- Historic Sites
The Winter Soldiers,
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
The one man who kept the army together is hard to separate from his legend. Washington’s contemporaries seem to have held him in as much awe as succeeding generations have; nobody gave him a nickname, and nobody made jokes about him. A French volunteer remarked that he seemed “intended for a great position—his appearance alone gave confidence to the timid and imposed respect on the bold.” He was not a great strategist, but he was blessed with the uncommon quality of being able to improvise brilliantly under the worst kind of pressure. Most of all, he was patient—for years he drafted calm, balanced, heartbreaking letters vainly trying to coax a few more shoes or a little additional gunpowder out of a bankrupt Congress. His lieutenants saw him as a man almost without emotion, but his private correspondence shows him to have been vital, irascible, frustrated, passionate, and obsessively concerned with his reputation. And yet when he had to, he was able to gamble both his reputation and the last forlorn dregs of his army.
Finally the Americans were driven clear out of New Jersey and came to rest on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River. Here Washington surveyed the remnants of his army and bitterly concluded: “I think the game is pretty near up.” All of his cold, sickly soldiers must have thought so too, but there they were on Christmas night, setting out across the ice-choked Delaware in a gale to march against the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Twenty-four hundred men at the limits of their endurance came booming through the blizzard into Trenton and forced the sleepy, disorganized Hessians out of the town into a wintry orchard, where a thousand men surrendered to the Continentals.
The victors were far too tired to exult, and they still had a long journey back across the Delaware ahead of them. But all of them were aware that, after all the months of defeat and rout, they had won a great victory.
We think of these men, many without shoes and some without trousers, leading their sturdy, well-dressed prisoners down to the landing and again wonder what sort of men they were. Ketchum tells us. Take, for instance, Sergeant Joseph White. He had picked up an “elegant sword” from a dead German officer (later he would be induced to part with it for eight dollars), and now he was back at his battery staring mournfully at his favorite gun. Its axletree had been shattered by enemy fire, and he was trying to decide what to do about it when Henry Knox came riding up out of the storm, peered at the damage, and told White to abandon the piece. But White liked his cannon—“the best in the regiment,” he boasted— and was damned if he was going to leave it behind. He rounded up four men, and they managed to patch up the axle and began to push the heavy piece toward the river. It was slow, wretched work, and the rest of the army slogged by them and disappeared into the gloom ahead. “Joseph White,” writes Ketchum, “was a matter-of-fact sort of fellow who took things pretty much as they came, but he was beginning to realize what this war was going to be. It wasn’t quite the same as advertised on that bright morning in May 1775 when he had signed up for an eight-month hitch, when all the talk was of liberty and the glory to be won and you marched to the skirl of fife and drum and the promise of pretty girls’ smiles. No, what it amounted to in the long run was unutterable weariness and discomfort and the bone-breaking effort of hauling and shoving a cranky, uncooperative cannon down a lonely road in a blizzard.”
White saved his gun, and a week later he was once again crossing the Delaware with it, on his way to a coup every bit as remarkable as the last one. The battle of Princeton has been somewhat eclipsed by the triumph at Trenton, but it displays, if anything, even more of Washington’s genius for superb improvisation. Washington did not reckon with the energy of British General Cornwallis, who, as soon as he got news of Trenton, took after the Americans with eight thousand men. He moved fast, and January 2 of 1777 found Washington and his five thousand soldiers trapped with their backs to the Delaware, facing certain defeat at the hands of Cornwallis’ redcoats. Cornwallis airily remarked: “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” But in the morning there was nobody there. Using a little-known back road, Washington had led his men straight around the British lines and on into New Jersey.
A little later three British regiments in Princeton saw a glitter of metal in the distance and swung around to attack General Hugh Mercer’s Continentals, many of whom had never been in a fight before. The Americans formed a shaky line behind a hedge, and when the English came pounding toward them, they broke and ran. Once again it seemed as though everything was lost, and once again vast events pivoted on one man.
Captain Joseph Moulder had joined Washington’s army a month before with three guns and a few sailors that he had coaxed to come along and work them. Now he had two of his guns trained on the advancing redcoats, and he began to fire just as the British were about to charge the fleeing rebels. For a few moments Moulder represented the entire martial strength of the revolutionary army—two guns, all by themselves, banging away on a hill. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. The charge faltered for a minute, and then American reinforcements poured into the fighting. Washington arrived on the field and watched the red lines dissolve and the soldiers of the king run pell-mell for safety. In a rare moment of open exultation Washington yelled “It’s a fine fox chase, boys!” and galloped after them, a jubilant figure in the cold, bright day.