On This Night in 1776--Washington Crosses the Delaware and Captures the Hessian Garrison at Trenton, New Jersey
On Christmas night in 1776, General George Washington launched (quite literally) a desperate gamble to save the American Revolution.
The Continental Army had suffered defeat after defeat since the British expeditionary force, numbering over 32,000 troops, the largest force ever sent out of the British Isles to fight a distant foe, had landed at Staten Island in August. The British had chased the Continentals from the Hudson River to the Delaware River, where, after capturing Trenton and driving the rebel army across the river, the British commander, General William Howe, suspended military operations until the spring. Leaving Trenton garrisoned by 1500 Hessian troops, General Howe retired to his winter quarters in New York City.
Casualties, disease, desertion and expired enlistments had reduced the Continental Army to only about 4000 men. The enlistments of a majority of the remaining soldiers were set to run out at the end of the year. Washington decided to make a nighttime crossing of the Delaware River and attempt a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison in Trenton. He would commit his entire remaining force to the perilous venture, knowing that if the attack did not succeed, there would be no more Continental Army. A measure of his desperation may be seen in the password he chose for the night's operation, "Victory or Death."
Washington divided his troops into three columns, each to cross the Delaware River at a different location. In the actual event, only the main column, led by Washington himself and numbering 2400 men, successfully made it across the river in time for the morning attack. The fierce battle lasted only 45 minutes, until the Hessian brigade surrendered. In that short time, 21 Hessian troops had been killed, and 90 wounded, including the Hessian commander, Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, who died of his wounds. 900 Hessians were taken prisoner, but some 500 others escaped. Incredibly, Continental Army losses were just four wounded. The only American army fatalities were two soldiers who had frozen to death on the road during the night.
The victory at Trenton, followed by Washington's successful attack on Princeton on January 3, 1777, were regarded by the British as minor defeats, aggravating to be sure, but of no great consequence compared to the earlier English victories at the Battle of Brooklyn and Fort Washington. To the Americans, however, Trenton was the turning point of the Revolutionary War, tangible proof that the Continental Army had outsmarted and outfought His Majesty's forces and could do so again.
Battlefield defeats and much hardship still lay ahead for the Continental Army, including the horrible winter at Valley Forge. It would be six and one-half years before the Treaty of Paris brought the American Revolution to a successful conclusion. Nonetheless, although July 4th, 1776 is our nation's birthday, it was George Washington's desperate venture on Christmas night in 1776 that allowed the infant nation to survive her first year.
David McCullough's superb popular history, 1776, was the source for the historical information in this post.
Lowell adds: Every American should read 1776, if only to understand how close the Founders came to being mere historical footnotes, and to appreciate better the greatness of George Washington.