Washington’s Crossing and Friday the 13th: Both Helped Save America

By Harry Schenawolf, author of the Shades of Liberty Series about African American soldiers in the American Revolution.


November 13, 2020

Twice, General George Washington had led his reduced forces across the Delaware River. The first time occurred on December 8, 1776. He was a beaten man. His army was in tatters. And of his army, less than three thousand men followed him to the safety of the Pennsylvania countryside with the British hot on their heels. Only the river and Washington’s forethought to confiscate or destroy all boats so the enemy could not affect an immediate crossing gave his small, famished army a temporary reprieve. The second time, December 25th, just seventeen days after setting foot onto Pennsylvania soil, he crossed back into New Jersey, but this time in triumph. His army had more than doubled to nearly six thousand men. It was an army that in just six days’ time, on December 31st, would cease to exist due to expiring enlistments. But until then, this band of citizen soldiers was the best and only hope America had it its struggle for independence from England. And before they and the rebellion faded to obscurity, these men could still fight. Though worn out and sickly, suffering from malnourishment and exhaustion and without proper protection from the cold winter sleet, Washington’s men pressed on with renewed vigor and determination. Each knew that this was the rebellion’s final breath and if they failed in this last attempt, all would be lost.

An army mortified, pursued, and resurrected from the dead.

Troiani's Battle of Fort Washington
The Plan

Hessian Grenadiers in Trenton
Hessian Grenadiers

The objective was Trenton. And garrisoned at that town situated on the Delaware River, with Assunpick Creek running along its southern limit before emptying into the Delaware, was 1,400 enemy troops: three regiments of Hessian infantry, a detachment of artillery manning six three-pound field pieces, and fifty Hessian Jaegers (riflemen) including twenty light dragoons of the 16th British regiment. This force comprised a brigade led by Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, who was given the command in return for his gallant conduct at the battle of White Plains and during the assault on Fort Washington. The regiments consisted of one of six grenadier companies and the other two having five fusilier companies and one grenadier each. The regiments were designated as Rall, von Knyphausen, and von Lossberg. Rall’s and von Knyphausen regiments had crossed New Jersey with the main army and arrived at Trenton on December 12th. Von Lossberg’s regiment had been delayed at Brusnswick and then at Princeton, arriving on the 14th. When Major von Hanstein of von Lossberg’s regiment came into Trenton with his tired men, he asked Colonel Rall if these were the “good quarters” in which they had been promised by the British. Rall replied, “No, but we will have them soon in Philadelphia.” To the south of Trenton, about six miles at Bordentown, Colonel von Donop commanded an outpost of about 1,500 men. Both outposts were confident that if attacked by what was left of the rebel forces, one could easily hold out until the other force raced to their aid.

Colonel John Cadwalader
Colonel John Cadwalader. He led the militia of 1,800. They were to cross farthest south to attack General Donop’s force as a diversion from the main attack at Trenton.

For the assault, Washington would risk most of his small army, nearly 5,000 men in the venture. The artillery, of which 18 fieldpieces would accompany the attack on Trenton, was under the command of Colonel Henry Knox. The Delaware River was to be crossed at three places by three separate divisions. Lt. Colonel John Cadwalader, acting as a temporary brigadier general, was to command the division farthest south near Bristol and the Bordentown to Dunk’s Ferry. His command was composed of about 1,800 men. He drew his troops from Hitchcock’s Rhode Island Continentals, 1,000 militia from the Philadelphia Associators, Captain Thomas Rodney’s Delaware militia company from Dover, and two artillery companies, each with one six-pounder. This division was to engage Colonel Donop’s German troops, including the British 42nd Highlanders, a total of nearly 2,000 men at Mount Holly, about 18 miles south of Trenton. On December 24th, Donop had been drawn south towards Mount Holly and Burlington by a 450-man militia led by Colonel Raile. Once he drove the militia off, Donop remained at the Mount Holly area foraging. Cadwalader’s faint was to divert attention from the principal attack at Trenton and keep Donop from sending aid to Colonel Rall’s troops.

