As we are enjoying our Christmas festivities this year, let us remember another Christmas day over two hundred years ago that may well have altered the course of American history.
1776 had been a very discouraging year militarily for the Americans. The Continental Army had suffered several defeats in New York and had retreated to Pennsylvania. Morale was low; soldiers were deserting. Soldiers lacked adequate clothes and sometimes even shoes. Public spirits were very low.
General Washington knew that he needed some sort of a success soon in order to keep the whole revolutionary effort from collapsing. He devised a plan to attack the enemy garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, which consisted of about 2000 Hessian soldiers. There is speculation that this particular target and time were selected because Hessians are German; they were mercenaries (hired soldiers). Christmas is a big deal in Germany, and it was felt that the Hessians would no doubt have a lavish dinner on the evening of Christmas Day with much beer and dancing. Early the next morning would be a good time to challenge them.
On Christmas Eve, Washington called together his Lieutenants and outlined the plan. The army was to attack across the Delaware River in three places. One force, a smaller one, would cross downriver of Trenton and advance north. A second, even smaller force would attack directly across the river at Trenton and hold a strategic bridge over a creek that could be used by the enemy as a retreat route.
Washington would lead the largest force, 2400 men, which would cross the river nine miles upstream and then head south to Trenton.
Everything depended upon the crossing of the river by these three forces. This was to occur on Christmas night and be finished by midnight. They would arrive at Trenton at five o’clock the next morning and the attack would occur at 6:00 a.m., an hour before daybreak.
On Christmas Day, the weather started deteriorating. The river was high and contained much ice. As the day progressed, the weather got worse. It turned into a full-fledged storm. It rained, hailed, snowed, and froze.
The river crossing was extremely treacherous, at night in a storm. Horses and artillery as well as soldiers had to be loaded onto the boats and taken across. The two smaller forces, unbeknownst to Washington, could not cross at all due to the ice. Washington’s force got across by 3:00 a.m., three hours late. A Sergeant informed General Washington that the soldiers’ powder was wet and they could not fire their muskets. Washington replied that they were to use their bayonets.
The attack began just after eight o’clock in the morning on Dec.26. It all happened very fast, in snow. After forty-five minutes, it was over. Twenty-one Hessians were killed (including their commander), ninety wounded, and nine hundred taken prisoner. About five hundred escaped over the very bridge that was supposed to have been blocked by one of the smaller Continental Army forces but wasn’t because that force couldn’t get across the river. Incredibly enough, no Americans were killed in the battle and only four were wounded, although two froze to death the night before in the march.
Although the strategic fruits of the battle were minimal, the psychological effects were phenomenal.The Americans had beaten a force of the British regulars. Prisoners had been taken; the Americans had captured canons and other materiel. The course of the war had been changed.