Most patriotic Americans fondly associate the year 1776 with American Independence, but from the point of view of the Revolutionaries who were fighting to free themselves from English tyranny, it was a dreadful year. After several months and a string of battlefield defeats trying to defend New York City and its environs from the British invasion, George Washington’s dwindling Continental Army was barely hanging on for dear life.
For it was only less than two months after Congress declared Independence, that the Continentals were routed at the Battle of Brooklyn. Three American generals were captured, and 1,300 of Washington’s troops were either killed or wounded or captured. The battle left the Commander with the rest of his army nearly surrounded, with their backs pressed up against the East River. After the smoke from the battle settled, Washington made the decision to have his troops ferried across the mile-wide, tidal river under cover of darkness. It was a dangerous endeavor. The British, expecting a surrender, but preparing to finish the job if necessary waited out the night. When the fog cleared the next morning they could not believe their eyes. The Americans had escaped. Washington had used up the first of his nine lives. He was going to need to use a lot more of them.
Battle of Brooklyn by Alonzo Chappel, 1858. Shown at bottom right are American soldiers trying to escape into the swamp where many of them became sitting ducks.
Not long after Brooklyn, the Continentals suffered two more humiliating defeats, one at Kip’s Bay on the East side of Manhattan Island in September and another the following month at the Battle of White Plains. Then, in November, the Hudson River fort bearing the Commander’s name was captured. Washington had lost nearly half of his army in less than three months! Fearing another devastating blow, he ordered the Americans troops overlooking New York from the Jersey side of the Hudson River to abandon Fort Lee without a fight. From the British perspective, things were turning out as they might have expected, but for the Americans, the loss of New York was a major knock to the Revolutionary cause.
“Forcing a passage of the Hudson River, 9 October 1776.” English vessels are shown forcing their way north through a cheval-de-frise on the Hudson River. Fort Washington is on the right bank, Fort Lee on the left. On November 19th Fort Washington would fall into British hands. The painting is a copy by Thomas Mitchell after the original by Dominic Serres the Elder.
It is hard for us to understand the enormous difficulties Washington had to overcome as leader of Continental army. When he inherited the command of the American troops at Boston in early 1776 there was not even a real army to command. The troops had no flag, no uniforms, no money and little discipline. Most of the men were farmers with hunting rifles who were angry at the British for firing on their fellow citizens and for closing the port of Boston. British General John Burgoyne, who would soon learn a thing or two about the Americans’ ability to fight, referred disparagingly to Washington army, calling them, “rabble in arms.”
Numbers rarely favored Washington. Most people in the original thirteen American colonies did not support Independence from the mother country. Historians generally agree that only about one third did, another third remained loyal to King George, and the balance were afraid to choose one side over the other. Quaker preacher and artist Edward Hicks was very hard on the anti-war Quakers of the revolutionary period and chastised them for not supporting Washington and the Revolutionary cause: “Poor, contemptible, womanish weakness, which never felt the noble spirit of patriotism…”
Although Washington almost always projected confidence in front of his troops, from time to time would express his doubts and misgivings in private. Shortly after being placed in command, he confided to his friend Charles Reed,
“The reflection upon my Situation, & that of this Army, produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in Sleep. Few People know the Predicament we are In, on a thousand Acc[oun]ts….I have often thought, how much happier I should have been, if, instead of accepting of a command under such Circumstances I had taken my Musket upon my Shoulder & enterd the Ranks, or, if I could have justified the Measure to Posterity, & my own Conscience, had retir’d to the back Country, & lived in a Wig-wam.”
But one of Washington’s greatest traits was his ability to persevere during the most difficult of situations. Even when all appeared hopeless, he never let himself become overwhelmed by his doubts.
After the loss of New York, American General Henry Knox observed that, “The roads in Connecticut and New Jersey were filled with soldiers heading home.” Washington had no choice now but to make a full retreat across New Jersey with what was left of his battered army.
Sir William Howe, Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in America.
