Washington Crossing the Delaware River

Excerpts from Washington Crossing the Delaware River & the Battle of Trenton

from Jane’s book, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War

Washington Discouraged
from Jane’s book, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War

“The Jerseys; it was really in the hands of the enemy before my arrival,” Gen. Charles Lee later said about his march through New Jersey and his capture. And although folly was his downfall, Lee was right on this point. After the fall of New York, the colony of New Jersey fell into the chaos of a civil war. Locals fought each other with vengeance.

“As Washington flees across New Jersey and people are unwilling to help them, he fully realizes that this revolution might be over. He’s the commander-in-chief of an army that has shrunk drastically. He’s on the run with the enemy on his heels,” historian Bruce Chadwick explained in an interview for The History Channel Presents: The American Revolution, 2006. The state of New Jersey brought a black cloud of discouragement over Washington.

“This being perfectly well known [New Jersey loyalty] to the Enemy, they threw over a large body of Troops, which pushed us from place to place till we were obliged to cross the Delaware with less than 3000 Men fit for duty, owing to the dissolution of our force by short enlistments; the Enemy’s numbers, from the best Accts. exceeding Ten and by some 12,000 Men,” General Washington wrote in a letter to his brother on December 18, 1776.

Rain fell from Washington’s dark cloud as he considered the approaching deadline. Many of his men’s enlistment terms would expire at the end of the year, just days away.

“We are in a very disaffected part of the Province; and, between you and me, I think our affairs are in a very bad situation,” General Washington told his brother.
He had no doubt General Howe wanted to take Philadelphia. But he also knew his men were too weak to stop Howe. 

“In a word, my dear Sir, if every nerve is not strained to recruit the new army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up.”

Washington sprinkled his letter with further evidence that the contest seemed over for the Americans. The colonies were losing their resolve. Congress was relying too much on inexperienced militia. “You can form no idea of the perplexity of my situation. No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties, and less means to extricate himself from them.”

The commander-in-chief may have been discouraged, but he was also a sunny optimist.

“However, under a full persuasion of the justice of our cause, I cannot entertain an Idea, that it will finally sink, tho’ it may remain for some time under a cloud,” George Washington concluded.

Righteousness of the cause gave him hope for a rainbow.

PRAYER Thank you for your promise of the rainbow, the covenant of encouragement you have made with us.

Washington Crossing

Tired Faces

from Jane’s book, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Common Sense author Thomas Paine wrote in December 1776. Paine had witnessed the trials of the army firsthand as a soldier in Washington’s army. When the year drew to a close, he took up his pen once again and published American Crisis to encourage his dispirited fellow patriots.

While Paine’s words brought the army intellectual encouragement, General Sullivan brought reinforcements. After Lee’s capture in mid-December, Sullivan marched Lee’s troops to Washington’s camp near Philadelphia, giving the commander-in-chief six thousand more men. Even with this numerical boost, Washington grew more anxious with each sunset. Most of his troops’ enlistments expired on December 31st.

If independence was to be won, Washington knew he needed to do something to convince these men to stay in the army. He had fought too hard to let the mere ticking of a clock complete the British goal of Continental capitulation. He also needed a slice of victory to regain the confidence of the members of Congress who had supported Lee’s coup for commander-in-chief.

“He [Washington] was anxious to strike a blow that should revive the courage of the army and the people before the disbandment of those troops whose terms of enlistment were about to expire,” historian William Jackman wrote.

Washington and the rest of the army were not the only ones fatigued— General Howe was just as weary of this war in which he never wanted to lead. His own soul was being tried by the times. The daggers of his detractors pierced him with Lee-like underhandedness. Howe’s critics wanted to know why he had not won the war by now. What Parliament didn’t realize was that Howe’s army was as thinly spread across New Jersey as jam on bread. Howe compensated by placing units of Hessians at various points along the Delaware River.

“The American soldiers hated them [the Hessians] intensely for their savage bayoneting on the battlefield,” Jackman wrote, calling the Hessians “terrorists” who “plundered indiscriminately.”

Howe chose Colonel Rahl, a German commander who distinguished himself at White Plains and Fort Washington, to guard the river at Trenton, New Jersey. But by Christmas, Rahl and his fifteen hundred troops were also tired. He was ready to enjoy some good wine and relax.

