Washington Crossing the Delaware - History
July 1776, - Independence in America is declared - by December the revolution was largely thought lost and almost over.
The British thought so and most American colonists believed the cause was very likely lost. Washington wrote to his cousin in Virginia, "I think the game is pretty near up.” The difficulties seemed insurmountable for the Americans.
First - General Washington’s army was neither an army, as we now or the British then, would think of one, nor his. The men he commanded were a wholly unorganized conglomeration of groups recruited by the various separate colonies or regions for various amounts of time and under various terms and supplied little or not at all. These mostly untrained groups neither trusted nor liked each other much.
Second -Though Washington’s siege in Boston had forced the British to depart from that city, the American forces had lost battle after battle in New York when facing the British main forces head on. The last couple of months had seen crushing losses of men and material, and Washington had lost contact with two important divisions of his army. General Horatio Gates was in the Hudson River Valley and General Charles Lee was in western New Jersey with 2,000 men. Washington had ordered both generals to join him, but heavy snows delayed Gates in route, and Lee, who did not have a high opinion of Washington, delayed following repeated orders, preferring to remain on the British flank near Morristown, New Jersey.
Third - The paper monies issued in the colonies were expected to become worthless when the British soon won the conflict, and so it became worthless, merchants and farmers would not trade for it. Re-supply for Washington’s men was desperately difficult.
Forth – France, a longtime rival of England and possible financial ally of the American Revolution, was having trouble seeing the current conflict amounting to more than an inconvenient irritation to its powerful adversary.
Fifth - Most colonists did not support the idea of separation from the crown. Most were interested in being left alone as they had been, rather than being separated. Moreover, even those in favor of separation had little faith in the rebel fighters’ ability against a well-trained and supplied British army.
Sixth- Morale was now excruciatingly low, of those men who had not already deserted, a large portion would be free to go January first when their enlistment ended. As a Sergeant in Washington's camp wrote “the soldiers worn down from fatigue and privations, had their hearts fixed on home and comforts of the domestic circle, and it is hard to forgo the anticipated pleasures of the society of our dearest friends.”
Retreating across New Jersey, Washington and what was left of his men came to the eastern shore of the Delaware River in December. Hoping to use the river as a shield between his troops and the advancing British army and to delay as long as possible the expected British advance to Philadelphia, Washington ordered all of his men to cross the river and to take or destroy all boats on the New Jersey shore. Cornwallis (under Howe's command), rather than attempting to immediately chase Washington further, established a chain of outposts from New Brunswick to Burlington, including one at Bordentown and one at Trenton, and ordered his troops into winter quarters.
Washington's forces encamped in several locations near the shores of the Delaware River especially at potential fords and ferries as well as sites inland. Though safe for the moment, without a miracle, the end still seemed at hand for the revolutionary cause. Indeed everyone in the American camp felt the situation to be desperate. Col Joseph reed wrote to Washington “Something must be attempted to revive our expired credit, give our cause some degree of reputation, and prevent a total depreciation of the Continental money, which is coming in very fast – that even a failure cannot be more total than to remain in our present situation.”
Washington and his war counsel had to come up with a daring if desperate plan. Another defeat would most likely end all chance for success of independence, however a battle won might rekindle the spark of hope.
December 19, Morale was given a boost by the publication of a new pamphlet by Thomas Paine. His Common Sense had served to increase support for the Revolution in its early days. Paine's new pamphlet, titled The American Crisis, began with words well known to American schoolchildren: “These are the times that try men's souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”. Within a day of its publication in Philadelphia, General Washington ordered it read to his troops. While Paine's writing could not feed or shelter the troops, it did serve to improve morale and help them feel a little more tolerant of their current conditions.
On December 20, another boost to morale. General Lee's division of 2,000 arrived in camp under the command of General John Sullivan. General Lee had been captured by the British on December 12, when he ventured too far outside the protection of his troops in search of more comfortable lodgings. Later that same day General Gates' division arrived in camp, reduced to 600 by ending enlistments and the need to keep the northern frontier secure. Soon after, another 1,000 militia men from Philadelphia under Colonel John Cadwalader joined Washington. As a result of these reinforcements and smaller numbers of volunteers from the local area, Washington now had 6,000 listed as fit for duty. Of this number, a large portion were detailed to guard the ferries at Bristol and New Hope, Pennsylvania. Another group was placed to protect supplies at Newtown, Pennsylvania and to guard the sick and wounded who would remain behind when the army crossed the Delaware River. This left Washington with about 2,400 men able to take offensive action against the Hessian and British troops in Central New Jersey.
The plan they devised was to surprise and attack a small British outpost with its three regiments of professional Hessian soldiers garrisoned at Trenton. They believed that if three separate forces secretly crossed the river above and below the outpost, that the battle-hardened enemy could be caught, unprepared, in a pincer movement and defeated. The Americans could capture much needed supplies and rekindle some faith in the cause and their ability.
