• Exploring American History

Christmas on the Delaware

Christmas Day, 1776 was a very long, cold day for General George Washington and the Continental Army. By this time, the army’s moral had hit rock bottom. Washington had requested supplies for his troops from Congress, but nothing had been provided. Food was scarce and a large percentage of the army had inadequate winter clothing and shoes.


In addition to supplies, Washington’s troops needed their spirits lifted in order to continue the fight. A victorious battle would do a lot to make that happen.


On this day, General Washington’s target was an isolated garrison in Trenton, New Jersey. Housed within the garrison was a group of Hessian troops (German fighters paid to aide the British), about 1,400 in number. Washington felt a number of benefits would be derived from conquering this garrison, with the top two being: 1) bolstering his troops’ sagging morale and 2) more patriots would be encouraged to enlist in the Continental Army, thereby increasing its strength. Due to the fact the Continental troops were small in number, in order for Washington’s plan to be successful, an operation based on stealth and surprise was mandatory.


As night fell on Christmas Day, Washington’s plan went into action which included three separate river crossings. Unfortunately, two of the three groups were unable to accomplish the crossing that night. Thankfully the group Washington was with did manage to make it across, albeit three hours later than planned.


Washington’s stealth efforts also had to take into account the fact both the British and Hessians sensed he was at least in the planning stages of an attack on Trenton. This was due to the fact there was a spy in Washington’s tent who continually fed information to the British. The identity of the enemy’s spy was so well cloaked, it was lost to history. He had been privy to early meetings Washington engaged in with his war council and passed the information to British Major General James Grant regarding what he had learned. General Grant then passed this information on to other British troops until it eventually reached Colonel Johann Rall, commanding the Hessians in Trenton. Though General Grant was not convinced Washington would actually attack, he felt it wise to be alert and prepared – just in case.


Colonel Rall, on the other hand, was not the least bit concerned. He actually welcomed the idea of the conflict, stating, “Let them come . . . We will go at them with the bayonet.” Ralls’ arrogant lack of concern was due to the fact several false alarms had previously been issued with no attack. In addition to that, Nature was working in favor of the Hessians with the growing intensity of the winter storm.


Thankfully for Washington, the New Jersey militia had previously moved all available watercraft to the river’s southern bank. These were Durham boats, built strong to carry heavy cargo such as iron ore down river. Their stout build also made the capable of navigating the icy Delaware. Add to this the fact that numbered among Washington’s soldiers were experienced navigators, well-seasoned in handling the challenges the river held. Those from Philadelphia had a strong working relationship with this particular portion of the Delaware, along with the strength and skill to accomplish the challenging night crossing.


As if the current situation was not enough to deal with, a shrieking nor’easter added its voice to the mayhem and “blew a perfect hurricane, per one of the soldiers. To say that Robert Burns’ quote, “The best laid plans of mice and men . . .” described Washington’s frustrating dilemma is an understatement. His troops were hungry, unsuitably clothed and tired. Their progress was far behind schedule and the weather had turned traitor to their efforts. All of this served to increase Washington’s fears by the hour his army would be caught in the open by the Hessians.


If crossing a frozen river during a bone-chilling nor-easter was not enough of a challenge, there was also the matter of all the military hardware the army had with them. Among the pieces were 18 cannons, along with the carriages to transport them, horses to pull the carriages and plenty of ammunition with which to arm them. Thankfully, the portion of the Delaware chosen for the crossing was only about 300 yards wide.


The outcome was extraordinary! Their level of tactical surprise resulted in the death of 22 Hessians, wounding of 98 more and capture of 1,000 overall – all while suffering less than 10 American soldiers either killed or wounded. The victory helped to boost the patriots’ hopes for the Colonial cause, encouraging them not to give up, but instead press on towards the goal. This victory helped to turn the war in America’s favor.


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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.

General George Washington

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