“This brave but careless commander took his ease, enjoyed his music and bath, and when it was proposed to throw up works upon which to mount cannon in readiness against an assault, said merrily: ‘Pooh pooh! an assault by the rebels! Let them come; we’ll at them with the bayonet,’” Jackman wrote.

One account says Colonel Rahl was playing cards when the order to fortify his position arrived; he was mortally wounded in the ensuing battle.

Such were the tired faces facing the final days of 1776.

PRAYER Father, when I am weary, I pray for your deep and abiding rest to bring a smile to my face and encouragement to my soul.

The Crossing

from Jane’s book, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War

The strategic fork in the road George Washington faced at the end of December 1776 was more than the intersection of defense and offense. The choice he made could affect the “fate of unborn millions,” as he had reminded his troops before the battles of New York. God had preserved the army with a fog, a bridge, and a general’s blunder. Each was as amazing as a heat wave in a northeastern winter.

And so it is no wonder Washington turned to the unexpected for his last attempt to regain the confidence of Congress and convince his men to stay in the army past their Dec. 31st enlistment expiration. In a tactical about-face, Washington switched his troops’ direction from defense to offense.

“The evening of the twenty-fifth I ordered the troops intended for this service to parade back to McKonkey’s Ferry, that they might begin to pass [over the Delaware River] as soon as it grew dark, imagining we should be able to throw them all over, with the necessary artillery, by twelve o’clock, and that we might easily arrive at Trenton by five in the morning, the distance being about nine miles,” recorded Washington.

The commander-in-chief knew the Germans held hearty celebrations. Feast days such as Christmas were no exception. A night of wine might decrease the resistance of Colonel Rahl and his nearly two thousand soldiers. The strategy of surprise had served Washington well before. After all, it was the sudden appearance of Fort Ticonderoga’s cannons on Dorchester Heights that drove the British from Boston.

There were, however, numerous icy kinks, clinks, and chunks obstructing his December surprise. The river was more solid than his timetable.

“But the quantity of ice, made that night, impeded the passage of the boats so much, that it was three o’clock before the artillery could all be got over; and near four before the troops took up their line of march,” Washington wrote in anguish.

The crossing was to begin at nightfall, with hopes of forging the Delaware River before midnight. Washington wanted to have plenty of time to march the nine miles by land under the cover of darkness. The four-hour delay put the army in great danger of someone seeing them in the sunrise and alerting Rahl. “This made me despair of surprising the town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke,” he wrote of their tardiness.

As much as he hoped to surprise the Hessians, the delay forced George Washington to another crossroad. Should he abandon his plans and retreat to safety by re-crossing the river? Or should he press on to Trenton with the knowledge that a loyalist might alert the Germans? The decision could prove as treacherous as crossing the Delaware.

PRAYER God, send your angels to surround me when life takes me through treacherous waters and consuming fire.

Raging River

from Jane’s book, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War

The storm continued to rage while George Washington contemplated whether to re-cross the Delaware River or attack Trenton on the morning of December 26, 1776. Perhaps no one felt the chill of the icy river and the scourge of the night crossing more than the man in charge of the artillery. The responsibility of ferrying the men and ammunitions across the river fell to the meticulous mind and attentive arms of Henry Knox.

“A hardy design was formed of attacking the town by storm,” Knox wrote, describing the plan in a letter to his wife, Lucy. Knox explained his perspective behind Washington’s decision to cross in the first place. 

The enemy “had obliged us to retire on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, by which means we were obliged to evacuate or give up nearly all the Jerseys.”

Not long after the Continentals formed their camp, they discovered “the preservation of Philadelphia was a matter exceedingly precarious,— the force of the enemy three or four times as large as ours.” Knox was often the first to analyze the strength of the enemy, based on their arms. He noted the British army had scattered their troops at “distant places in New Jersey,” but Trenton’s “cantonments” were the largest.

“Trenton is an open town, situated nearly on the banks of the Delaware, accessible on all sides. Our army was scattered along the river for nearly 25 miles. Our intelligence agreed that the force of the enemy in Trenton was from two to three thousand, with about six field cannon, and that they were pretty secure in their situation,” he wrote of the Hessian regiment based there.

