This is the time of the year celebrated by many as a season of joy, thankfulness and perhaps miracles. An event that occurred on Christmas Day 1776 might just be one such miracle that influenced the course of America’s struggle for independence and a different outcome, even for us today.
The year opened with the British evacuating Boston. Then both the American Penobscot Bay Expedition and invasion of Canada failed. General George Washington’s Continental Army moved to protect New York, but was routed by superior forces that outmaneuvered them at every engagement. Only by luck and British ineptness was Washington able to keep his forces relatively intact during the long retreat through New Jersey into Pennsylvania.
In mid-December, as the weather turned extremely cold, British General William Howe made one of the fateful decisions of the war. He suspended military actions until spring, establishing a string of outposts on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River and retired most of his army to New York.
Things were drastically different for Washington’s forces across the river from Trenton, a village of a hundred homes, two mills and iron furnaces. Most of the townspeople had fled. Some 2500 Hessians occupied the town. Hessians were mercenary German soldiers supplied to the British army in its fight against America. They were employed by King George III who simply did not have enough soldiers in his own army to supply the needs of his commanders in America. In total, nearly 30,000 German soldiers fought for the British in North America. A stronger outpost was at Brunswick, 20 miles away.
Washington commanded about 6,000 troops. Hundreds fell ill, and all suffered from the cold. The troops had not been paid for months and moral was extremely low. The period of enlistment would expire for more than a third of Washington’s army in January. Congress had fled from Philadelphia and two members had gone over to the enemy. It was reasonable to presume that the war was essentially over and the Americans had lost.
On December 14, Washington told key members of his staff: “that a successful blow against the enemy would most certainly rouse the spirits of the people, which are quite shrunk by our misfortunes.” Later he confirmed plans for an attack on Trenton to begin on Christmas night.
On Christmas Eve, Washington went over the final details. The army would cross the Delaware and attack at three places, a force of 1,500 would cross downstream and advance on Burlington, and a smaller force would attack directly across the river at Trenton. The largest force of 2,000 led by Washington would cross upstream and come back south.
The first step, crossing the river, would commence at midnight, and all forces were scheduled to arrive at Trenton and attack at six. Despite deteriorating weather with wind, snow and sleet, and the river filled with broken ice, the password was still: “Victory or Death.”
The crossing was made on big flat-bottomed, high-sided boats that could carry 40 men standing up. The troops, with horses and 20 cannon began moving during the afternoon. Washington crossed early and observed the slow process. Near midnight a major storm arrived and temperatures dropped. It was three in the morning before the entire contingent was across.
Downstream both forces encountered so much ice that they were forced to abort their mission. Washington’s forces were behind schedule and the storm grew worse, with rain, sleet, snow and violent hail. They had six miles to get to Trenton and got there about eight in the morning.
The attack began.
The Hessians rushed out of their quarters and attempted to form up. Henry Knox’s cannon scattered them and their commanding officer was killed. Being surrounded, most of the Hessians lay down their arms and surrendered. It was all over in 45 minutes. Twenty-one Hessians were killed, 90 wounded, 900 became prisoners and another 500 escaped.
Only four Americans were wounded, including Lieutenant James Monroe, a future president of the United States. No Americans were killed.
Washington had prophesied that some “lucky blow” would “rouse the spirits of the people” and it had a stunning effect on the morale of the country.
The war for independence would continue, endlessly it would seem for some, for another six and a half years before the Treaty of Paris formally ended the war in 1783.
Practically all of us have seen one of the most-recognized paintings in history: that of Washington crossing the Delaware in an 1851 oil-on-canvas work by Emanuel Leutze, a German-American painter, commemorating the attack by George Washington’s Continental Army on Hessian forces encamped at Trenton, N. J. on Christmas Day, 1776.
In the first issue of the United Israel World Union Bulletin dated July 1944, founder and president David Horowitz wrote an article titled “Washington and Ezekiel’s Vision.” He opened by saying that very few Americans are aware of the fact that George Washington was a Godly man who had been inspired with visions of truth and there can be no doubt that the Good Hand of Providence guided him in his actions and deeds.
The article gave an account of one of Washington’s visions that he personally related to Anthony Sherman, who in turn related it to Wesley Bradshaw. Following this mysterious experience, a troubled Washington felt that he had seen a vision wherein it had been shown to him the birth, progress, and destiny of the United States. It is a remarkable accounting, the majority given in Washington’s own words.
Dr. Ezra Stiles the seventh president of Yale University often spoke of America as a “modern Israel.” In referring to George Washington, Dr. Stiles made this significant statement: “Whereupon Congress put at the head of the spirited army, the only man on whom the eyes of all Israel were placed. Posterity, incredulous as it may be, will yet acknowledge that this American Joshua was raised up by God for the great work of leading the armies of this American Joseph, now separated from his brethren, and conducting these people to liberty and independence.”
As Americans, we have yet another reason to celebrate the season and to give thanks for the outcome of an event embedded 240 years ago in our nation’s rich history.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. A historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.
He regularly writes historical pieces for various outlets including the ongoing series on this web site titled: “Remembering David Horowitz.”