My family used to cross the Delaware River – by car – once a year on a trip to relatives back East, and we would drive through towns that were the sites of famous events in the American Revolution. Despite being close to the source, though, I was never that clear on what Washington’s crossing was about, though of course I was familiar with the painting by Emanuel Leutze. For this reason I decided to read David Fischer’s 2004 Washington’s Crossing, which provides an excellent explanation of the circumstances and significance of the event. (1) While the book has a flaw common in contemporary popular works on American history – that of sacrificing narrative focus in favor of giving a comprehensive account from a variety of perspectives – it is certainly impeccably done, positive about its subject, and full of fascinating information.
As a matter of fact it was on Christmas day, December 25, 1776, that Washington moved the Continental Army across the river to attack Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey. The battle occurred the next day, bringing a miraculous and much-needed victory to the Americans, who had been badly defeated in Long Island, Manhattan, and elsewhere. Prior to the battle, they had been camped on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, expecting the British to cross from occupied New Jersey as soon as the river was sufficiently frozen. The majority of enlistments were due to expire at the end of the year, which made it particularly urgent that positive progress be made in the war. Washington wrote to Robert Morris:
It is in vain to ruminate upon, or even reflect upon the Authors or Causes of our present Misfortunes. We should rather exert ourselves to look forward with Hopes, that some lucky chance may yet turn up in our Favour. (p. 207)
The victory at Trenton, in which the Americans captured about 1,000 Hessians with only two fatalities of their own, certainly involved some of the wonderful good fortune which convinced Washington that the American cause was aided by divine Providence. The terrible snow and sleet of that night delayed the completion of the crossing until daylight, but also concealed the Americans from the enemy until they were nearly upon him. The Hessian commander, Johann Rall, was misled by a belief that the town had been surrounded, when a convenient line of retreat was in fact still open. His general contempt for the capabilities of the American forces had been enhanced by false reports from the spy, John Honeyman, who had convinced him that the Americans were in utter disarray.
There are certainly advantages to reading comprehensive accounts such as this one, which provide a remedy for oversimplified and biased views. Fischer devotes considerable space to a description of the British and Hessian forces, showing their impressive competence and complex motivations and backgrounds. In the Battle of Trenton itself, while it is true enough that the Hessians were taken by surprise, they were by no means engaged in drunken revelry as the traditional accounts have had it. They responded promptly and professionally to the attack. On the other hand, many American soldiers engaged in drunken revelry after the battle. The low American casualties do not appear so low when deaths due to disease, hypothermia, and other factors are taken into account.
Still, after the myths have been addressed and corrected, the importance of the Battle of Trenton in American history remains undiminished. Above all, the victory was a moral one, galvanizing support for the American cause and bringing about massive re-enlistment in the army for the following year. Further victories followed at Trenton again on January 2 and at Princeton on January 3. Defeat at this juncture may well have meant the failure of the American Revolution and a completely different destiny for the English-speaking people on the American continent. Captain William Hull expressed the joy felt by many when he said:
The Resolution and Bravery of our Men, their Order and Regularity, gave me the highest Sensation of Pleasure…. What can’t Men do when engaged in so noble a cause? (p. 259)
A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!
(1) David Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 207.