The second division was placed under the command of Brigadier General James Ewing. It was made up of mainly Pennsylvania militia, with a few from New Jersey. About 700 men in all were to cross at the Trenton Ferry and take up a position south of Assunpink Creek. There they were to hold a bridge over the stream and close off any avenue of escape by the Hessian garrison after the principal attack on the town from the north.

Road to Trenton

The third and principal division was to be commanded by Washington. It comprised about 2,400 men, selected from the brigades of Stephen, Mercer, Stirling, St. Clair, Glover, Sargent, and Roche de Fermoy, each of whom was to lead his own men. They would cross the river at McConkey’s Ferry, about nine miles above Trenton. This force was divided into two corps and each were to advance down one of two roads that led south to the town. The right-hand road ran roughly parallel to the curve of the river and entered the town at its south or lower end. The other, the Pennington road, swung left in a similar shallow curve and came into Trenton at its upper end. They were about equal in length, four to five miles from where they split towards Trenton. Stephen’s advance, followed by Mercer’s and Stirling’s corps and a small troop of Philadelphia light horse, all under Greene, with four cannon in advance and a total of nine guns, were the left wing and took the Pennington Road – Washington rode with this corps. Roche de Fermoy followed with orders to break off to the left and place his men between the Trenton garrison and any British troops garrisoned at Princeton. The corps that advanced along the other road that ran along the river was commanded by General Sullivan with St. Clair’s, Glover’s, and Sargent’s troops along with four guns in advance, also a total of nine cannon in this column.

March to Trenton 2

All three crossings were to be conducted simultaneously. Washington expected his division to be across the river by midnight, allowing five to six hours to march the nine miles, placing his small army in Trenton for a dawn attack. Once Trenton was taken, the three divisions were to join and, if circumstance favored, should push on against the British posts at Princeton and New Brunswick. It was a bold and desperate plan in which any number of obstacles could doom the attack to complete failure. As it was, the weather and ice on the lake proved a major factor. Both southern divisions failed in their crossings. Only the one personally commanded by Washington succeeded. It did so by sheer determination even though delayed several hours. But it was enough. That one crossing turned the war on its heels.

The Crossing: “Victory or Death”

Crossinig the Delaware 4

Historian William Stryker said it best, writing, “With his skeleton bands of faithful and true soldiers, mere fragments of his own army and those of Lee and Gates, reinforced by some militia who had yet to face an enemy, he proposed as a desperate resort, to throw this frail body of men on the drilled soldiers of Hesse.”[18] On the evening of December 24th, Washington rode to the headquarters of General Greene, at the Samuel Merrick house, outside Newtown. There he met with his officers and staff for a final council of war. The day before, Washington had written to Colonel Reed who was at Bristol, where Cadwalander’s force was to embark against Colonel Donop at Mt. Holly: “I have ordered our men to be provided with three days’ provisions ready cooked, with which and their blankets are to march: for if we are successful, which Heaven grant and the circumstances favor, we may push on…” Elisha Bostwick of the 7th Connecticut wrote that “our army passed through Bethlehem and Moravian town and so on to the Delaware…encamped on the Pennsylvania side and there remained to the 24th of December.”[19] Provided and equipped as ordered, on December 25th in the late afternoon, the various elements of the main division were paraded in the valley behind the hill at McConkey’s Ferry, out of sight of the opposite shore and inquisitive Tories. By three o’clock that afternoon, they were on the march toward the river, where the boats had been assembled.[20]

Durham boat under sail on the Mohawk River
Durham boat under sail on the Mohawk River.

The boats that were to transport Washington’s men, supplies, horses, and artillery across an ice clad river were called Durham boats, from their builder, Robert Durham, who had been turning them out for more than twenty-five years. They were from forty to sixty feet long, eight feet wide, and two feet deep, and were provided with keels. Pointed at both ends, they could travel in either direction, the heavy steering sweep fitted to either end. Each carried a mast with two sails (which proved very useful when Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs used these craft to cross the Long Island Sound during the Sag Harbor Raid, May 24, 1777). The boats were designed to be manned by a crew of five. Setting poles, two on each side, were thrust against the river bottom at the bow and the four men walked aft on running boards built along each side, pushing the boat forward its full length before returning to the bow to repeat the operation.

