In the summer the stretch of the Delaware River north of Trenton, New Jersey, is as alluring as any place in the country. It is green and happy and eloquent of generations of peace and prosperity: prosperity from the river traffic and from the canal; prosperity from the steady little farming communities nearby and, in more recent years, from tourism. It is only in the winter that the countryside suggests with any conviction that this was once fought-over land.
In the waning months of 1776, two armies—one well fed, well armed, well clad, eminently professional; the other half-naked, hungry, new to soldiering—struggled for control of this country; and for something far greater. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the campaigning that took place here. You can go see where it happened in the summer, and you may have a prettier trip. But if you want to get the feeling of that extraordinary season of despair and triumph, go when the days are short and gray and the snow is on the ground.
As you drive south from Manhattan toward Trenton on the New Jersey Turnpike, the city falls away behind, and then the great silver coils of the cracking plants, and then you are in country that would be all too familiar to George Washington’s Grand Army in the late fall of 1776. These were the men who had to back up the brave phrases in the Declaration that had been issued a few months earlier, and fortune had not been with them. They had been beaten on Long Island, beaten in Manhattan, beaten in Westchester, beaten wherever they made a stand. Now they were running for their lives from Lord Cornwallis’s hardy British regulars a half-day’s march behind them, their ranks dwindling daily. On these disconsolate flatlands the American Revolution was dying.
They came at last to the Delaware, seized all the boats they could lay their hands on for miles up and down the river, and took up defensive positions on the Pennsylvania shore. There they huddled miserably, a few thousand of them, waiting for their enlistments to expire with the year; after December 31 Washington would have fourteen hundred men left. Across the river ten thousand of the enemy settled in for the winter. Not many of them thought the American army would be there in the spring. Even Washington wasn’t sure: in a most uncharacteristic statement he said, “I think the game is pretty near up.”
Nevertheless, Christmas Day found Continental officers shepherding their coughing men down to the frozen riverbank, setting off on a foray spurred by the purest desperation: an attack on the twelve hundred Hessian mercenaries encamped in Trenton.
They set out from what is now the Washington Crossing State Park in Pennsylvania: you can visit the big stone Thompson-Neely house in whose kitchen Washington planned out his great gamble with his officers; but never mind the movie playing at the visitors’ center. Made in the 1950s, it incorporates many of the elements that made sensible students shrink from history in high school: self-conscious people in wigs saying things like “Gentlemen, we must do or die,” and so forth.
Instead, walk down to the riverbank and see what the Continentals saw: the dark, swiftly running Delaware—ice moving fast on its surface that Christmas Day —and beyond, the hostile shore with its stands of naked trees looking smoky in the waning light. The river was thick with traffic, as Marblehead fishermen poled the soldiers across in Durham boats. You can see reconstructions of these here, and they are sturdy, sharpnosed cargo vessels, forty to sixty feet long, and nothing like the shallop Washington is riding in Emanuel Leutze’s wonderful painting of the crossing.
Drive over the narrow bridge to the Jersey shore, and stop at the blue and gray house where Washington watched his command disembark. It took nine hours to get the men across—of course, everything was running behind schedule—but he determined to push on to Trenton. He had no choice. As you drive into the town, the very change in the surroundings from that day to this imparts an odd sense of the scope of the march. It’s nine miles—block after city block through good neighborhoods and bad—and it’s a long way. The men who struggled over that route all night long, many of them barefoot and leaving their blood pink in the snow behind them, were advancing on a community of a hundred clapboard houses and a stone barracks put up for the French and Indian Wars that was the biggest building in town. It’s still there, very nicely kept up, and a guide will take you through and show you the amazing amount of maneuvering required to get an eighteenth-century musket charged and fired. It—and most of the houses in the town—disgorged startled, hung-over German soldiers when the boom of Continental artillery came through the stormy morning. Washington set his guns on the high ground where Broad meets Warren Street—King and Queen Street then. The site is marked with a hundred-foot column with his statue atop it; on the base Thomas Eakins’s bronze reliefs depict the action. As grapeshot clawed through their ranks, the Hessians tried to form, and then the Americans were in among them, fighting with clubbed muskets and bayonets and shouting in a mixture of triumph and amazement at their success. Nobody knows how long the battle lasted—reports range from a half hour to nearly two—but at the end of it a thousand Germans surrendered.
Washington marched his prisoners into Newtown, Pennsylvania, and you may want to go there too. It’s a goodlooking old town, with some ancient liver-colored stone buildings past which it is not hard to imagine the Americans parading their prisoners, the Germans warm in their winter uniforms, and their captors, as one witness wrote later, “mostly in light, summer dress and some without shoes, but stepping light and cheerful.” The two-century-old Temperance House in Newtown has recently been redone and its guest rooms colonialed-up to a faretheewell. If you can get the one with a working fireplace, you’ll be able to enjoy a considerable pleasure unavailable to summer visitors.
News of the victory astonished and appalled the British, and Cornwallis moved fast. In a week he believed he had Washington trapped on the New Jersey side of the Delaware. But the American stole a march on him, and one freezing, crystalline January morning found Washington moving his little army toward Princeton. Some 350 of his men under Gen. Hugh Mercer came up against British regulars under Col. Charles Mawhood. The two forces swung into line, and a short, ugly fight ended with Mercer down and his Continentals in panicked retreat.
For a moment it looked like the old story: The Americans were running away from battle again; the coup at Trenton had been a mere fluke. But then Washington came galloping onto the field and took his big white horse to within thirty paces of the British line. There he reined in and yelled for his troops to rally around him. After a moment’s pause, the British fired at this astonishing target. One of Washington’s aides hid his face in his cloak so as not to see his commander die, but when the smoke cleared, there was Washington, still in the saddle, still calling for his troops. And now they were coming. Men from Pennsylvania and Rhode Island and Massachusetts stead- led their ranks, stood, exchanged volley fire—and the British fled.
Princeton Battlefield is oddly affecting; it’s so small. A tile map placed there in the 1960s at first seems an incoherent amalgam of peppy colors but on examination resolves itself into an admirable explication of the action that points out, among other things, the oak tree where Mercer took his mortal wound. Across the way is a monument—four Ionic columns that look as if they were part of a grand house that has disappeared. And that is just what they are. When a mansion built on the site years afterward was pulled down, it was decided that the portico made a nice memorial to the men who died there. I like the fortuitous quality of that monument; it somehow reflects the way we fought the Revolution, learning as we went, making do with what we had. A plaque in one of the columns expresses the significance of the battle in a lucid sentence that strikes me as being about as good as English prose gets: “Across these fields in the early light of the third of January 1777, Washington’s Continentals defeated British regulars for the first time in the long struggle for American independence.”
Washington moved on into winter quarters in Morristown, while the news went forth—across the country, across the Atlantic—that the American army was still in business and in very capable hands. Nevertheless, it was a hard winter of fear and doubt. There was smallpox in the camp. There was frostbite. Soldiers figured they’d done enough and went home. But now and forever after there would be in the ranks a leavening of men who had seen Hessians throw down their muskets and British regulars break their ranks and run and who would not forget the sight.