One Night In December

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Two hundred years ago, the American people had already declared their Independence. But as they had discovered quickly, it was one thing to declare it and another to secure it. Since July, the Continental Army had been driven from New York and the Hudson River and clear across New Jersey. It had been beaten wherever it had tried to make a stand. Now a few thousand men were left, huddled against the cold on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River, short of food and clothing, waiting in misery for their enlistments to expire. “I think,” wrote General Washington in despair, “the game is pretty near up.”

But then came Christmas night, 1776, a desperate plan of surprise counterattack, Marbkhead boatmen ferrying the army back across the ice-choked river, and exhilarating victory at Trenton. The capture of the Hessian garrison there, and the triumph at Princeton a few weeks later, saved the American cause at the last hour and persuaded many faint hearts—soldiers and civilians—to fight on.

Not at well known as the famous crossing by the units with Washington was the aborted attempt by other troops that same night to get across the river farther south so as to hit Trenton from below, cut off the Hessians’ retreat, and also create a diversion at Bordentown. Same of those troops under Colonel John CaAwalader got across. But when their artillery could not land because of the ice, they had to return to the Pennsylvania shore.

A few days later, Thomas Rodney, a captain in the Delaware militia under Cadwalader, sent an account of the frustrated crossing in a letter to his brother Caesar—a prominent patriot who, as a member o/ the Continental Congress in July, had gained celebrity by a hasty night ride to Philadelphia to swing the Delaware delegation, two to one, for Independence and make the thirteen colonies’ decision unanimous for the break with England.

Here is Captain Rodney’s account of that historic and stormy December night of 1776:

… On the 25th inst. in the evening, we received orders to be at Shamony ferry as soon as possible. We were there according to orders in two hours, and met the rifle-men, who were the first from Bristol; we were ordered from thence to Dunk’s Ferry, on the Delaware, and the whole army of about 2000 men followed as soon as the artillery got up. The three companies of Philadelphia infantry and mine were formed into a body, under the command of Captain Henry (myself second in command), which were embarked immediately to cover the landing of the other troops.

We landed with great difficulty through the ice, and formed on the ferry shore, about uoo yards from the river. It was as severe a night as ever I saw, and after two battalions were landed, the storm increased so much, and the river was so full of ice, that it was impossible to get the artillery over; for we had to walk i oo yards on the ice to get on shore. Gen. Cadwallader therefore ordered the whole to retreat again, and we had to stand at least six hours under arms—first to cover the landing and till all the rest had retreated again—and, by this time, the storm of wind, hail, rain and snow, with the ice, was so bad that some of the infantry could not get back till next day. This design was to have surprised the enemy at Black Horse and Mount Holley, at the same time that Washington surprised them at Trenton; and had we succeeded in getting over, we should have finished all our troubles. Washington took 910 prisoners, with 6 pieces of fine artillery, and all their baggage in Trenton.

The next night I received orders to be in Bristol before day; we were there accordingly, and about 9 o’clock began to embark one mile above Bristol, and about 3 o’clock in the afternoon got all our troops and artillery over, consisting of about 3000 men and began our march to Burlington—the infantry, flanked by the rifle-men, making the advanced guard. We got there about 9 o’clock and took possession of the town, but found the enemy had made precipitate retreat the day before, bad as the weather was, in a great panic. The whole infantry and rifle-men were then ordered to set out that night and make a forced march to Borden town (which was about 11 miles), which they did, and took possession of the town about 9 o’clock, with a large quantity of the enemy’s stores, which they had not time to carry off. We stayed there till the army came up; and the general, finding the enemy were but a few miles ahead, ordered the infantry to proceed to a town called Croswick’s, four miles from Bordentown, and they were followed by one of the Philadelphia and one of the New England battalions. We got there about 8 o’clock, and at about 10 (after we were all in quarters) were informed that the enemy’s baggage was about 16 miles from us, under a guard of 300 men.

Some of the militia colonels applied to the infantry to make a forced march that night and overhaul them. We had then been on duty four nights and days, making forced marches, without six hours sleep in the whole time ; whereupon the infantry officers of all the companies unanimously declared it was madness to attempt, for that it would knock up all our brave men, not one of whom had yet gave out, but every one will suppose were much fatigued. …