Colonel John Glover
Colonel John Glover and his Marblehead mariners manned the Durham boats.

Though poles may have been used to push off ice flows, the boats, packed as they were with men and equipment, for the most part were rowed across the 1,000-foot stretch of river at McConkey’s crossing. Durable and because of their wide berth, they could navigate shallow waters, each capable of fifteen tons while drawing only twenty inches – ideal for conveying artillery, horses, and many men.[21] The boats were manned by Colonel John Glover’s amphibious Marbleheaders of his regiment, the same men who rescued Washington’s army on August 28, 1776, after the disastrous Battle of Long Island.

Once night fell, the embarkation began. The Virginia Continentals of Stephen’s brigade, the advance party, were the first to enter the boats and push off for the Jersey side. The river was caked with sheets of ice, so that the crossing was slow and exceedingly difficult even for Glover’s hardy and veteran mariners. The second section to cross was Mercer’s command composed of men from Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts, mainly Continentals. Stirling’s men followed drawn from two regiments of Virginia Continentals, Haslet’s Delawares, and a Pennsylvanian rifle regiment under Colonel Hand. These three corps constituted the left wing of the expedition under Greene with Stirling forming the reserve. Roche de Fermoy followed with men chosen from the German Regiment and one from the Associators – all untried militia. Sullivan’s division was next, drawn from the brigades of St. Clair, Glover, and Sargent; men from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. This constituted the right wing with Sullivan commanding.[22]

Geroge Caleb Bingham Washington Crossing the Delaware
Washington Crossing the Delaware by George Caleb Bingham.

Though the moon was full, the sky was shrouded by dense clouds, so all were consumed by darkness. It was a dreadful night, bitterly cold, the current was swift, and the floating ice prolonged the passage. Colonel Knox wrote, “The floating ice in the river made the labor almost incredible. However, perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible…”[23] Around 11 PM, hail and sleet, driven by a high wind, broke upon them, doubling the difficulties of the boatmen and making the soldiers huddled in the crafts or on shore waiting their turn acutely miserable. Captain Thomas Rodney wrote, “It was as severe a night as ever I saw… [with this] storm of wind, hail, rain, and snow.”[24]

After crossing the river, and before his horse had reached him, General Washington, seated on a box once used as a beehive, was silent. Undisturbed, his mind must have been filled with anxious thoughts but so too with high resolve, desperate earnestness, and it has been said, with a clear determination to win a victory or die in the attempt. The plan called for the force to be across the river by midnight; but for nine weary hours they toiled and struggled with the floating ice, and it was after three o’clock in the morning before the last man reached the shore of New Jersey. It was almost four o’clock that Thursday morning, the day after Christmas, when the army was formed for its march from McConkey’s Ferry to Trenton; but at last, when the chain of sentries placed by General Stephen around the landing place had been called in, the order was given to “shoulder your firelocks.” At that, the weary tramp south towards Trenton in cold and sleet commenced. Instructions had been given to the men to march quietly, keep in good order in the ranks, give prompt obedience to their officers, and to bear in mind the emphatic password, ” Victory or Death.”[25]

 

March to Trenton
In incy sleet and rain, soaked to the skin, Washington’s small army marches to Trenton.