Knox then used matter-of-fact terms to tell Lucy about the coldest and most challenging night of 1776.

“Accordingly a part of the army, consisting of about 2,500 or 3,000 passed the River on Christmas night, with almost infinite difficulty, with 18 field-pieces. The floating ice in the River made the labor almost incredible,” he wrote, not even mentioning the challenge of finding enough boats to carry the men and ammunitions across and conducting the affair in silence.

Two men died of frostbite after crossing the river. The army also left bloody footprints behind in the ice and snow. “The night was cold and stormy; it hailed with great violence; the troops marched with the most profound silence and good order,” he reported.

But the sleet did not subside after they arrived on the New Jersey side. The approach of daylight did not dissipate the hail or the storm. “The storm continued with great violence, but was in our backs, and consequently in the faces of our enemy,” he wrote. Knox then made an important conclusion after the crossing. Diligence had overcome the raging river.

“However, perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible,” Henry Knox concluded of the Delaware crossing.

PRAYER Father, thank you for the gift of faith that secures raging rivers and allows me to cross onto unknown shores.

1776 Drum

The Decision

from Jane’s book, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War

But as I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered and harassed on repassing the river, I determined to push on at all events,” George Washington wrote of his decision to press ahead on the morning of December 26, 1776. The risk of detection was just as great in the sunlight, whether his army re-crossed the Delaware River or attacked Trenton. Following pragmatism and courage, Washington nimbly chose offense.

With his decision made, the commander-in-chief turned his attention to the battle plan. He divided his nearly three thousand men into two divisions. One approached the Hessian position from the north. The other approached from the south.

“They marched in two divisions, one led by Washington (with whom were Generals Greene, Stirling, Mercer and Stephen), by a circuitous route to the north of the town, while the other, under Sullivan . . . was to advance by a direct road along the river to the west and south side. Sullivan was to halt at a certain point to allow time for the main division to make the circuit,” described historian William Jackman.

Jackman noted Washington’s division did not arrive in the “immediate neighborhood of Trenton” until eight in the morning, well past daylight. The hailstorm may have slowed their march, but it also had an unexpected benefit. “It [the storm] had also aided to conceal their movements from the enemy,” Jackman wrote.

However, a man by the roadside saw Washington’s division as they arrived. The advance party had no idea if this farmer-type was someone they could trust or if he was a loyalist like many of those who had tried to block their flight from New York through New Jersey the previous month.

“Washington, who had pushed on with the advance, asked of a man who was chopping wood by the roadside the way to the Hessian picket,” Jackman told the story.

“He answered gruffly, ‘I don’t know,’ and went on with his work. ‘You may tell,’ said Captain Forrest of the artillery, ‘for that is General Washington.’ ‘God bless and prosper you,’ exclaimed the man, raising his hands to heaven, ‘the picket is in that house, and the sentry stands near that tree,’” Jackman chronicled.

Within minutes, Washington’s advance party overtook the Hessian’s picket-guards.

“Late as it was, the Hessians were completely surprised. According to their custom, they had indulged freely in the festivities of Christmas, and were resting thoughtless of danger, when the drums suddenly beat to arms. All was confusion,” Jackman wrote.

And that is how the Battle of Trenton began.

George Washington made his choice, and the river gates to the palace were thrown open.

PRAYER Thank you, God, for showing your hand in the unlikeliest places, from a storm in the sky to a woodsman by the roadside.

Washington Crossing the Delaware River

The Enterprise

from Jane’s book, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War

“We entered the town with them pell-mell,” Henry Knox wrote to Lucy, about the army’s headlong rush to take down the Hessians’ pickets, or advanced guards, at Trenton.

The surprise attack began about 8:00 a.m. on Dcember 26, 1776. The enterprise was more incredible than anything Knox had ever before seen. After a series of disasters in New York, Knox was hungry to see success. To this man of artillery, this revolutionary battle seemed stripped from the pages of Revelation.

“Here succeeded a scene of war of which I had often conceived, but never saw before. The hurry, fright and confusion of the enemy was [not] unlike that which will be when the last trump shall sound,” Knox described the chaos.

