The First American Christmas: The Battle of Trenton

In December, 1776 the British had driven Gen. George Washington and his men out of New York and across New Jersey. Things looked bleak for the Americans.

In their escape from the British the Americans commandeered every boat they could find to cross the Delaware River into Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They were starving, sick and cold.

A Desperate American Situation

By the time they crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Washington had only 3,000 of his original 20,000 troops. Only twelve miles away in Philadelphia, Congress sat. Seeing their army in retreat they panicked, and fled. Before fleeing, Congress granted Washington wide ranging authority and left for Baltimore, 110 miles to the south. The American cause appeared lost.

On the other side of the river was Trenton, then a town of 100 homes. The British had occupied Trenton, but not with British regulars. 1600 brutal German Hessian mercenaries made up the occupation force. The citizens of Trenton had formed militia bands opposing the Hessian occupation.

As Christmas neared the circumstances for Washington were desperate. Congress had left, the winter was wicked and what little army he had left was soon to disband. This was because the terms of enlistment ended December 31, 1776 for most of Washington’s troops. That was only a week away.

Washington’s Stunning Decision

On December 23, 1776, General Washington met with Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor, signer of the Declaration of Independence and among the few congressmen remaining in Philadelphia. He advised Rush of a stunning and momentous decision: to launch a surprise attack on the Hessians.

Rush wrote of this meeting: “While I was talking to him, I observed him to play with his pen and ink upon several small pieces of paper. One of them by accident fell upon the floor near my feet. I was struck with the inscription upon it. It was ‘Victory or Death.’”

On Christmas Day, Washington gave his officers their orders. The officers were given words of inspiration for the soldiers from Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis. As the troops climbed aboard the boats to cross the Delaware, with a winter storm kicking up, they were reminded of Paine’s opening words: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” They would not forget them.

Crossing the Delaware

On Christmas night, Washington set out with 2,400 men, many them with feet wrapped in rags as they had no shoes. They traveled to a river crossing nine miles upriver from Trenton. The freezing rain became sleet and snow, as the Americans began to cross the river.

Men broke through ice to get into the boats. Crossing the water with cannons weighing a ton was harrowing. Washington had ordered two other groups to cross the Delaware downriver. They had failed. Washington and his men persevered and finally, fourteen hours after they started, at 4 AM they were in New Jersey and ready to make the ten mile march to Trenton.

A Glorious Day for the United States

At 8 AM the battle began. As the Americans fell upon the enemy, they shouted Paine’s words: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Their gunpowder was soaked and useless. They fought with bayonets, rousting the Hessians from their houses.

The surprise worked, and in two hours, with few losses of their own, they captured over 900 of the enemy, their weapons and supplies. “This is a glorious day for our country,” Washington declared.

This turned the tide of the war for the Americans, who were to defeat the British in another battle on January 2, 1777. The ten days begun on Christmas day sent a message through the colonies that the great British military was not invincible, and that the six month old Declaration of Independence was more than hollow words on paper.

Braving the weather and the danger along with Washington that Christmas night were other notable Founding Fathers. There were two other future presidents James Madison and James Monroe, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, future Vice-President Aaron Burr, future Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of War, Henry Knox.  Thomas Paine took part in the battle, not only with his pen, but with his musket.

Celebrate the Freedom of Religion

The Battle for Trenton was the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. As Americans celebrate the holiday season with the gift of freedom, they would do well to remember that among the freedoms won in the Revolutionary War was freedom of religion.  Battles to protect our liberty continue today.  We owe it to the Americans in Trenton on the first American Christmas to fight the daily battles needed to preserve the liberty that was so hard won.

The 2013 Christmas Edition of Constitutionally Speaking

The December 21, 2013 Edition of Constitutionally Speaking was dedicated to the Battle of Trenton and the Christmas of 1776, which began a ten day period that has been described as follows:

It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.” -British Historian George Otto Trevelyan.

Here’s the show:

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