Washington’s clever attack saved The Revolution

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In the fading days of 1776, the spark of the American Revolution had almost reached ebb-tide. Gen. George Washington, commander of the Colonial Army, had not lived up to expectation with his series of retreats and the surrender of Boston and New York to the British.

The Continental Congress was delicately perched in Philadelphia, and the French government showed little interest in helping the American cause. Something needed to be done quickly or the torch of freedom would be extinguished, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence had inscribed their death warrant.

The idea of a united colonial effort to teach the British some manners was in tatters, and England was close to ending the conflict. During the winter of 1776-77, Washington’s Army dwindled down to about three thousand men. Had Gen. William Howe, British commander-in-chief, been more enterprising, he could have had a fair chance of bringing the war to an end.

Washington learned from his six spies in New York City that Howe was ending campaigning for the winter, leaving the Americans across the Delaware River to suffer in the wild, and quartering some German Hessians troops at Trenton.

Bold strategy

Washington decided on a bold stroke of military strategy. He could secure a desperately needed propaganda and at the same time stage a single victory that would convince Congress to retain him in his command.

Washington was not a man of dash. He was dour, austere, grey, a pillar of sobriety, economic in speech and dressed the epitome of a conservative, dutiful military figure. He rarely directly engaged the enemy and was cautious and patient through winters of extreme privation like Valley Forge. He could never be accused of being dictatorial, and his command was all the more effective for that.

Despite the dull exterior, the rich man on the margin of Virginia aristocracy was to display leadership, strength, political skill and dignity to such a degree that ultimately the entire American Revolution came to revolve around him.

In the middle of December 1776, Washington and his command was planning one of the greatest guerrilla strikes and propaganda victory in history. He was going to attack some two thousand troops from the German state of Hesse who were mercenary soldiers hired by the British. They were strung out in private homes and barracks from Trenton to Princeton, New Jersey.

Gen. Carl von Donop was the overall commander with Colonel Johann Rall in charge of the Trenton troops. The Hessian troops at Trenton were brave and tough but were not great ambassadors for the British cause. They showed little inclination to act like professional soldiers and succeeded in antagonizing most of the local people, who characterized them as thieves, drunks and gamblers.

They celebrated Christmas day, but they were not drunk or guilty of “fanciful security” as so long assumed. In fact, because of Rall’s intelligence gathering, the troops were on “high alert” sleeping in their uniforms with rifles and cartridge boxes close at hand. Rall sensed that Washington’s patrols and boat gathering activity spelled trouble — just not this day.

Christmas mission

Washington and his top lieutenants formulated a plan based on secrecy, security, organization and intelligence. He was to spearhead the central threat, crossing the Delaware in Durham boats and river ferries, with 2,400 men some nine miles north of Trenton. Further downstream, directly opposite Trenton, a force of 700 troopers would land as a diversion. A third group, smaller in number, would attack at Mount Holly, a feint attack designed to tie up troops and prevent Trenton being reinforced.

The weather conditions of Dec. 25 were grim but helped to camouflage Washington’s attack. During the afternoon a “nor’eastern” descended on the valley; the river current rose to high water because of the rain, and unexpected huge blocks of ice were floating in the cold water of the 800-foot-wide Delaware River.

The Colonial Army was delivered in a blizzard of snow, across the river in Durham boats that resembled giant canoes except that they were flat-bottomed. They were designed in the 1750s to carry hefty payloads of timber, ore, pig iron and other commodities down river to Philadelphia.

Hour after hour, despite worsening weather, the ocean mariners of Marblehead muscled a steady parade of Durhams and a couple of ferry boats back and forth across the river. With 40 men to a boat and 18 artillery pieces and horses on the ferries, the crossing was completed by 3 a.m., three hours behind schedule.

The exhausting nine-mile march in the inky darkness began. Washington divided his main force into two columns, one to attack from the river, the other from the northeast in an effort to surround the town. The two other American forces that were to assault to support the main thrust never made it across the Delaware because of the storm.

Sneak attack

The American troops arrived about 8 a.m. ready, like a surge of electric current, to apply a pincher-movement or double-envelopment. It would be an urban fight in the streets. The town was barely guarded. The German garrison was snug in their sugar plum dreams; it was inconceivable that the ragged and God-fearing Americans would mount an attack on Christmas and during a terrible winter storm.

Moving quickly in the muffled snow, the Americans set up artillery in the streets and this highly mobile and flexible firepower awoke the enemy from slumber dreams. Amid the choking smoke and deafening noise, the Hessians fired from windows and tumbled downstairs to take up defensive positions in the streets. They were mowed down by dry muskets and artillery shots.

Within an hour, the battle was over with only five American casualties and six wounded compared with 22 Hessian dead, 98 wounded, six captured cannons, 1,200 muskets surrendered, 1,000 prisoners with their hands in the air in an apple orchard, and the loss of their commander Colonial Rall.

Trenton was like a sudden thunderbolt from the sky. No single event of the American Revolution more thoroughly shocked the world than this bushwhacking by Washington.

In a chain of events, French aid poured into help the American cause, Saratoga fell to American troops, patriotism hit a zenith in the colonies, and England realized she might lose a part of the empire, the Declaration of Independence had a new life.

Ironically and most symbolically, Washington would again order the assembly of “all vessels to ferry the American and French troops across the Delaware” on the move to Yorktown and the final decisive victory against Gen. Charles Cornwallis in 1781.

On the last day of Washington’s life, Dec. 14, 1799, it was a snowy day at Mount Vernon, much like the Christmas at Trenton 23 years prior.

The first President might well have thought that the seven inches of cascading snow on the tidewater landscape, the calm silence of winter, the beauty of it all, reminded him of that all-important December afternoon in 1776 when he was about to cross over another river. That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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