It’s common knowledge that General George Washington and his Continental Army crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night in 1776, but what’s not as well-known are the reasons why he chose that particular night to cross. It’s the “why”—the story behind the historical fact—that draws us in and makes this piece of American history come alive.
After experiencing a string of humiliating defeats throughout 1776 at the hand of the British army, Washington ordered his soldiers to retreat from New York on November 21st. British troops pursued them.
Washington and his soldiers fled to Trenton, New Jersey where in early December they found themselves pinned between the Delaware River and Britain’s Army. Washington refused to surrender and ordered his men to cross the river into eastern Pennsylvania. The British called off the fight and returned to New York to wait out the winter instead of chasing the exhausted and poorly equipped Americans and finishing them off for good as they should have done.
Safe in Pennsylvania for the time being, the American army made camp near the Delaware on December 7th. Although he had avoided capture, the situation Washington found himself in couldn’t have been much worse.
On January 1st—just days away—all of his soldiers’ enlistments would expire. Worse, Washington knew his troops had no incentive to reenlist. Many were shoeless. Most wore ragged summer clothing. The sick went without medicine and the healthy went without food. No one had received pay in months. Between these conditions and their repeated defeats, the army was demoralized.
It wasn’t only the soldiers who were dispirited. Farther downstream in Philadelphia, which was virtually undefended, the members of Congress were keenly aware of their army’s repeated failures against the British forces. They also knew the British army stood sixty miles away. After giving General Washington full power over the army, Congress packed up and fled the city. So did most of Philadelphia’s inhabitants.
Realizing New Jersey’s colonists’ support for the war had waned, the British issued a proclamation that offered a free and general pardon to all Americans who would take the oath of allegiance to King George III and pledge their peaceable obedience. Thousands in the colony rushed to take the oath and pledge to the British Crown.
Washington needed a victory to regain the confidence of the colonists and his troops. Now. Before the enlistments ended and he had no soldiers.
Spies informed Washington that 1,500 Hessian soldiers under the command of Colonel Johann Rahl had arrived in Trenton—almost directly across the Delaware River from the American encampment—and taken up winter quarters. These German mercenary soldiers had been hired by the British to help fight the Americans and were considered the most highly-trained fighters in Europe. Several months earlier, the same Hessians now living in Trenton had used their 17-inch-long bayonets to slaughter hundreds of young teenage American soldiers during the battle of Brooklyn Heights.
Washington’s soldiers and officers feared the nearby Hessians, but he viewed their presence as an opportunity. Because eighteenth century armies almost never fought during winter, Washington believed his troops stood a decent chance at achieving a victory if he could launch a surprise attack.
But when would be the best time? General Washington shrewdly reasoned it was right before daybreak on December 26th—when the unsuspecting Hessians would be taking it easy after celebrating Christmas the day before. And in order to keep his army’s advance upon the Hessians a secret, Washington knew his men had to cross the Delaware River in the cloak of darkness on December 25th—Christmas Night.
Washington’s officers were convinced the attack would fail. Most tried to talk him out of it. But Washington understood that unless he made an attempt to win a victory before the year ended, his army would dissolve. And without an army the colonies’ quest for independence would cease. Not even a severe winter blizzard on Christmas Day that made the crossing treacherous caused his resolve to waver. He set his plans in motion.
The army crossed the ice-filled Delaware in secrecy on Christmas Night. After marching in the darkness for hours through snow and sleet, Washington’s raggedly dressed and mostly barefoot men arrived undetected at Trenton in the morning and defeated the Hessians during a battle that lasted less than forty-five minutes.
The engagement’s tally: twenty-one Hessians killed, 90 wounded, and 900 captured. The Americans suffered no battle casualties.
Morale soared in Washington’s army. Throughout the colonies, men rushed to enlist as news of the Trenton victory spread. The colonists’ and Congress’ confidence in the American army’s ability to defeat the British and win their liberty had been restored.
Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night in 1776 is more than a dry historical fact. It is the fascinating story of one man and his army who, facing overwhelming adversity, refused to give up and persevered until they achieved a victory that turned the tide in the war to win our country’s independence from Great Britain.
Questions for discussion:
1) Did you know the full story as to why George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night before reading this?
2) Has there been a time in your life when everything was against you, but you knew you had to press on?
3) What similarities do you see between George Washington and our current leaders?
A note from Cynthia: There are innumerably more details about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, however, my goal on Cynthia Howerter – all things historical is to present brief and general overviews of historic events.
Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter loves using her training in education, research, writing, and speaking to teach and inspire others about a time in America that was anything but boring. A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Cynthia believes that history should be alive and personal.
All written content and photographs ©2010-2016 Cynthia Howerter and are not to be used without prior written authorization.