13 - THE MIRACLE OF CHRISTMAS - 1776
In 1776, the Continental Army was defeated at Long Island in August. The 20,000 British and Hessian troops turned the Americans’ flank and destroyed about one-third of their army which withdrew to their coastal fortifications The next day the British did not attack to Washington’s surprise, but drew their cannons closer in a storm. There was a mile of open water between Long Island and safety in Manhattan. The British fleet could cut off their escape and easily bombard their Long Island fort from the water, in effect, surrounding them with artillery, but the winds were adverse, so the fleet remained at anchor below them. Washington decided to evacuate his entire force that night, but the sea was too rough to cross as darkness arrived. At 11 pm, the wind died down, and the troops began to enter the boats. All through the night they rowed to Manhattan and back and again. With the dawn, two-thirds of the army had been evacuated, but the remaining third was becoming more and more apprehensive. Surely the British would recognize their greatly reduced numbers with the dawn. The soldiers left on Long Island would then be overwhelmed. But then a fog arose out of the earth so dense that one could not recognize a person six yards in front of them. It remained till the last boats, in one of which was Washington, left Long Island- a miraculous escape.
There was also a legend that a local Tory saw the nine thousand Americans evacuating. He sent his servant to tell the British. The servant was captured by a contingent of German Hessians, none of whom spoke English. By the time an English officer arrived late the next morning to question the prisoner, the Continental Army was gone.
The Continental Army was then driven from Manhattan with the British playing a fox-hunting tune to the mortification of George Washington. The British were fought to a draw at White Plains, and they retired for easier prey.
Two forts guarded the access to the Hudson River. On the Manhattan side was Fort Washington, and on the New Jersey side was Fort Lee. The British took Fort Washington on Nov. 16, followed by Fort Lee on Nov. 20. The British Army then chased Washington’s Army down New Jersey to the Delaware River. In the first week of December, the Continental Army crossed into Pennsylvania with Washington’s troops confiscating all boats for 60 miles up and down the river. The Delaware River froze every winter, and Washington could only hope it was not frozen when Gen. Howe and the British Army arrived.
Some of the British thought the only rebel general that could do them harm was Gen. Charles Lee, the third ranking officer in the Continental Army, who wrote Washington was “damnably deficient” as the number one ranking officer. Lee had a great deal of combat experience in Europe during the Seven Years War, better known in America as the French and Indian War. He had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army. After the war, he was placed on half-pay and immigrated to America. He was on his way to combine his army with Washington’s. On the morning of Friday the thirteenth of December, he was captured by British cavalry at a New Jersey inn to which he had retired from his army the day before for paid feminine companionship. Upon receipt of this news in London, bells were rung in celebration for the capture of the only rebel general who the British believed could hurt them. Washington has now lost his most experienced general.
The Continental Army was poorly paid and poorly supplied with food, tents, blankets, and clothing, and it is December in eastern Pennsylvania. Since driving the British from Boston earlier in the year, they have only known defeat after defeat save for the draw at White Plains. Who would re-enlist for a general who only lost? And for poor pay and little food or clothing. European armies did not usually fight in the winter. Besides, most of Washington’s army had deserted and the enlistments of many of those who remained were up on Jan. 1, 1777. The British General Howe thought the war was essentially over, acceding to General Cornwallis’ request to return to Britain to see his ailing wife. Before leaving New Jersey, he garrisoned several towns with German mercenaries, known as Hessians. Then Howe set off for the pleasures of New York City and his mistress, Mrs. Loring.
At this time Washington said that “without the speedy enlistment of a new army”, “I think the game will be pretty well up.” On Christmas day, 1776, George Washington ordered Thomas Paine’s words to be read to his army: “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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: It is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”
Washington decided on a desperate gamble with the password “Victory or Death.” He would attack the 1400 Hessians in Trenton while he had an army. On Christmas day, 1776, he crossed the fast-flowing Delaware River with 2400 troops. Ice floated down the river striking the boats and threatening to capsize them. To fall into the river was almost certain death. He was also taking 18 field cannons, 350 tons of ammunition, and draft horses in the dark of night. His army was safely transported to the opposite bank, but not until 4 am, the day after Christmas. It still must travel 9 miles to Trenton, and his army has been struck by a storm pelting them with sleet and snow. Many of his men lacked proper footwear, and the snow and ice became tinged with blood from their feet. Washington encouraged them on, knowing the revolution was lost without a victory.