The Germans fighting for the British could not have been more surprised at the Continentals’ attack had the heavens cracked and burst forth with the army of God. “They endeavored to form in the streets,” Knox described of the Hessians’ hasty attempt to form their lines along the town’s cobblestones. He noted the Continentals had placed cannons at the heads of the streets to prevent the Hessians from such boulevard maneuvers. “These, in the twinkling of an eye cleared the streets,” he wrote of his artillery’s success in stopping the street activity.

Although the Hessians tried to take shelter behind houses, the Continentals’ “musketry soon dislodged them,” Knox wrote. He had observed that Trenton was an open town, accessible from all sides. The Hessians tried to take advantage of the terrain by moving the battle away from the settlement.

“Finally they were driven through the town into an open plain beyond. Here they formed [their lines] in an instant,” Knox wrote of their professionalism and ability to quickly get into place. “Measures were taken for putting an entire stop to their retreat by posting troops and cannon in such passes and roads as it was possible for them to get away by.

The poor fellows after they were formed on the plain saw themselves completely surrounded, the only resource left was to force their way through numbers unknown to them,” reported Knox.

And as was typical of Knox, he not only counted the Americans’ cannons, but also the enemy’s. His account of the enterprise would not have been complete without his assessment of the Hessians’ artillery power. “The Hessians lost part of their cannon in the town: they did not relish the project of forcing, and were obliged to surrender upon the spot, with all their artillery, six brass pieces, army colors &c.,” he wrote of the surrender.

The crossing of the Delaware River led to victory in the city. As a result, Henry Knox, a man of faith, would soon see Providence shine on him in a whole new light.

PRAYER God, you are the Great Creator, the One whose rivers lead to your dwelling place in a city on high.

Battle of Trenton

The Triumph

from Jane’s book, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War

“I HAVE the pleasure of congratulating you upon the success of an enterprise, which I had formed against a detachment of the enemy lying at Trenton, and which was executed yesterday morning,” General Washington wrote jubilantly in a letter to the Continental Congress on December 27, 1776.

Washington had not felt so much joy since the British left Boston the previous March. Indeed, it was his first solid victory in nine months. A fog, a bridge, and a general’s blunder had preserved the army during their losses. And it was a river crossing that led them to an offensive enterprise, which resulted in triumph at Trenton.

“As the divisions had nearly the same distance to march, I ordered each of them, immediately upon forcing the out-guards, to push directly into the town, that they might charge the enemy before they had time to form,” Washington explained of his strategy to divide his army and attack Trenton from both the north and the south.

“Finding from our disposition, that they were surrounded, and that they must inevitably be cut to pieces if they made any further resistance, they agreed to lay down their arms. The number that submitted in this manner was twenty-three officers and eight hundred and eighty six men,” Washington reported.

The most significant casualty of the battle was the Hessian’s commander. Colonel Rahl escaped from his headquarters and retreated into the street. When Washington’s men saw him, they opened fire. Rahl fell wounded. Surrounded, he surrendered. He later died from his wounds.

“Colonel Rahl, the commanding officer, and seven others were found wounded in the town. I do not exactly know how many were killed; but I fancy twenty or thirty, as they never made any regular stand. Our loss is very trifling indeed, only two officers and one or two privates wounded,” Washington wrote.

This commander could not have been prouder of his men’s behavior. They had not panicked like a gaggle of geese, as they had at Long Island. Instead they had soared. They had answered the trumpet call of duty, and they had triumphed. “In justice to the officers and men, I must add, that their behavior upon this occasion reflects the highest honor upon them,” continued Washington.

Even though his men were indescribably exhausted from their overnight crossing of the Delaware River, they gave this enterprise their all. “The difficulty of passing the river in a very severe night, and their march through a violent storm of snow and hail, did not in the least abate their ardor; but, when they came to the charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward; and were I to give a preference to any particular corps, I should do great injustice to the others,” praised George Washington.

Justice rolled like a river. Liberty had crossed the stream.

PRAYER Thank you for your righteousness, for your never-ending commitment to justice and your never-failing stream of blessings.

“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (AMOS 5:24).