Christmas, 1776

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.


5 Responses to Christmas, 1776

  1. Dr.D says:

    Stephen, you said, “My family used to cross the Delaware River – by car – once a year…” I used to cross the Delaware twice a day, five days a week, when I lived in Camden County, NJ, and worked in Philadelphia, PA, so I was amused at your comment.

    There are many places in that area that are of great historical significance, but unfortunately they are being lost to us. In many cases, the locations are no longer in safe areas, those parts of town being given over to minorities who have no respect for American history and no interest whatsoever in its preservation and promotion. This is certainly true of many of the historic areas right in Philadelphia itself where most of the city is now black and unsafe for White people to go except in well patrolled areas. We have lost the city, and with it we have lost our history.

    At one point, I was driving home from Church in Philadelphia, through a very black neighborhood, and I came upon a very large park with huge memorial columns, statues, etc. I was intrigued, and made a point to drive up to see more closely (keeping the windows rolled up and the doors locked). It turned out that this park was the site of a great world technical exhibition in the 19th century, and the memorials were all Civil War memorials. I never knew such existed until I stumbled upon it taking a different route home, because it is in a part of the city where White people generally do not go.

  2. Dr.D says:

    Off topic, but does anyone know what has happened to the blog Cordelia for Lear?

  3. stephenhopewell says:

    Thanks for the interesting information. Fischer does go into some detail about the Hessians in this book.

    Dr.D, your tale of Philadalphia is poignant. I didn’t realize it was as “lost” as you describe. I worked at a summer camp for inner-city kids from Philadelphia before college. And my dad took me there for the Bicentennial. I am actually going there this spring and hope to see a few of the sites.

    What can I say? We have to take it back if it takes 100 years.

    I have no idea about Cordella for Lear. There was a blog called Common Defence that has also disappeared. I hope this isn’t more Blogger censorship.

  4. Dr.D says:

    Stephen, since you say you will be returning to Philadelphia this spring, let me tell you where this is. It is on the west side of the Skuykill River (sp?), just north of West Girard St. There are two parallel streets forming a grand avenue. One is the Avenue of the Republic and the other is South Concourse Drive. They pass right in front of a magnificent exhibit hall from the 19th century, and all the columns, etc are along there. It is really quite a beautiful sight, and it is all that is left from the national Centennial celebration, as I understand it.

    The only way we will ever take this back is for White people to reclaim places like Philadelphia, and I don’t see that happening any time soon, between the crime, corruption, and the solid grip on the city that the blacks have. It is an entitlement society (which includes many White people as well) and that leads to the destruction of wealth and the decay of cities. This is what has happened to Philadelphia, Detroit, and most of our other big cities. When people believe that someone else should provide for them, everything goes down hill!

  5. stephenhopewell says:

    Dr.D, thank you for the information. I will certainly look into it – although I won’t be going by car, which sounds like it could be a problem.

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