August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Fourth in a series of paintings for AMERICAN HERITAGE
American spirits were at a low ebb as the year 1776 drew to a close. The Hudson River forts were gone, Long Island and New York were taken, and now Washington’s wretched army of three thousand men was in full retreat through New Jersey with Cornwallis’ veteran troops close behind. Moreover, the enlistments of many of the Continental soldiers were due to expire with the old year; after December 31 the army would virtually cease to exist. Morale demanded a victory, and if Washington was ever going to strike, it would have to be soon.
A bleak Christmas Day dawned on the American army camped on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. By evening it was blowing a full gale, and the seething river was packed with huge sheets of ice. Nevertheless, twenty-four hundred of Washington’s soldiers were clambering into long, shallow boats manned by Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead fishermen [see “Soldier in a Longboat,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1960] and setting out for the Jersey shore. Washington was going to attack Trenton, where Colonel Johann Rail and fourteen hundred of his Hessians had gone into winter quarters.
The miserable crossing was completed by three o’clock on the morning of the twenty-sixth, and the men set out on a nine-mile hike over icy roads to Trenton town. They marched through sleet and freezing rain in two columns: Washington and General Nathanael Greene took one along an inland route, and General John Sullivan led the other along the river highway.
At about half past seven, Hessian pickets gaped in astonishment as Greene’s troops materialized before their eyes. They raised the alarm, but it was too late; already Sullivan’s men were going into action on the other side of town. Sleepy Hessians tumbled out into the streets and tried to form some sort of defense, but the scarecrows in the remnants of Continental uniforms came yelling out of the storm and swept through their ranks. It was a soldier’s battle, fought and won piecemeal from street to street and house to house, and it didn’t last long. Rail tried to rally his men, failed, and fell mortally wounded. Three quarters of an hour after the fighting started, the defenders laid down their arms and surrendered.
This stunning victory had an immediate effect on the dispirited American people. Washington, whose reputation had suffered greatly during the long months of defeat and retreat, was hailed as a genius, and new recruits turned out to join his revitalized forces. Washington had gambled his army on one bold stroke and, winning, had saved his cause.