Taking advantage of his recent victories, Sir William Howe issued a Proclamation that offered pardon and protection to all colonists who would come forward and pledge an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Historian, David McCullough says that it was an immediate success – Hundreds, eventually thousands, in New Jersey flocked to the British camps to declare their loyalty. Then, to make matters worse, on December 1st, with the British army and the German mercenaries hot on their heels, 2,000 more men left Washington’s army to go home as their enlistments periods expired. Washington’s immediate command dwindled to no more than 3,000 men barely fit and equipped for duty. “To many observers on both sides, it looked like the war for Independence was already lost.”
A few months later, American General Nathanael Greene reflected on how bad things had gotten towards the end of 1776,
“After the loss of Fort Washington and the Enemy crost over into the Jerseys, everything wore the face of abject submission. The Inhabitants of New Jersey and those of Pennsylvania lost all spirit. The time for which the old Troops stood engag’d expired as we were retreating through the Jerseys. Brigade after Brigade left us…. Had the Enemy push’t us hard they would have ruin’d us for we had not three thousand men.” (Nathanael Greene to CG January 20, 1777)
The British army pushed halfway through New Jersey and settled just 60 miles from the rebel capital at Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence had been announced to the world a few months earlier. A smaller force penetrated further inland to the college town of Princeton, following right behind Washington’s retreat.
On Dec 7th near Trenton, the American army crossed over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Every boat on both sides of the river within 30 miles was gathered up in order to halt the enemy’s pursuit. “The long retreat that had begun in New York and continued from the Hudson to the Delaware was over.”[i] Shortly after Washington’s escape a British outpost was established at Trenton, where 1500 Hessian mercenaries were stationed under the command of Colonel Rall.
Then came more bad news: on December 13th, Major General Charles Lee, second in command behind Washington, was discovered by British scouts lingering at Widow White’s Tavern in New Jersey. The disgraced general was ceremoniously paraded off in his pajamas by his captors. That same day, Washington learned the Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia for the safety of Baltimore. Word got out that two former members of Congress had flipped sides and joined the enemy. In those waning days of 1776, all things must have looked very bleak indeed to the American rebels.
One of Washington’s perpetual worries was a lack of money to pay soldiers and buy supplies. One observer remarked that the Continentals made a “dreadfull appearance.” Many men had worn out all their clothes entirely. Many had no coats and wore only blankets; many had no shoes and wrapped their feet with what rags they could find. Edward Hicks described them as “the poor soldiers of 1776…whose footsteps were marked with their own blood.”
The Commander had another problem that was fast approaching – his army was about to shrink significantly given that hundreds of enlistments were about to expire on December 31st. With the revolutionary zeal so severely depressed it was unlikely there would be many new recruits showing up for duty. Washington knew he might only have 1,500 or 2,000 men left to fight against Howe’s massive army.[ii] On December 10th the General had explained in a letter to his cousin, Lund Washington,
“I wish to Heaven it was in my power to give you a more favourable Acct of our situation than it is—our numbers, quite inadequate to the task of opposing that part of the Army under the Command of Genl Howe, being reduced by Sickness, Desertion, & Political Deaths (on & before the first [of this month], & having no assistance from the Militia) were obliged to retire before the Enemy.”
On December 17th he added,
“The unhappy policy of short Inlistments, and a dependance upon Militia will, I fear, prove the downfall of our cause, tho early pointed out with an almost Prophetick Spirit.
“Our Cause has also receivd a severe blow in the Captivity of General Lee—Unhappy Man! taken by his own Imprudence!…Our only dependance now, is upon the Speedy Inlistment of a New Army; if this fails us, I think the game will be pretty well up, as from disaffection, and want of spirit & fortitude, the Inhabitants instead of resistance, are offering Submission, & taking protections from Genl Howe in Jersey.”