The attack had to happen soon for Washington received intelligence reports that the British were planning their own crossing once the Delaware was frozen over and he was about to lose “the better part” of his troops at the end of their enlistment on January 1st.
Christmas night was chosen for the crossing, then a predawn surprise attack on the garrison of Trenton. Washington's final plan was for three crossings, with his troops, the largest contingent, to lead the attack on Trenton. A second column under Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross at Dunk's Ferry, near Bristol, Pennsylvania, and create a diversion to the south. A third column under Brigadier General James Ewing was to cross at Trenton Ferry and hold the bridge across the Assunpink Creek, just south of Trenton, in order to prevent the enemy's escape by that route. Once Trenton was secure, the combined army would move against the British posts in Princeton and then New Brunswick to capture the large British pay chest there. A fourth crossing, by men provided by General Israel Putnam to assist Cadwalader, was dropped after Putnam indicated he did not have enough men fit for the operation.
Preparations for the attack began on December 23. A wide variety of watercraft were assembled for the crossing, primarily through the work of militiamen from the surrounding counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the assistance of the Pennsylvania Navy. In addition to the large ferry vessels, a large number of Durham boats were commandeered. These boats were designed to carry heavy loads from the Durham Iron Works, they featured high sides and a shallow draft, and could be poled across the river. Experienced watermen operated the boats. Most prominent among them were the men of John Glover's Marblehead Regiment, a company of experienced seamen from Marblehead, Massachusetts. These men were joined by seamen, dockworkers, and shipbuilders from Philadelphia, as well as local ferry operators and boatmen who knew the river well.
On December 24 the boats were brought down from Malta Island near New Hope and hidden behind Taylor Island at McKonkey's Ferry, Washington's planned crossing site, and security was tightened there. A final planning meeting took place that day, with all of the general officers present. Dr. Benjamin Rush had come to cheer up the General. While he was there, he saw a note Washington had written, "Victory or Death.” Those words would be the password for the surprise attack.
Washington issued general orders on December 25 outlining plans for the operation. Washington issued orders that every soldier be outfitted with; fresh flints for their muskets, 60 rounds of ammunition, and three days of rations, even the officers and musicians were ordered to carry muskets. They were told that this was a secret mission. As quietly as possible, they left the various camps for McKonkey's Ferry.
Washington's plan required the crossing to begin as soon as it was dark enough to conceal their movements on the river, but most of the troops did not reach the crossing point until about 6 pm, ninety minutes after sunset. So when the army arrived at the boats, they were already behind schedule. The weather got progressively worse, clouds began to form above them, the temperature dropped, the rain changed to sleet, and then to snow. "It blew a hurricane," recalled one soldier.
Washington had given charge of the crossing logistics to his chief of artillery, the portly Henry Knox. In addition to the crossing of large numbers of troops (most of whom could not swim), he had to safely transport eighteen pieces of artillery and the horses to move them over the river. Knox wrote that the crossing was accomplished "with almost infinite difficulty,” and that its most significant danger was "floating ice in the river.” One observer noted that the whole operation might well have failed "but for the stentorian lungs of Colonel Knox.”
The Americans began to cross the river, with the 14th Continental Regiment of Glover manning the boats. The men went across in Durham boats, while the horses and artillery went across on large ferries. During the crossing, several men fell overboard, including Delaware’s Colonel John Haslet. Haslet was quickly pulled out of the water. No one died during the crossing, and all the artillery pieces and horses made it over in good condition.
Washington was among the first of the troops to cross, going with Virginia troops led by General Adam Stephen. These troops formed a sentry line around the landing area in New Jersey, with strict instructions that no one was to pass through.
The amount of ice on the river prevented the artillery from finishing the crossing until 3 am. The troops were not ready to march until 4 am. Dawn was fast approaching.
The two other crossings fared even less well. The treacherous weather and ice jams on the river stopped General Ewing from even attempting a crossing below Trenton, a spot that is still the first to accumulate ice in bad weather. Colonel Cadwalader crossed a significant portion of his men to New Jersey, but when he found that he could not get his artillery across the river, he recalled his men from New Jersey.
At Washington's crossing, as soon as the army was ready, Washington ordered it split into two columns, one under the command of himself and General Greene, the second under General Sullivan. The Sullivan column would take River Road from Bear Tavern to Trenton while Washington's column would follow Pennington Road, a parallel route that lay a few miles inland from the river.
In the First Battle of Trenton, causilities for the Americans were very light, though one future American president was badly wounded, while 22 Hessians were killed with 98 wounded. The Americans captured 1,000 prisoners and seized muskets, powder, and artillery. Through grave difficulties, the ten crucial days had started in good stead. The turning point was at hand.