Robert Sells reminds us of a Christmas story from long ago.
An American Christmas Present by Robert Sells
Christmas presents come in all shapes and sizes, but the one General George Washington received in seventeen seventy was unique.
The summer before was an embarrassment for the newly appointed commander-in-chief. Within a few short months he lost three major battles, was pushed out of New York City, and retreated across New Jersey. His army was reduced from thirteen thousand men to less than three thousand men. Two major generals and some in the Continental Congress were secretly trying to oust him.
In cold December, Washington and the tattered remains of his army crossed the wide Delaware River. The British and their Hessian mercenaries declined to follow and for good reasons. Winter weather was already upon them and the European commanders were concerned about finding suitable quarters for their shivering men in the villages and farms of New Jersey. Besides, though the Americans had lost all the battles, they fought fiercely and inflicted heavy casualties. Better to let winter reduce their numbers and wait for their surrender in the spring.
For George Washington, however, surrender would never be an option. He was playing this deadly game to win and only to win.
But Washington could not ignore that the American army was nearly beaten. The British blocked him from returning to New Jersey with fifteen hundred expertly trained Hessian mercenaries in Trenton under the able command of Colonel Rall. To make matters worse, in a few weeks most of his remaining army would complete their enlistment and head home. It was unlikely many colonists would join a losing army in the middle of winter. With only two thousand men, how could he change the momentum of the war?
Washington decided on a bold action… a counter-attack in the dead of winter. He wanted to attack, waited to attack, but, in addition to surprise, he needed another ally… a snow storm to mask his small army. On Christmas day his wish was granted; he got a whopper, the worst blizzard of the decade!
During the heavy snowstorm, Colonel Rall was confident there would be no action from the Jersey guerillas pestering him on one side of the river and certainly none from the Continental Army on the other side of the river. Who, in their right mind, would ever challenge the weather or the swift running Delaware filled with great blocks of boat-crushing ice? So, Rall and his officers let their weary men stay warm in cabin and tent instead of patrolling the roads and paths.
On the other side of the now raging river, General Washington had already decided to make the treacherous crossing and neither cautious friend nor well-trained enemy would stop him. Christmas night, with the blizzard at its peak, he mustered his troops and a ‘password’ was whispered from man to man: Victory or Death.
Navigating the ice-choked river was nearly impossible and the American army almost didn’t make it across. They landed three hours late. Washington realized the delay could be costly since it meant the attack would be in glaring light of day and not under the cover of darkness.
With dawn all too rapidly approaching, the American soldiers tramped through the snow. Those too tired huddled by trees and froze to death. Two hours into a freezing march, another potential disaster confronted the floundering army. One after the other, soldiers checked their weapons. Their powder was damp and their guns would not fire. When the devastating news reached Washington, an unnerved officer asked what they should do. He answered with three words: “Advance and charge.” Surprise or no surprise, with or without bullets, he would attack. It was to be ‘Victory or Death’.
Finally the storm relented. During the final approach, the swirling wind calmed down… the rain and snow had stopped. With the village of Trenton a few hundred yards away, the men checked their weapons again. The ammunition had dried and their muskets would now fire. This last gasp of the storm blessed them with still another gift: a heavy fog gave them sufficient cover so they could get close without being seen. Surprise and cover, exactly what the Americans needed to win this critical engagement.
Washington led his men toward the village, the soldiers running to keep up with the tall man’s long strides. The sleepy town of Trenton woke up to musket fire. The Hessians were surprised, confused, and disordered. Still they fought hard and bravely… and lost.
With the Trenton victory, the hemorrhaging of the army stopped. Recruits swelled its ranks. A week later, Washington led a much larger army back into New Jersey and won two more battles. In just a few weeks, first and most important leader of our country morphed from rabbit to fox. The British, shocked by the sudden reversal of the campaign, conceded most of New Jersey. From the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to the soldiers huddled around campfires to the lone farmer tending his animals that cold winter, all were sure they had the right man to lead them to victory.
Six long years later a triumphant general, back from the final battle of Yorktown, rode again through Trenton on a beautiful summer day. It was so different from the terrible Christmas night when wind, snow, and rain tested the resolve of the Americans and then rewarded them just the right ingredients for victory. The blizzard, America’s first Christmas present, secured an essential victory and spotlighted the leader who would eventually defeat the greatest army and navy in the world.
Merry Christmas to all Americans from Robert Sells, author of Reap the Whirlwind and Return of the White Deer. Check them out on the MSP website.