As we sit in our warm, cozy homes on Christmas Day, we should remember that, 242 years ago, George Washington was spending his holiday in a much different situation. Memorialized in one of the most famous paintings of the American Revolutionary War, Washington spent Christmas of 1776 secretly leading more than 5,400 soldiers across the icy Delaware River so that they could launch a surprise attack on the Hessian forces, groggy and hung over from celebrating Christmas in their barracks in Trenton, New Jersey, in the early morning hours of December 26, 1776. The ensuing battle was a turning point in the Revolutionary War. Here are some facts about the Christmas that General Washington spent crossing the Delaware river.
General Washington and his troops had experienced a series of defeats at the hands of the British in the months leading up to Christmas of 1776. As a result of those defeats, the colonists had lost control of New York City and some other cities and towns that were strategically important. The war was not going in Washington’s favor. He needed a substantial win to boost the failing morale of his men. He came up with an unconventional idea…to attack the enemy in the dead of winter when they were at their most vulnerable. He knew that they would celebrate Christmas with plenty of alcohol, so they would not be alert to an attack the morning after Christmas.
Scouts reported back to Washington that about 1,400 Hessian soldiers were wintering over in their quarters in Trenton, New Jersey. They looked like an easy target for General Washington. Not only did he need a victory to boost the spirits of his men, but a win for the colonists would encourage other colonists to join the Continental Army in its battle against the British. Washington planned his attack, but the best way to surprise the Hessians would require making a river crossing.
Washington and his army waited patiently until after 11 p.m. on Christmas before they started to cross. By this time, Washington knew, the Hessians would be well into their Christmas celebration. They wouldn’t, he hoped, be alert to a surprise attack on such an important religious holiday.
An unidentified British spy was hiding out in Washington’s headquarters and learned about the impending attack of Trenton. He passed this vital information to Major General James Grant, leader of the British forces. The information was then passed through General Leslie and Colonel Von Donop on its way to Colonel Johann Rall, the commander of the group at Trenton. Rall, who received this information in the midst of the Christmas merrymaking, responded to the tip by saying, “Let them come!”
According to Washington’s initial attack plan, Colonel Cadwalader would cross the Delaware River in Philadelphia with his force of 1,200 troops. General James Ewing would take 800 men across the same river at Trenton, and Washington would take 2,400 men across to the north of Trenton at McConkey’s and Johnson’s ferries. All three would converge on Trenton at sunrise. The plan did not go as hoped. Both Cadwalader and Ewing were unable to take their men across the frigid, ice-covered river. Washington did make it across, but it took a lot longer than planned, putting him hours behind schedule.
It was a particularly brutal night when Washington and his men stood on the opposite shore of the Delaware River, preparing for their crossing. Winter had come early to New England and the river was choked with ice. A storm was fast approaching, too, so the night was pitch dark. A Nor’easter blew in and the wind was picking up and an icy rain pelted the men. Crossing the wide river would be a dangerous and risky undertaking.
Crossing the Delaware River under such adverse conditions was foolhardy, but fortunately, Washington has some experts on his side. The Marblehead regiment that was under the command of Colonel John Glover, was filled with New England seamen, fishermen, and boaters. They were quite experienced with navigating in stormy conditions and took the lead during the river crossing.
Ahead of the river crossing, Washington had sent out word that all available watercraft would be needed to ferry his men and equipment across the Delaware River. The patriots responded by sending all sorts of cargo boats, fishing boats, and ferries to the site of the crossing. Washington found that the Durham boats, cargo boats designed to transport iron ore down rivers to market, were perfect for transporting the troops. At roughly sixty feet long, the Durham boats were able to accommodate most of the men. The ferry boats, with their flat-bottoms, were ideal for carrying horses and heavy equipment across the icy river.
On December 26, at about 8 o’clock in the morning, Washington divided his forces into two units and marched into Trenton. Washington quickly surrounded the town and captured about 1,000 Hessians. Some of the enemy soldiers escaped, but the battle was over in less than an hour and a half. In the end, only four of Washington’s men were killed. The victory did all the things that Washington had hoped…it led to more men joining the fight, boosted morale among the troops, and sent a wake-up call to the British to let them know that the American soldiers were a force to be reckoned with.
Decades after the Christmas of 1776, a German artist named Emanuel Leutze painted Washington Crossing The Delaware, a depiction of the General leading his men across the ice-choked river and on to victory. By choosing such a pivotal moment in American history as the subject for his painting, Leutze hoped to inspire his own countrymen to adopt revolutionary reform. Today, the iconic painting is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as a reminder of the sacrifice and bravery of Washington and his troops on Christmas day, 1776.