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12/25/2005
THE CROSSING
CATEGORY: History


Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River.

This post originally appeared December 25, 2004.

It is perhaps the most parodied image in American history.

In countless advertisements, cartoons, sitcoms, movies, and plays, the image of George Washington (or some comical replacement) standing heroically by the bow of a boat as it navigates the frozen ice floes of the Delaware River has etched itself permanently into the American psyche. More often than not, the image has been used to show a haughtiness on the part of the individual substituting for Washington or to poke fun in an iconic way at America itself.

What the painting and its imitators doesn’t show is how near a thing it was that American independence died that night and how the iron will and gambling nature of one man changed the course of history and virtually assured freedom for the colonies.

Just three days prior to the attack on the Hessian outpost at Trenton, Tom Paine published the first of his “Crisis” articles whose ringing words still tug at the heartstrings of patriots everywhere:

“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 their country; but he that stands by 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.”

At the time of the crossing, things couldn’t have been worse for the patriot cause. Washington had seen his army continuously thrown back since the previous summer’s ill-advised campaign to meet the British army in New York. Every battle became a humiliating defeat. Every retreat saw his army shrink. From a high of 20,000 at the battle of Brooklyn Heights to its now paltry 4500 ill fed, ill clothed, scarecrows, the Continental army had become something of a joke to their enemies.

New York was lost. New Jersey was mostly occupied with more and more patriots giving an oath of allegiance to King George so that they could buy food for their families. The Congress in Philadelphia had fled to Baltimore where they hoped somehow to carry on a war that seemed all but lost. In effect, George Washington was not only in charge of the military for the young country, he was head of the government as well, acting as something of a military dictator but always careful to inform the Congress of exactly what he was doing.

But George Washington desperately wanted to go on the offensive. Seeing an opportunity with the way the British had spread out their garrisons throughout the New York and New Jersey countryside, Washington decided to take the biggest gamble of his career. An inveterate card player, (Wist was his game of choice) as well as being offensive minded by nature, he knew that his little army was about ready to disintegrate what with enlistments up after the first of the year. In his own mind, he felt he had no other choice but to attack. And attack not just one but two of the more isolated British outposts. He had it in mind to threaten the huge British supply depot at Brunsiwck, New Jersey thus causing General Howe in New York to shorten his lines and relieve the pressure on New Jersey patriots.

The choice of Trenton was based on both geography and necessity. But the attack on Princeton was a strategically brilliant concept. By taking both Trenton and Princeton, Washington would cut off the British Army in New York from their main base of supply in New Brunswick. And such a move would free most of New Jersey from British occupation and rally patriots in that beleaguered state to the cause.

None of this would matter unless Washington could get across the Delaware and attack the overconfident Hessians at Trenton. Using an extraordinarily sophisticated intelligence operation, Washington was able gather enough information about the Hessian defenses at Trenton to make the enormous gamble worth taking. Throughout the war, Washington acted as his own spymaster, developing networks of patriots in and around New York city. The British couldn’t sneeze without Washington knowing about it.

Beginning the crossing at 2:00 pm on Christmas day, Washington’s plan called for three separate columns to descend on Trenton at the same time. But due to an ice storm that came up early that evening, the other two columns never made it to the battlefield. Only the tirelessness of General John Glover’s “Marblehead Regiment” who courageously battled the ice and cold by manning the oars that took Washington’s boats containing 2,500 men, horses, and two precious cannon across the river made the victory possible.

The march from the New Jersey side of the river to Trenton was a nightmare. It was said one could see the progress of the army’s march by following the bloody footprints in the snow; many of the 2,500 men did not have any shoes. Two men died of the cold on the march. And instead of reaching the Hessian encampment while it was still dark, Washington’s threadbare little army didn’t reach Trenton until well after dawn.

Nothing, however, deterred Washington from attacking. After overcoming the sleepy outposts, Washington’s troops entered the town and before the Hessians could get organized, surrounded the enemy, killed Colonel Rall the Hessian commander, and forced the garrisons’s surrender. By noon of the 26th, Washington was back across the Delaware with almost 1000 prisoners and a huge cache of supplies.

A few days later, Washington scored perhaps his most audacious victory at Princeton. Crossing the River again, he confronted General Cornwallis whose 1500 troops had occupied a position between Washington and Trenton. With darkness falling, Washington left 400 men to tend campfires, giving Conrwallis the impression he was staying put while taking the bulk of his army clear around Cornwallis to attack a garrison headquartered at Princeton.

At first, the battle went badly for the Continentals. As the British surged forward and threatened to rout Washington’s army, he spurred his horse forward, rallied his men, and with bullets flying all around him, led the troops to a decisive victory. Then, before Cornwallis could cut off his retreat, he led his force to Morristown where he went into winter quarters.

General Howe in New York was beside himself. He realized that Washington, from his secure position on the heights above Morristown, could swoop down and attack any of his isolated garrisons at will. Accordingly, he pulled back his forces to the immediate vicinity of New York. In the space of 10 days, Washington had defeated two separate British forces, captured tons of desperately needed supplies, rallied the patriots, and levered the British out of New Jersey. No matter what defeats lay in Washington’s future, his reputation and position in American history was secured by his victories at Trenton and Princeton.

Two recent treatments of Trenton are worth mentioning. David Hackett Fisher’s “Washington’s Crossing” a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award and 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for History is eminently readable and is a treasure trove of tidbits on Washington and the continental army. The book also has some excellent background on Washington’s unconventional but very effective intelligence network.

And then there’s the made-for-cable production called “The Crossing” which stars Jeff Daniels as George Washington. Daniels, who gave an excellent portrayal of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain in Ted Turner’s “Gettysburg” falls a little flat trying to play Washington. While the movie is very watchable, I don’t think there’s an actor living or dead who could do justice to the part of Washington. The iconic image of Washington as father, savior, and ultimately civic saint makes the portrayal of such a gigantic historical figure problematic.

UPDATE 12/27

Betsy Newmark has some additional links as well as mentioning the Fisher book. She also links to another favorite Fisher book of mine Paul Revere’s Ride that gave me the idea for this post I called “Founding Brother” which I posted during last April’s anniversery.

I briefly mentioned in the post above that Washington was his own spymaster. To say that Washington’s intelligence gathering efforts were unconventional is an understatement. Washington used people who volunteered to spy and, incredibly, used British loyalists as well - unbeknownst to them, of course. I would not be an exaggeration to say that Washington knew more of what was going on in the British army than he knew about what was going on in Congress.

By: Rick Moran at 8:13 am
3 Responses to “THE CROSSING”
  1. 1
    JoeH Said:
    10:52 am 

    Nice article. One minor point it was “Colonel Rall”, not “General Rall”.

    You are absolutely right on, sorry for the pun, about “Washington’s Crossing” by David Hackett. That book and “1776″ by David McCullough should be required reading in our Jr. and High school history classes. Both are first-rate histories and the story each tells should not be forgotten.

  2. 2
    The MaryHunter Said:
    3:22 pm 

    Thanks for this historical treatment. And to think, the left is up in arms if we are not “sensitive” and respect a Ramadan cease fire in our battles against Islamofascism. Had they been in charge back then, we might still be under British rule. War is hell, and it only takes a holiday at the peril of the less vigilant.

    God bless you and yours this Christmas, Rick, and have a wonderful (and word-smithing) New Year. So glad I’ve made your acquaintance, nearly a year ago now!

  3. 3
    Sly Robbie Said:
    6:41 pm 

    Thanks for the correction, JoeH. Now I’m beginning to see why folks named Rall hate America so much.

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