The ground was still covered with snow and at times a storm of hail from the east-northeast peppered the ill-prepared soldiers. None of the men were warmly clad; many of them wore threadbare summer clothing. Few were properly shod, and many were not shod at all, wrapping and tying off old rags around their feet against the ice and cold, the exposed skin leaving a bloodied trail through the snow. Slogging along on the rough, frozen road made slippery by ice and snow, buffeted by hailstones and rain that froze upon their hair and their clothes, they underwent a prolonged and continuous torture. Elisha Bostwick slogged on in the cold sleet and icy rain. He wrote, “…our march began with the torches of our field pieces stuck in the exhalters[26]. [They] sparkled and blazed in the storm all night…”[27] He reported that Washington rode up and down the line of march. He wrote, “I heard his Excellency as he was coming on speaking to and encouraging the soldiers… ‘Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God’s sake, keep by your officers!’” When on the march, Lt. Colonel Samuel B. Webb, Washington’s aide-de-camp, informed him of word from General Sullivan’s detachment – that the storm was wetting the muskets and rendering them unfit for service. In unbending resolve Washington immediately bellowed, “Then tell the general to use the bayonet; for the town must be taken and I am resolved to take it!”[28]

No Going Back

Battle of Trenton 2

No matter the delay, loss of surprise, the attack having to be made in broad daylight, the sleet and rain rending their firelocks near useless, the attack would continue. Both assaults to the south under Cadwalander and Ewing failed to cross the river. That would not halt Washington’s columns, strung out over frozen roads caked in snow and ice. The objective remained Trenton where over 1,400 professional German mercenaries awaited. These were the same veteran soldiers who scaled the heights of Fort Washington where they determinedly braved a constant hail of rifled shot and cannon grape for nearly two hours to swarm over the American barricades to claim victory. But for these worn out troops that had been written off by the British high command, none of that mattered. For this moment would be among America’s finest. Fate would sit back and watch a firmly committed man grasp destiny with one swoop. General George Washington’s desperate venture would prove incredibly successful, resurrecting new life into a cause that just two weeks previously, had all but breathed its last.

“I feel mad, vexed, sick, and sorry,” General Nathanael Greene wrote to Colonel Henry Knox on November 17th, the day after Fort Washington fell. The loss of nearly 3,000 men including critical supplies and armaments was devastating. Washington, in a sober report to Congress wrote, “The loss of such a number of officers and men, many of whom have been trained with more than common attention, will I fear be severely felt…” Four days later, Fort Lee was abandoned before an encroaching British army. Once more the loss of supplies, including much needed tents, blankets, food, and cannon, was severe. A few days later, on November 25, 1776, with Washington’s army in flight across New Jersey, Captain Lord Francis Rawdon, 1st Marquess of Hastings, wrote to Robert Auchmuty, loyalist and Judge of the Vice Admiralty Court: “You see, my dear sir, that I have not been mistaken in my judgement of this people. The southern people will no more fight than the Yankees. The fact is that their army is broken all to pieces, and the spirits of their leaders and their abettors is also broken. However, I think one may venture to pronounce that it is well nigh over for them.”[1]

Three weeks later, on December 18th, while at Trenton Falls[2], Pennsylvania, his rag-tag army spread out over thirty miles of river front with enlistments expiring in only ten days, leaving about one thousand left to defend America, Washington agreed. He shared the aristocratic Lordship’s reasoning in a letter to his brother Lund stating frankly that “I think the game is pretty nearly up…” So too, British officers believed that all that was left was to wait until the spring, when one final push would topple the makeshift rebel government and return the colonies to British rule. General Cornwallis, who had chased Washington across New Jersey to the banks of the Delaware River, had made arrangements in mid-December for leave to England for the winter, having already packed his bags aboard a fast packet.

Washington wretched army
Are these the men for which I must defend America.”  Washington’s rag-tag army was lacking everything except determination and courage. Artist Howard Pyle’s depiction of American soldiers of the Continental Army

And then, on the morning of December 26th, a bold and daring counterstroke occurred that had the true makings of a miracle. Washington not only surprised and captured a large garrison of Hessians at the Trenton, New Jersey outpost, but he set the English government on its head, including all of Europe. The sudden resurrection of a lost rebellion that had been pronounced dead and written off by the British military leadership, was nothing but miraculous. Who would have guessed that in the dead of winter, the fallen prey would cling to a last gasp of breath and rise yet again to challenge the greatest military might of its era and this time, be victorious. But as always, when nations collide, one side often inadvertently aides the other. In this case, it may or may not have changed the tide of the American Revolution, but if nothing else, it gave the Americans a chance. A chance at their darkest hour and one Washington took advantage of wholeheartedly.