As hopeless as things seemed in those final days of ‘76, one wonders if Washington ever considered sending in his resignation to Congress. Blame for losing the war could easily have been pinned on the states – they had not granted Congress the authority to raise funds to adequately supply the Continental army. In addition, an increasingly large number of Americans, whether out of cowardice or apathy, were unwilling to support war effort. But Washington had made a promise to Congress to “exert every power… for support of the glorious cause.” One of Washington’s most precious possessions was his honor, and he was not about to give that up. And the truth of the matter is that giving up was not a prudent option at that point. Surrender would lead to Washington’s personal ruin, and perhaps, even to his execution for treason.
But General Nathanael Greene noticed that his commander and friend seemed to gain strength from adversity; he “never appeared to so much advantage as in the hour of distress.”
“Upon the whole our Affairs are in a much less promising condition than could be wished, Yet I trust under the smiles of Providence, and by our own exertions, we shall be happy.” (George Washington to James Bowdoin December 18, 1776)
On December 22nd Washington wrote to his confidant, Charles Reed,
“Some Enterprize must be undertaken in our present Circumstances or we must give up the Cause.
“I will not disguise my own Sentiments that our Cause is desperate & hopeless if we do not take the Opportunity of the Collection of Troops at present to strike some Stroke. Our Affairs are hasting fast to Ruin if we do not retrieve them by some happy Event. Delay with us is now equal to a total Defeat.”
Washington closed the letter to his friend with a rare, emotional apology for writing so candidly, without his usual restraint,
“Pardon the Freedom I have used, [but]the Love of my Country, a Wife & 4 Children in the Enemy’s Hands, the Respect & Attachment I have to you—the Ruin & Poverty that must attend me & thousands of others will plead my Excuse…”
The General knew he was nearing the end of the rope.
Born of desperation, a bold, daring stoke against the enemy was hatched. Washington had been looking for an opportunity to deal a blow that would “rouse the spirits of the people, which are quite sunk by our misfortunes.” On December 24th he called a meeting of his generals at the Thompson house to go over the final details of a secret plan they had been working on for several days. The Hessian outpost at Trenton would be their target. According to the latest intelligence, about 2,000 of the enemy were stationed there. Washington’s forces would cross the Delaware River at three different places and converge in a surprise attack on the occupied village. The largest of the three forces would be led by Washington and Generals Greene, Sullivan and Stirling.
Because the element of surprise was crucial, the crossing would begin on Christmas night under the cover of darkness. The attack was set for the next morning at 6 a.m., an hour before sunrise. Washington’s orders demanded absolute secrecy and discipline; “a profound silence to be enjoyn’d & no man to quit his Ranks on the pain of Death”
On Christmas Day the weather took a turn for the worse as a winter storm pushed in. The frigid river was swollen and filled with enormous chunks of broken ice. At 2 p.m. orders were given in camp to assemble the troops in preparation for their march. Once darkness fell, the men were ordered to the west bank of the Delaware at McConkey’s Ferry; it had already begun raining and was turning colder.
“The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully, 1819. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Note the symbolism of the half-rooted, weather-beaten tree, which looks as though it may not survive the winter.
The Durham boats used to ferry the troops and equipment would be piloted by Colonel Glover’s New Englanders. These were the same experienced watermen who had made possible the army’s escape from Brooklyn four months earlier. The flat-bottomed boats were about 40 to 60 feet long, about 6 to 8 feet wide and were maneuvered with poles and oars. Each boat could hold about 30 to 40 men standing shoulder to shoulder. General Washington crossed early and watched the painfully slow progress from the New Jersey side. There were enormous difficulties in getting the horses and heavy artillery on board the boats. Henry Knox, the Boston bookseller turned artillery commander was in charge of getting the cannon over. If there was anyone who could do it, it was Knox.
By 11 p.m. the storm had become much worse; the wind howled as the rain turned to sleet and snow. Sixteen year-old regimental musician John Greenwood recorded in his diary,
“Over the river we went in a flat-bottomed scow…we had to wait for the rest and so began to pull down fences and make fires to warm ourselves….when I turned my face to the fire, my back would be freezing….by turning myself round and round I kept myself from perishing.”
Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851. This iconic painting is not completely accurate. When Washington and his army crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night it was stormy and the sky was probably pitch-black. The boats were also much larger than the ones pictured here. This enormous work is twelve feet high by twenty-one feet long.
Although the storm made the crossing extremely difficult, it was also a blessing because it helped conceal the Continentals from their enemy.[iii]
By the time all the troops and equipment got over to the Jersey side it was already 3 a.m. The plan was three hours behind schedule and the troops still had nine miles to march through freezing rain and snow. Washington realized they would probably not make it to Trenton before sunrise and therefore knew he might lose the element of surprise. He later explained to John Hancock, “I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered and harassed on repassing the river, [so] I determined to push on…” Four miles above Trenton the troops split into two; Sullivan’s column marched along the river road, Washington and Green’s marched along the Pennington road a little further east.
Weather is always a factor in war and although the storm provided cover that night for the army under Washington’s command, it prevented the other two bodies of troops, led by Cadwallader and Ewing, from getting over the river to join the intended surprise.
Fröhliche Weihnachten! (Merry Christmas!)
When General Washington received a note from Sullivan saying the men’s guns were too waterlogged to fire, the Commander replied, “Tell the General to use bayonet.”
Both columns of troops reached the edge of Trenton around 8 a.m. Although it was already daylight when the attack began, the Hessians were still caught off guard and came rushing out of the houses and barracks in a state of confusion. There was much hand to hand fighting. When the Hessians rolled out a canon onto King Street, Captain Washington (a cousin of the General) and Lieutenant Monroe (a future President) rushed the cannon, captured it and turned it against them. Many Germans that could not escape to the south retreated to an apple orchard where Colonel Rall began to regroup them for a counter attack, but Rall was shot and fell from his horse. Soon the Hessians were surrounded with no choice but to surrender. The whole action lasted about 45 minutes. When it was over the Americans had captured nearly one thousand of the enemy. About twenty one of the mercenaries were killed, 500 escaped. Although two American soldiers froze to death on the march to Trenton, none were killed in the battle that morning and only four were wounded.
This engraving depicts General Washington immediately after the Battle of Trenton. The wounded soldier is probably the future President James Monroe.
The victorious Americans captured six brass cannons intact on their carriages, plus “3 Ammunition Waggons, [and] As many Muskets, Bayonets, Cartouch Boxes and Swords as there are prisoners, 12 Drums,” and 4 flags. Washington’s desperate gamble had paid off.
That same afternoon, fearing a counter offensive, Washington ordered his weary army to cross back over the river, with its prisoners, to the safety of Pennsylvania. Once over, the Commander assembled his ragtag band of men and thanked them for behaving so bravely and carrying the day. To win favor with the men whose enlistments periods were about to expire in a few days, Washington announced to the troops that the value of the supplies captured at Trenton would be divided as a prize among them.
Flush with the spirit of victory and a renewed optimism Washington hoped to find another opportunity to maintain momentum and inflict damage on the enemy. On December 30th he once again ordered the troops over to the Jersey side of the river. This crossing was even riskier than the one on Christmas. Washington knew the British would now be on high alert and if they attacked the Americans once they got over it would be difficult to retreat back to the safety of Pennsylvania. They went anyway.
Once back in Trenton, Washington made a new appeal to the men whose enlistments were about to expire. As an incentive to stay on for six more weeks, he offered the men a 10 dollar bounty. It worked.
Within less than a week, Washington would outsmart General Howe and his commanders once again. On January 2nd and 3rd the American army bypassed a nearby body of enemy troops and attacked British Lieutenant-Colonel Mawhood’s detachment at Princeton. In the heat of that battle, Washington commanded bravely from his horse, placing himself between the two armies who were firing upon one another. One young officer remarked after the battle,
“I shall never forget what I felt….when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him.” [iv]
It was a miracle the Commander was not killed.
