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The Spirit Of ’76
It wasn’t just tenacity in the face of military disaster, it was the powerful fusion of strengths that Americans had long nurtured—and that could now give them a nation
February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
At the urging of his lieutenants, Washington decided to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Night in 1776 and attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Two of three American forces were not able to get over the river; the third got across only with great difficulty. The Americans were delayed many hours but decided to persist in the operation. The next morning they attacked in a heavy storm, achieved tactical surprise, and won a battle that was itself a web of contingencies.
The American victory at Trenton led to other choices, the most difficult of the campaign. Here again, the process of decision making differed on the two sides. Some of the critical American decisions were made by privates in the Philadelphia Associators, who demanded that their officers cross into New Jersey. George Washington and his lieutenants responded with growing resolve and increasing clarity of purpose.
The hardest choices of all were made by hundreds of sick and weary Continental infantry, who decided to stay beyond their enlistments. Indispensable help was given by Robert Morris and his associates in Philadelphia, who found the financial resources that the army urgently needed. Washington and his lieutenants in the army had to make hard choices about a plan of operations, the design of a defensive battle, and the concentration of the American army at Trenton.
Washington was at the center of these decisions, functioning more as a leader than as a commander, always listening, inspiring, guiding; rarely demanding, commanding, coercing; always firm in his goals but flexible in his means; always an example by his conduct, which made good men proud to soldier with him.
The British generals Howe and Cornwallis also had tough choices to make after the Battle of Trenton. They were able and intelligent men of high principle and serious purpose, but they operated in a strictly hierarchical world. They decided to destroy Washington’s army by a quick stroke at Trenton and did not listen to the advice of subordinates. On January 2, 1777, as British and Hessian troops advanced toward Trenton, American troops made a fighting retreat to prepared positions beyond Assunpink Creek and defeated many probing attacks in the second Battle of Trenton.
That night British and American councils of war made different decisions and also made them differently. Again Cornwallis imposed his plan from the top down, against the judgment of his able subordinates, and he prepared to attack in the morning. Washington in his council of war welcomed the judgments of others and presided over an open process of debate that yielded yet another opportunity. In the darkness Washington managed to disengage his forces from an enemy only a few yards away, and an exhausted American army found the will and strength to make another night march, this one toward the British base at Princeton. As the American army approached Princeton on January 3, 1777, they ran into a British force under Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood. In a classic meeting engagement, Mawhood made the choice to attack with great élan and nearly gained the field. The Americans broke and fled, then rallied with high courage. In a web of tactical decisions by many men, they won another victory.
Afterward small parties of Jersey militia chose to attack British and Hessian forces on their own initiative, in small skirmishes of a “forage war” that continued for 12 weeks. Washington did not initiate this petite guerre , but in another fortunate choice he welcomed and supported it. In three months the American army did real damage to General Howe’s army, which shrank from 32,000 effective troops in late August to 14,000 effectives by late winter 1777.
In the New Jersey campaign, American troops repeatedly defeated larger and better-trained regular forces in many different types of warfare: special operations, a night river crossing, a bold assault on an urban garrison, a righting retreat, a defensive battle in fixed positions, a night march into the enemy’s rear, a meeting engagement, and a prolonged petite guerre . Professional observers judged that entire performance to be one of the most brilliant in military history.
The winter campaign wrecked the strategy of the Howe brothers for ending the Revolution by moderation and conciliation. It also had an effect on British opinion much like that of the Tet offensive on American opinion in 1968. By the spring of 1777 the war was growing unpopular in the United Kingdom. The price of British government securities began to fall, from a high point of 89 pounds sterling in 1775 to 55 in 1784.
But the campaign had even more far-reaching results. It prompted American leaders to invent a new way of war. The disasters of the New York campaign had been a hard school for them. They had created a nation without a nation-state and an army without discipline. Americans had trouble reconciling the ideals of the Revolution with the realities of government. They were deeply suspicious of power and hated to pay taxes; this was a major weakness in the War of Independence. Then, as now, corrupt politicians pandered to that prejudice.