December 13, 1776. One Day in History that Made History and might have saved the American cause.

General Washington
General George Washington

Looking back, historians agree that two events occurred on December, Friday the 13th, 1776 that breathed new life into the American cause. The Knights Templar jinx of bad luck embraced Britain’s fortunes in the war for in one day, two events enacted by England’s military played right into Washington’s hands. And if the leader of the rebel army was prepared to act, and act quickly, without reservation nor fear of consequences, his rewards just might merit survival. And in these critical days of America’s chances, with the population accepting the oath of loyalty to the crown in droves and the army about to dissolve in expired enlistments, survival was more than what the new nation’s leaders could hope for. These were desperate times for the rebellion and Washington, attacked by his critics from all sides, was a desperate man. He willingly gambled all to grasp an opportunity that in all likelihood, would never present itself again. And in so doing, cast aside all doubt of his abilities as Commander-in-Chief, and set this new land on a course that ultimately would defy all odds and establish a government solely for and by the people.

The First Occurrence.

General Sir William Howe Supreme Commander
General Sir William Howe Supreme Commander of His Majesty’s Forces in North America

General William Howe himself provided the first light at the end of the tunnel. “Headquarters, December 14, 1776. The Campaign having closed with the pursuit of the Enemies Army near ninety Miles[3] by Lieut. Gen. Cornwallis’s Corps… the Approach of Winter putting a Stop to any further Progress, the Troops will immediately march into Quarters and hold themselves in readiness to assemble on the shortest Notice.” With the American army soundly defeated and scurrying to their roosts amidst the Philadelphia countryside, General William Howe was in no mood to continue a campaign into the winter months. On December 13th, he and General Cornwallis left Trenton for New York City, officially calling off all military operations. The next day he made it official by ordering his army into winter quarters. The year, 1776, had been a long and grueling slog. Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, proved the Americans could not be pried from their defenses around Boston. From January 1, 1776, the never-ending winter proved exhausting.

Cornwallis 1
Lt. General Charles Cornwallis

The rebel noose around Boston tightened to the point that Howe had no choice but by March 17, he had to vacate the city and regroup in Halifax, Canada. When England decided to totally commit to solving the colonial ‘problem’ by military means, he joined an armada commanded by his brother, Richard ‘Black Dick’ Howe, as Commander-in-Chief, landing his army on Statin Island in early July. After several bruising battles that summer and with winter setting in chasing ‘The Fox’ (reportedly first termed by General Charles Cornwallis when referring to Washington), first up into Westchester County, New York, and then across New Jersey, Howe had enough.

Besides the desire to end the offensive, the British had other reasons to call it quits. Howe knew that what was left of Washington’s army would cease to exist by December 30th when enlistments expired. Philadelphia no longer offered the prize of Congress who had whisked off to hold up in Baltimore, Maryland. However, since Washington’s army was about to evaporate by year’s end, Howe believed that Philadelphia could be easily taken at any time if so desired. By all rights the rebellion was finished. Why in the world would he risk more British soldiers’ lives on a winter campaign which amounted to just mopping up what was left? Besides, he still had the political matter of negotiations to deal with. England just wanted to punish the rebellion’s leaders, not destroy an otherwise healthy economy which they hoped to once more maintain within their fold as soon as matters were put to rest. But perhaps the most pressing issue had a more personal twist. His mistress, Mrs. Elizabeth Loring, the beautiful wife of an ambitious officer, awaited his arms in New York City. That and dinning in lavish, rich loyalists’ homes was far more appealing than huddled in some colloquial inn while waiting for the river to ice over just so his army could trudge across the frozen landscape. He pulled England’s finest in towards New York City and stationed their German ‘cannon fodder’ along the Delaware River to keep an eye on things until the spring when the whole nasty affair could be tidied up.

