “They come in you cannot tell how, go you cannot tell when, and act you cannot tell where; consume your provisions, exhaust your stores, and leave you at last in a critical moment.” “To place any dependence upon the militia,” Washington candidly wrote to Congress, “is assuredly resting upon a broken staff.” Members of the militia, having been “just dragged from the tender scenes of domestic life” and therefore being “unaccustomed to the din of arms,” were “ready to fly from their own shadows.” They stubbornly resisted necessary army discipline, and “scandalous desertions among themselves…infuses the like spirit in others.”
Washington was not the only officer with anxious concerns about the army. Artillery officer Colonel Henry Knox, for example, wrote harshly in September 1776: “The bulk of the officers are a parcel of ignorant, stupid men…. As the army now stands, it is only a receptacle for ragamuffins.”
Washington’s frustration with short-term enlistments and an unreliable militia was so deep that he lamented in late September 1776, “Such is my situation that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to any enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead.” And to another correspondent, soberly: "Fifty thousand pounds should not induce me again to undergo what I have done.
Despite the General’s many urgent, even desperate requests, Congress was unbelievably slow to respond. Part of the reason was financing—there simply were not enough funds, they said, to maintain a standing army. But that was largely just an excuse, as on other occasions the early Congress (just as the Congress of today) seemed not the least bit hesitant to spend money they did not have. Much more critical were two imposing political roadblocks that stood in the way of the army Washington wanted.
First, the “nation” in 1776 was a loose confederation of independent states. Many Americans at that time had no thought of continuing in close union beyond the war. To create a standing army, with troops from many states, could cement a unity that might not be desired.
Second, and perhaps more important, the Congress had an inherent fear of standing armies. They knew the oppressive power a standing army could wield—and many Congressmen feared giving that power to anyone, even Washington.
Nevertheless, Washington’s repeated urgings slowly began to bring the desired effect. After more than a year of putting Washington off, Congress finally responded, approving an expansion of the standing army, authorizing three-year enlistments, and giving greater bounties (both in land and in money) as inducements to those who would enlist. But their action came too late for the troops serving in 1776. On December 22, 1776, the General wrote to Robert Morris, president of Congress, reminding him that the American army would be reduced to a scant twelve hundred men by January 1. He said, “You may as well attempt to stop the winds from blowing” as to attempt to keep troops after their term has expired. The British were waiting only for the ice on the Delaware to thicken before attacking “the poor remains of our debilitated army,” he warned.
Faced with certain failure if he lost his army as enlistments expired, Washington made a bold move. Four days before the bulk of the army was to disband, the General met with several regiments of regulars and entreated them to stay. If they would remain for just six weeks, he would give them a generous ten-dollar bounty as well as a continuance of pay. Flushed with excitement over the victory at Trenton and enticed by the extra money, many agreed to stay. Washington had no authority from Congress thus to pledge public funds—but fortunately an express arrived the next day giving him that power.
Find more stories like this in The Real George Washington.
Excellent reading. And, I must add, very inspiring. Thank you for providing this much needed service. As we see our great nation crumbling under the leadership we have suffered under for far too long, at the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch and the Judicial Branch, despair is close at hand. However, this sort of desperately needed inspiration brings a great deal of hope with it. We must stand fast, we have the right blood in our veins to do what must be done, and we have the will. As long as we fight, there is hope. Hope vanishes only with surrender.
I’ve been following the NCCS for many years. They have Brent main source of information and materials. These materials I’ve shared with nearly a thousand or more customers and friends through my travel and work. Thank you for all you do, sharing Americas amazing history was always the best part about my journey at work. Sincerely Jim Kuhn
A truly harrowing saga. The steadfast leadership, perseverance and sense of duty of General Washington is immeasurable. He and others like him sacrificed much for a noble cause. The troops that endured and persevered through such dire times and conditions to ultimately prevail are inspiring. To endure such conditions today is unfathomable. My hope is that more and more people realize the cause that these men sacrificed so much for. So much of this history is lost on the younger generations. So much is taken for granted. May we all continue to study and teach others about these immensely important and historical events.