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George Washington Crossing the Delaware: A Brazen Christmas Attack

Events | December 19, 2019

Copy of 'Washington Crossing the Delaware' by Emanuel Leutze, Abbot Hall, Marblehead, Massachusetts. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

During the fall of 1776, the Continental Army experienced a severe morale problem. The Revolutionary War wasn't going in their favor, and spirits were down. The previous several months saw the colonists defeated by the British in several battles, New York City had been lost to the British, and supplies were running short. Christmas was coming, and many of the soldiers just wanted to be home with their families. Faced with lagging morale, General George Washington planned an audacious and daring attack on a garrison of Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey. Let's look at this Revolutionary War event that was memorialized in a famous painting and bolstered the spirits of the Continental Army so much that they came back and won the war. 

Morale was down in the months leading up to the attack on Trenton. (wsj.com)

Washington's Men Were Counting Down the Days

Washington's men were somewhat downtrodden after a series of defeats by the British. A number of the enlisted men's commissions were set to end soon, and they were counting the days until they were released from the army and could rejoin their families. Washington anticipated the impending loss of many of his soldiers and the very real possibility that the colonists were losing the war, so he decided to make one final military statement while he had the manpower to do it. He also hoped that a victory would encourage some of the men to reenlist and other colonists to join the cause. Washington set his sights on a garrison of Hessians wintering in Trenton.

The Hessians were German troops for hire. (ancestralfindings.com)

Who Were the Hessians?

The Hessians were basically ringers that the British hired to help them win the Revolutionary War. They were German soldiers from the Hesse-Cassel region who had a reputation for being well-trained, disciplined soldiers. In all, the British military hired about 30,000 Hessians to help them fight the Revolutionary War. Approximately 1,400 of these Hessian soldiers were spending the winter in Trenton, New Jersey, on the shores of the Delaware River in 1776. 

Washington's plan was just crazy enough to work. (pri.org)

Washington's Men Thought He Was Crazy

When General Washington revealed his plans for the attack on the Hessians and the necessary river crossing, most of his commanders thought the idea was crazy. First of all, it was December, and the river was partially frozen. Even under ideal conditions, the crossing would take tremendous planning and effort. They would need to arrange for enough boats to ferry more than 2,400 soldiers and all their artillery across 300 yards to the far shore, all under the cover of darkness and as silently as possible so as to not alert the Hessians. Just to throw in some extra drama, Washington wanted the attack to take place on the night of Christmas.

It was a bold plan, but Washington was a bold general. In the end, his men put their faith in his command. 

Washington's men used Durham boats to cross the river. (lehighvalleylive.com)

ISO Boats

To get all his men and their equipment across the Delaware River, General Washington needed boats---big ones, and lots of them. To that end, Washington put the word out to the New Jersey militia, who brought every available watercraft from the Trenton area to the meeting point across the river. By using boats from around Trenton, Washington accomplished two things: He secured passage for his men across the river, and he ensured that the Hessians would not have a way to escape by water once the fighting started.

Most of the boats used in the crossing were Durham boats, a style of cargo boat that that were built to carry iron ore down river. The Durham boats were shallow and flat-bottomed, between 40 and 60 feet long with high side walls---ideal for moving men, horses, and canons.

Colonel John Glover's men were experienced sailors. (allthingsliberty.com)

Washington Hired An Elite Team To Guide the Boats

Luckily for General Washington, the Marblehead regiment, a team of elite sailors commanded by Colonel John Glover, was included in his army. Washington and Glover tapped them to pilot the cargo boats across the dark and icy river, and despite the perils, they successfully ferried the men and their equipment across the Delaware. 

The Hessians spent Christmas of 1776 drinking and partying. (polroger.co.uk)

The Hessians Were Drunk

The Hessians assumed the Continental Army would be celebrating Christmas, so they figured they could let loose a bit. Even though they had been tipped off that the Americans may be planning an attack, they spent Christmas Day feasting and drinking. By nightfall, most of them had stumbled off to bed in drunken stupors, blissfully unaware of the soldiers sneaking across the river toward them.

Washington got behind schedule. (washingtoncrossingpark.org)

The Continental Army Got Behind Schedule

General Washington had a tight schedule to keep. He planned for his troops to split into thirds, cross the Delaware River overnight, and meet outside Trenton at dawn to attack the sleeping Hessians. Only one group of soldiers stayed on schedule, however. Thanks to some equipment malfunctions and the bitter weather, the other two groups experienced setbacks, and the daybreak assault was pushed back to 8:00 A.M.

The Hessians were quickly defeated. (weaponsandwarfare.com)

The Hungover Hessians Were Quickly Defeated

By around 9:00 A.M. that day, Washington's men had surrounded Trenton and captured most of the Hessians. Only four Americans were killed in the battle, but one of the men injured was James Madison, who would survive and eventually become the fourth president of the United States. In fact, in the famous painting of Washington and his men crossing the Delaware, Madison can be seen behind Washington, holding the American flag.

Visitors can see the famous painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (metmuseum.org)

The Crossing Was The Subject Of A Famous Painting

The river crossing leading up to the attack on Trenton was featured in a famous painting by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze. Completed in 1851 and titled Washington Crossing The Delaware, the oil-on-canvas painting is one of the most important works in American history. Currently, it lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

Washington's brazen crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night bolstered the spirits of the Continental Army. (artsy.net)

A Victory For The Colonists

The Continental Army's victory over the Hessians at Trenton was not a major military turning point in the Revolutionary War, but it was the moment when morale shifted in favor of an American victory. It was when the Continental Soldiers and the colonists alike began to think that maybe they could actually win this thing.

Tags: Christmas | George Washington | Revolutionary War

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.