[Homestead] Christmas, 1776
genegerue at ruralize.com
Tue Dec 21 09:22:50 EST 2004
Stories such as this remind me to be grateful for the heavy price paid by
A Revolutionary Christmas Story
By LYNNE CHENEY
Published: December 21, 2004
AS 1776 was drawing to a close, Elkanah Watson, a young man in
Massachusetts, expressed what many Americans feared about their war for
independence. "We looked upon the contest as near its close," he wrote,
"and considered ourselves a vanquished people."
There was good reason for pessimism. The British had driven Gen. George
Washington and his men out of New York and across New Jersey. In early
December, with the British on their heels, the Americans had commandeered
every boat they could find to escape across the Delaware River into
Pennsylvania. They were starving, sick and cold. The artist Charles Willson
Peale, watching the landing from the Pennsylvania shore, described a
soldier dressed "in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his
face so full of sores that he could not clean it." So disfigured was the
man, Peale wrote, that at first he did not recognize him as his brother James.
In these desperate circumstances, George Washington made a stunning
decision: to go back across the Delaware and launch a surprise attack on
the Hessian mercenaries occupying Trenton. On Christmas night, he led 2,400
men, many of them with their feet wrapped in rags because they had no
shoes, to a crossing point nine miles upstream from Trenton. As freezing
temperatures turned rain to sleet and snow, they began to cross the river.
The task was harder than any of them had imagined. Men had to break through
ice to get into the boats and then fend off chunks of floating ice once
they were in the river. Getting cannons across - each weighed nearly a ton
- was especially difficult. Downstream, two other groups that Washington
had ordered to cross the Delaware failed in their mission. But Washington
and his men persevered, until finally, at 4 o'clock in the morning, they
were across and ready to march to Trenton.
They had planned to approach Trenton before dawn, but the difficulty of the
crossing had delayed them, and it was daylight when they encountered the
first Hessians. Still, the surprise worked, and in two hours, with few
losses of their own, they captured nearly 900 of the enemy. "This is a
glorious day for our country," Washington declared.
His men were exhausted after the battle, and many of them, their
enlistments expired, decided to go home. But many others stayed with
Washington as he decided to keep fighting. When he learned that thousands
of British and Hessian troops were heading toward Trenton from Princeton, a
pretty college town to the north, he deployed his troops along the south
side of Assunpink Creek. He also sent a force to the north side of the
creek to slow down the advancing enemy. Near evening on Jan. 2, 1777, when
these delaying forces had done all they could, they ran for a narrow bridge
that crossed the creek - and saw Washington waiting there for them. "I
pressed against the shoulder of the general's horse and in contact with the
boot of the general," a private remembered years later. "The horse stood as
firm as the rider."
Gen. Charles Cornwallis, the British commander, decided he could wait to
attack the Americans. "We've got the old fox safe now," he is supposed to
have said of Washington. "We'll go over and bag him in the morning." But
Washington had other plans. He knew that Cornwallis had brought most of his
troops with him, which meant that there would be far fewer of the enemy at
Princeton. That night, with men and officers enjoined to silence and cannon
wheels muffled with rags, Washington led the main body of his army on a
march around Cornwallis's troops toward Princeton. It was dawn before
Cornwallis realized they were gone.
The first encounter of the two armies on farmland outside Princeton did not
go well for the Americans. Many were killed, and the dazed survivors
retreated, but Washington rallied his troops with the bravery for which he
was becoming legendary and led them to within 30 yards of the British line.
Once the two sides started firing, it seemed impossible that he would
survive, but when the smoke cleared, there he was, straight and tall
astride his white horse. With a great shout, the Americans began to
advance. The British fell back and then ran. "Bring up the troops,"
Washington called to an aide. "The day is our own."
Twice in 10 days Washington and his ragtag army had defeated the greatest
military power in the world, and their victories lifted the spirits of
patriots everywhere. True, the years ahead would be hard - Christmas 1777
would find Washington and his men at Valley Forge. But because of the
10-day campaign that began on Christmas 1776, Americans could now think of
winning their war for independence. They could imagine that their great
struggle would have a glorious end.
Lynne Cheney, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author
of "When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young
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