Washington crossing the delaware 1840 Wood Pring by Hicks Edwards
Washington crossing the Delaware from an 1840 Wood Print by Hicks Edwards.

By the 20th of December, word got to the American commander’s attentive ears that Howe had pulled back his main force and left a string of Hessian outposts along the river. Washington had strung out his worn and weary troops along the river at all known ferry crossings and possible fords of the Delaware. He expected that the British would be building boats or transferring them across New Jersey, imploring upon his subordinates to send spies into New Jersey to confirm his worst fears. On the 12th, he had written Congress that “Philadelphia is their object and that they will pass the Delaware, as soon as possible. Happy should I be, if I could see the means of preventing them. At present I confess I do not.”[4] With the news that Howe had no desire to attack, he no longer had to guard against a British assault. It was now possible to regain the initiative and salvage a lost cause by initiating a daring and necessary attack of his own against one of the outposts. If successful, he might convince enough veterans to reenlist while waiting for new recruits. Also, with over five hundred troops already stationed at Morristown, New Jersey, he might regain a footing in New Jersey before his army evaporated by year’s end.

The Second Boon to America.

Major General Charles Lee
Major General Charles Lee

The second important event on the 13th of December was at first considered a catastrophe by the American political elite and a majority of its officers. It would, within a week’s time, prove to be the deciding factor that would solidify Washington’s bold plan to gain the offensive and, in all probability, save the American cause from extinction. General Charles Lee, who many had considered the finest officer in the America army, a man of military genius and most capable commander, was literally caught with his pants down when he was captured by British light cavalry after spending the night with a prostitute at Widow White’s Tavern, Basking-Ridge, New Jersey. Though Washington was well aware of Lee’s disconcerting remarks about his leadership abilities, he too was taken aback by the news of Lee’s capture and expressed his dismay to his brother Lund writing a few days later, “Our cause has also received a severe blow in the captivity of Gen. Lee. Unhappy man! Taken by his own imprudence, going three or four miles from his own camp, and within twenty of the enemy…”[5]

Washington had been desperate for reinforcements ever since Fort Washington fell on Nov. 16th. A garrison that was supposed to hold out for months, lasted but a few hours after the initial British assault. Washington had counted on the fort to tie up the British in the city, allowing him time to regroup and prepare a defense against any move General Howe might try towards Philadelphia. Howe was now free to move against Washington within a few days and did so. A large force under General Cornwallis crossed the Hudson and marched down upon Fort Lee which was quickly abandoned. Suddenly, an army more than twice the size of the rebel force in New Jersey was baring down. He reached out to his second in command, General Charles Lee, who remained at North Plains, Westchester County New York. Lee had 5,000 effective men in his command and Washington was desperate for them to join him. The commander ‘requested’ that Lee immediately cross the Hudson. Lee had a better idea. He would remain right where he was.

General Charles Lee is captured at the Widow White's Tavern on Friday, December 13, 1776. At first considered the last straw for the American cause, proved to be a blessing.
General Charles Lee is captured at the Widow White’s Tavern on Friday, December 13, 1776. At first considered the last straw for the American cause, it proved to be a blessing that might have very well saved the revellion leading to Washington’s victory at Trenton.

General Lee, or ‘boiling water’ as the Mohawks had dubbed him from his time with the Iroquois as a British officer, was an arrogant, egotistical, and ambitious officer who had the highest regard for his own self worth and opinion. He thought it best to ignore Washington’s requests and stay in New York to protect New England as originally planned. It mattered not how many letters Washington penned to Lee while leading his straggling army towards Trenton, trying to persuade the obstinate general to march, Lee was not about to be pried free. Finally, after he could no longer delay his Commander-in-Chief, Lee reluctantly set off on December 2nd for Pennsylvania. However, by then, November 30th enlistments had expired and nearly three thousand of his men went home. Leaving behind those who were too sick to travel, Lee had just 2,000 men left in his command when he crossed the Hudson River at Peekskill, New York. Dragging his feet, he covered only three miles a day, using every excuse possible for his continued delay. When he finally got to Morristown, New Jersey, taking 23 days to march just 65 miles, he decided to rest his troops for two full days from their ‘grueling’ hike.