General Washington and his “rabble in arms” triumphed that day at Princeton, and the much needed victory helped to build on the renewed optimism brought on by the victory at Trenton a week earlier.
General George Washington with the Princeton battlefield in the background. Painting by Charles Willson Peale.
So while people often remember 1776 for the creation and signing of Declaration of Independence, it was also the year when the War of Independence was almost lost. On January 1st 1777, Philadelphian Robert Morris, the “financier of the American Revolution,” sent his good wishes to General Washington for the new year,
“The year 1776 is over I am heartily glad of it & hope you nor America will ever be plagued with such another, let us accept the success at Trentown as a presage of future fortunate Events and under that impression I do most sincerely wish you a Successfull Campaigne in 1777…”
When the news of Trenton reached London, some in British government may have rationalized it as a minor setback, but for George Washington and the Friends of Liberty, it was a game changer. In one bold, desperate stroke Washington and his men turned gloom into hope. The Americans had proven they could outmaneuver and inflict damage on the most powerful army in the world.
Less than three years later, Lord George Germain, the British minister in charge of directing the war from London, reflected on Washington’s Christmas miracle in a speech before the House of Commons,
“All our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton.”[v]
It’s likely the twin victories at Princeton and Trenton had a profound psychological effect on many Americans and breathed new life into the patriots’ cause. Had the officers and men of the American army not persevered in 1776 under Washington’s leadership, the war for Independence would probably have ended in complete failure. Now there was a glimmer of hope, but the bloody war would go on for nearly five more years. And final victory was never assured.
Note: Every year, on Christmas Day, crowds of people assemble on the banks of the Delaware at McConkey’s Ferry to watch the reenactment of Washington’s army crossing the Delaware on their way to Trenton.
If you’ve enjoyed this story, please subscribe to my post. Thanks.
Nearly two generations after the War of Independence, American military leaders were using the lessons gained at Trenton for inspiration. At the outset of the War of 1812, the Americans suffered two major humiliations at Detroit and Queenstown and they could not make good after boasting of their intention to take Montreal.
In the following letter of March 29,1813,* Secretary of War, John Armstrong compares their predicament to General Washington’s at the close of 1776. Recognizing that a turnaround was crucial, Armstrong explains to Commanding General Henry Dearborn that Washington was able to do it and so must they (excerpted):
“If our first step in the campaign, and in the quarter from which most is expected, should fail, the disgrace of our arms will be complete. The public will lose all confidence in us, and we shall even cease to have any in ourselves. The party who first opens a campaign has many advantages over his antagonist; all of which, however, are the result of his being able to carry his whole force against a part of his enemies. Washington carried his whole force against the Hessians, in New Jersey, and beating them, recovered that moral strength, that self-confidence, which he had lost by many preceeding disasters. We are now in a state of prostration that he was in, after he crossed the Delaware; but like him, we may soon get on our legs again, if we are able to give some hard blows at the opening of the campaign.”
(The first victory that would begin to rebuild confidence in the American Army was at the Battle of York, Upper Canada on April 27, 1813. There, the troops were personally led by New Jersey native, General Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Pike died from his wounds that day after the British gunpowder magazine exploded and the American Army lost one of its great young generals. Pike’s father had served faithfully served under Washington in the Revolution.)
*Sec. of War Armstrong to Maj. Gen. Dearborn, March 29th 1813 (found in Annals of Congress, Appendix, pp. 2361- 2362, American Memory, Library of Congress).
New Jersey: A History, by Thomas Fleming
A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789, by James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender
National Archives – Founders Online: http://founders.archives.gov/?q=Volume%3AWashington-03-07&s=1511311112&r=229
1776, David McCullough
The Crossing, David Hackett Fisher
The War of the Revolution, Christopher Ward
[i] McCullough, 1776
[ii] Howe’s troop strength was estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 men.
[iii] McCullough, 1776
[iv] McCullough, 1776, p. 289
[v] Lord George Germain, from his speech as Colonial Secretary of State in British House of Commons, May 3, 1779