Washington crossed the Delaware River above Trenton. He planned for two smaller columns to cross below Trenton at the same time for a coordinated attack the next day. One commander declined to cross because of the severe storm, and the second tried to cross, but after losing a few cannons into the river, he canceled his crossing also. Washington must win with only the troops marching with him.
He had commanded his men not to attack Trenton in any way as he wanted them to have no warning of his coming. At 5 pm Christmas day, the Hessian commander had been warned of an imminent American attack. Somehow in the early evening of Christmas day, a few of Washington’s troops attacked a Hessian outpost and the Germans turned out. After some hours, finding no enemy, the Hessians retired to the inns and their quarters to celebrate the holiday. Their commander assumed this was the attack about which he had been warned. Washington was furious when he learned of this incursion. He now believed he had lost the element of surprise, but he had to go on. He must have a victory.
The commander of the Hessians in Trenton, Col. Rall, enjoyed cards and drink to the late hours. He was told a farmer wished to speak with him, but he declined to see him. Exasperated, the farmer wrote a note to the colonel, stating the Continental Army was then on the road to Trenton. The servant gave the note to Col. Rall who was enjoying the holiday, the company, and the drink. He stuffed the note in his pocket without reading it. After all, who attacked at Christmas, especially in such miserable weather? The Hessians canceled early morning rounds the next day because of the severe weather. At 8 am, the Continental Army struck and won a stunning victory over the Hessians, killing or wounding 115 and capturing just over 900 plus large amounts of badly needed stores, including six brass cannons. The Continental Army lost two men who froze to death on the winter march, but only four were wounded during the battle.
Even after this great victory, Washington still had the problem of his troops’ enlistments being almost up. Just before the New Year, he called his troops together. He offered them a ten dollar bonus to re-enlist, a significant amount when their pay was only six dollars a month. He told them that the revolution was lost if they went home as he would have little or no army to fight the British. He asked for a drum roll, and all who would stay should take one step forward when the drums stopped. The drum played and stopped. No one stepped forward. He cajoled and pleaded with them, emphasizing the cause was lost if they left. The drums rolled again and stopped. One stepped forward, then another, and another. About half of his men re-enlisted, or between 1,200 and 1,400 troops. The revolution would go on.
With the loss at Trenton, Gen. Howe canceled Cornwallis’ leave and gave him 8,000 British and Hessian troops, twenty-eight cannons, and supply wagons. He rapidly made his way to Princeton about ten miles from Trenton. Then a sudden thaw turned the road to Trenton to thick mud. Each soldier had sixty pounds of equipment. They slogged on arriving at sunset on the second of January at Trenton.
Washington had a significant problem. Each army had about 5,000 troops, but Cornwallis had professional soldiers who had been in many battles. Washington had a significant number of men, farmers and clerks and such, who had never seen any combat, having only recently joined his army. Still, his men were separated from the British by a bridge which was guarded by colonial cannon. Three times the British tried to take the bridge, but were driven back by the artillery, the last time by canister shot, multiple lead projectiles twice the size of musket balls, producing dozens of casualties. After his troops were repulsed the third time, Cornwallis decided it best to feed his men and rest for the night to begin the fight anew in the morning. One of his officers told him that Washington would not be there in the morning. The Delaware River was frozen, but not enough to support a man, much less a cannon. It was frozen enough so that boats were useless. The roads were mud. It seemed impossible for Washington to extract himself on them. I suspect Cornwallis felt the Continental Army would be there in the morning.
But God had a different plan. That night, a sudden freeze occurred which allowed the cannons, with their wheels muffled by rags, to roll and Washington led his troops over a little-known road to Princeton. There, he led his men against the British line. It was the common practice that European armies would form two parallel lines and fire their muskets against the other. By some accounts, Washington was with his line of troops; by others, he was in front of them. He was a huge target, about 6 feet three on a large horse. When the men fired, smoke obscured the battlefield. One of Washington’s aides took his hat off to cover his face as he had no desire to see his leader shot down. To his great relief, Washington was unscathed by the balls whirling all about him. The British fled, and Washington spurred his mount, shouting to his men, “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!”, remembering Manhattan no doubt. The Americans won and marched to Morristown in New Jersey. These two unexpected and unlikely victories at Trenton and Princeton saved the American Revolution.