Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas 1776 - Victory or Death at Trenton

Christmas 1776 - Victory or Death at Trenton

James P. Hodges, PhD
Cynthia F. Hodges, JD, LLM, MA

By December 1776, the patriots' prospects for victory against British tyranny was looking bleak. The Continental Army had been defeated in every battle in New York, due to the lack of cavalry and trained soldiers. General Washington had untrained, teenage soldiers who were fresh off the farm, while the British had the world’s finest professional soldiers. 

When the Continental Army was forced to retreat from New York, they left about 3,000 men at Ft. Washington on the west bank of the Hudson, where most of the army’s vital supplies were stored. A traitor told the British of its weakness, and they attacked. The patriots suffered a quick defeat and total loss of all their winter supplies. Over 2,800 men were captured and treated very cruelly, especially by the Hessians.

The Americans were forced to retreat ignobly all the way across New Jersey towards Pennsylvania, with the British in hot pursuit. The Continental soldiers only had worn-out summer clothes to wear. They were hungry, cold, and miserable. Many had no shoes, and the progress of the army could be traced by the bloody footprints in the snow. A large number of men had been killed or wounded in battle, were ill or had already died from disease. Others had deserted or simply left because their enlistments had expired. The number of troops plummeted from 17,000 in the summer of 1776 to 2,400 by December.  Many soldiers' enlistments would expire on January 1, 1777, which endangered the very existence of the Continental Army. George Washington needed a victory.

The following is my take on how George Washington may have been feeling leading up to and during the Battle of Trenton.

Victory at Trenton 
Even as we retreated, I kept thinking how we could strike a blow for freedom. Our morale could not sink any lower. A victory would do wonders for morale, and might even induce my men to re-enlist. We had to attack - and hope for victory - while we still had troops.  

We crossed the icy Delaware River in mid-December, making camp in the relative safety of the Pennsylvania shore. As a precaution, I had all the boats we would not need taken to the Pennsylvania side, to protect them from enemy capture. This was the first time we had had a rest from marching for quite a while. During this time, I visited the men every day. I wanted to prove that I cared for their welfare, and that I was personally involved. I did not want them to think I was just sitting in my tent, directing from afar. As I made my daily rounds among the men, I heard murmurs about how much they were looking forward to going home on January 1. 

Fortunately for us, the British did not even try to pursue us across the river. Because of bad weather, the British followed the European philosophy, which was that armies did not fight in the winter. They settled down to winter camp awaiting the arrival of good weather. They established isolated posts across New Jersey, from which they could better subjugate our citizens. One such post, manned by their Hessian allies, was at Trenton - directly across the river from us.   

Before deciding upon any undertaking, I felt it vital to involve my men. At our staff meetings, top officers were always present, but oftentimes, so were younger officers. This afforded them the opportunity to gain decision-making experience. They were free to offer solutions to problems, so that they would be engaged and energized, feeling that they would be a part of whatever plan of action was finalized. Once a plan was decided upon, each man had to follow it, as any dissension in the ranks could prove fatal. 

The plan we decided on was to attack the isolated Hessians at Trenton on Christmas Eve. John Honeyman, our spy who was pretending to be a Hessian spy, let himself be captured by our men a few days before the battle. When our men brought him to me, he told me he had fooled the Hessian Colonel Rahl into believing we were weak, demoralized, and ready to settle into winter camp. Our record up to then made it easy for Rahl to believe him. Honeyman informed me that Christmas Day would probably be a good day to attack, because the Hessians would be celebrating and would likely let their guard down. My policy was to never attack an entrenched enemy that was waiting for us, so this strategy was appealing. Because of the danger of this particular venture, we all swore allegiance to our secret code:  “Victory or Death!”

We left the safety of our camp on the Pennsylvania side of the frigid Delaware River, and retreated a couple hundred yards to behind a row of low hills, which masked our progress from prying eyes. We marched seven miles to McKonkey’s ferry, where we crossed the river, mainly in Durham iron ore boats. Once across, we would have to march another seven miles in blizzard-like conditions to reach Trenton. 

Honeyman had informed me the Hessians only had six cannon. We had 18 - and I insisted that we take every one. Loading the cannon in the dark, frosty conditions was a daunting and time-consuming task, which threw us several hours behind my carefully planned schedule. 

Concerned that enemies could be lurking on the New Jersey side of the river, I sent soldiers to arrest anyone in the area. It would be devastating for our cause if the Hessians were warned. Even the dogs were muzzled to keep them from barking and betraying our crossing. Despite our precautions, a Tory spotted us and ran to warn Rahl. Fortunately, Rahl who was busy enjoying music and cards, left strict orders not to be disturbed, and the Tory was denied admittance. The Tory convinced a guard to take a written message to Rahl, but Rahl. not wishing to be distracted, shoved the note into his coat pocket without bothering to read it. 

As we approached the ferry landing, the blizzard worsened, and beat at us mercilessly. Loading the men into the boats in the snowstorm was extremely hazardous because of the slippery, icy wharf. Handling the cannon was treacherous, but it was very fortunate that we had them. Many of the muskets proved useless because the powder and primers got soaked and were ruined. The cannon touch hole and powder could be kept covered and dry. Because the cannons delayed us several hours, we did not arrive until a couple of hours after daylight. 

After we formed up on the New Jersey side, I split our men into two units. One unit would approach Trenton by the river road, the other further inland. My plan was to encircle the Hessians so none could escape to warn their nearby comrades. The officers synchronized their watches to join up at the same time at Trenton. 

On the way, a cannon got stuck in a ravine while we were crossing a creek. Since it was holding up our advance, and I could not afford any further delays, I  jumped off my horse, strode down into the gully, put my shoulder to the wheel and helped push it free.  The men cheered, which warmed the hearts of the freezing men. Sadly, two men froze to death at one of the stops along the way.  

About half-way to Trenton, we were surprised to meet a small band of American soldiers approaching us. It turned out they were a small party there to provoke the Hessians. Their tactic was to hit the enemy and then run. I was shocked and angry that any of our men would go there without orders, and worried that these soldiers would have the Hessians up in arms and ready for battle. 

Luckily, this was not the case. The British had warned the Hessians to expect an attack, and the Hessians  mistakenly assumed that the harrying by the small band was the attack. After they were attacked by this small group, they relaxed their guard and went back to bed. About 4:30 am, one of their junior officers assembled a team of horses to take the cannon and men out on picket duty to guard against any surprise attack, but Rahl ordered them to stand down.  

Early on the morning of December 26. 1776, we took the Hessians at Trenton by complete surprise. A fierce wind was blowing directly at our back, and into the Hessians' eyes. When they looked toward us, the wind bit at their eyes, forcing them to tear up. Their vision was distorted, which put them at a considerable disadvantage. 

Colonel Rahl bravely tried to rally his troops, but the Hessians did not stand a chance. The Hessian soldiers only knew how to fight in drill formation, but every time they tried to form up, our cannon swept the streets. 

One of our sharpshooters shot Rahl in the lungs, and he died shortly thereafter. The note warning of the Americans' advance was still in his coat-pocket. 

Copyright 2019 James P. Hodges, Ph.D.


James P. Hodges, Ph.D.

Winner of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge Medal of Honor
Member: National Speakers Association, American Society for Training and Development

Cynthia F. Hodges, JD, LLM, MA
Attorney at Law


Juris Doctor: South Texas College of Law (Houston, TX)

LLM (Environmental Law): Lewis and Clark Law School (Portland, OR)

Masters of Arts (Germanic Studies): The University of Texas at Austin

Law License: Washington State


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