- Historic Sites
Soldier In A Longboat
Three times John Glover’s Marblehead fishermen saved Washington’s army; in a final battle, the “amphibious regiment” rowed him to victory across the Delaware
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
The Durham boats assigned to ferry the troops were used in peacetime for hauling iron, grain, and whiskey on the river; and they were ideal for this particular military operation because of their large size and light draft. They averaged sixty feet in length and had a beam of eight feet; one boat could transport an entire regiment of Washington’s under-strength little army. Even when fully loaded, they drew only two feet of water, thus enabling the troops to get in close to shore. They came equipped with oars and poles and even carried masts for sails. Pointed at both ends and looking like oversized canoes, these somewhat unwieldy fresh-water craft must have seemed strange to Glover’s salt-water sailors.
As soon as dusk fell, the boats, which had been concealed from’view, were brought down to McKonkey’s Ferry, which lay nine miles up the river opposite Trenton. At about the same time, Washington’s men back at camp reluctantly left the warmth of their small fires to trek to the point of embarkation.
The Delaware at this point was barely a thousand feet wide, but Glover’s men were forced to call upon all their skill to navigate the short span. Great chunks of ice came churning downstream like white torpedoes to smash against the heavily burdened boats. As they ground to a halt alongside the craft, each slab had to be shoved aside by poles or oars to enable the boats to continue their passage.
As if conditions on the treacherous river were not bad enough, it began to snow about eleven, destroying what little visibility there had been. Peering into the blinding storm, Glover’s men strained their eyes to pick out ice floes from the mass of white that whirled across their vision. Back on the west bank, young, stout Henry Knox bellowed orders to the troops loading aboard the Durham boats. No doubt he was given this assignment because his booming bass voice could be heard above the river’s roar, and because the success of the expedition would hinge largely on the cannon in his charge. Artillery was the bad-weather arm of the American army, since muskets could not be relied upon once the priming powder got wet, and as soon as it began to snow, Knox’s guns took on greater importance. Glover’s men succeeded in ferrying the eighteen heavy howitzers and guns, but only after a phenomenal effort. As Knox himself noted so aptly, ”… perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible.”
John Glover’s regiment with its superb seamen was worth ten regiments that night. Without these men there might never have been a Battle of Trenton, for the two other forces that comprised the attack turned back in despair, leaving the issue squarely in the hands of the 2,400 troops led by Washington himself. Overcoming obstacles that had proved insuperable to two other task forces, the Marblehead regiment ferried men, horses, and cannon across the Delaware without a single loss. What was even more important, they placed Washington’s force in a position to launch a knockout blow against the unsuspecting Hessians.
It was nearly three in the morning before Glover’s command finished its task, and another hour was required to get the men in marching formation. In the brigade were five regiments of infantry and a battery of artillery, whose guns were destined to play an important role in the coming battle.
As Glover’s troops trudged wearily toward the enemy, exposure and fatigue began to take their toll. Having faced the wind and snow for hours during the backbreaking trips to and fro across the Delaware, some of the men began to succumb to the bitter cold. One of Glover’s lieutenants became so numb he fell by the roadside in the slush and snow. He lay there with the snow covering his inert form, and would have died had not one of his comrades in the rear ranks stumbled over him.
Arms as well as men were affected by the intense cold. Glover’s son John, commanding one of the Marblehead companies, discovered that some of the regiment’s arms—like those of many other units—were so wet they could not be fired. The word was passed up the chain of command to Washington; back came his grim and determined order to “advance and charge.” The bayonets in Glover’s regiments were put to good use that morning;.
After marching about five miles toward Trenton, Washington’s force was split into two divisions. Glover’s brigade joined General John Sullivan’s command that was sent down the River Road that ran roughly parallel to the Delaware, while Washington and Nathanael Greene led the other division to the upper route known as the Pennington Road. Washington’s plan was to approach Trenton from opposite directions and by a sudden, double-pronged assault to smash into the town before the Hessians could rally any resistance.
A’though the hazardous river crossing had thrown Washington’s timetable off by nearly four hours, the simultaneous attack came off almost perfectly. Greene’s division opened on the enemy shortly after eight o’clock. Three minutes later Sullivan’s division, with Glover’s brigade near the head of the column, ran into the first advance Hessian picket post. A small New Jersey detachment drove in the picket, and Glover’s brigade took up the chase and pursued the retreating guards pell-mell into town.