Washington retreat across New Jersey Howard Pyle
Washington’s retreat across New Jersey 1776. Artwork by Howard Pyle.

Meanwhile, Washington had been keeping one day’s march ahead of Cornwallis’ troops. The Americans had been aided by Howe’s decision to personally join his troops and ordered Cornwallis to hold up and wait a few days at New Brunswick until he arrived. During this time, Lee had been writing directly to Congress informing them of his decision to remain in New Jersey indefinitely, at the British rear, where he could harass the enemy while protecting the local populace. By remaining, he told Congress, his troops would be more effective than following Washington’s request that he join him in Pennsylvania. The real reason Lee decided not to help Washington was that he expected his commander to fail. And afterwards, Congress would come to their senses and give the job to one far more deserving, himself. He wrote numerous letters to officers and politicians condemning Washington’s abilities as a commander. In fact, just before Captain Banastre Tarleton, leading the advance guard of British dragoons, galloped toward the Widow Brown’s Tavern, he had just finished a letter to his friend General Gates. In it he described Washington writing that “a certain great man is most damnably deficient…”[6]

General John Sullivan
General John Sullivan. Lee had little or no intention of joining up with Washington. As soon as he was captured his second, Gen. Sullivan, immediately answered Washington’s request and marched his men to Washington.

Upon Lee’s capture, the command of the 2,000-man force of veteran Continental troops went to Lee’s second, General John Sullivan. Sullivan was a good officer. He had proven himself in battle and lately had been exchanged after his capture on Long Island. As such, he was totally loyal to the chain of command and Washington as his leader. As soon as word reached him that Lee had been taken, he immediately set off with his men. Setting a rapid pace, Sullivan quickly covered the miles separating his detachment from Washington. He crossed the Delaware north of the enemy near Easton, Pennsylvania at Tinnicum, where Washington had commanded a small fleet of boats to be moored to provide General Lee’s troops passage over the river. He then marched south through Easton and joined Washington and the main army during a driving snowstorm on the 20th. It took Lee 23 days to travel just 65 miles while Sullivan, in far worse weather, covered more than ninety miles in just six days. If the British had not obliged by apprehending Lee, in all probability Washington would never have seen those 2,000 men. Their enlistments would have been up at the end of the year while still whiling away their time in New Jersey under the command of Lee who only followed one set of orders, his own. The rebellion might have ended then and there for Washington would never have had the experienced numbers needed to attempt a counterattack. And without a spectacular victory, nothing could prevail his regular troops to consider reenlisting for a dead cause. Nearly the entire army would have packed up and gone home by the end of the year.

A Blow Must be Struck.

Sullivan’s timely arrival coincided with Washington’s plan to strike back at the British. With these extra troops, many if not all combat experienced regulars, he had the numbers to do just that. Beside Sullivan’s men, Washington had approximately 1,500 men fit for duty who had crossed with him from New Jersey. By the 20th, about 1,000 members of the Philadelphia Associators militia had come up. So too, 500 men arrived from the northern army, accompanied by General Horatio Gates, who was soon granted ‘sick leave’ to report to Philadelphia. Lastly, two regiments of German militia arrived from the west. In just over a week, Washington went from barely enough men to man the scarecrow defenses on the river, to over 6,000 men fit for duty. But fit for duty was loosely termed and reeked with optimism. Except for the militia from Philadelphia and the Germans, both fresh from their homes, the rest of the army, including those who made the grueling march from Albany, were “in a miserable plight; destitute of almost everything, many of them fit only for the hospital.” However fit Washington’s men were for duty, no matter what condition they were in or how green, the Commander-in-Chief now had enough manpower to make a difference. He just needed a target. But it had to be soon for on the 30th, with the enlistment terms expiring, of the 6,000 troops, only 1,400 would be left come January 1st.  Washington, in desperation, realized that a blow must be struck at once before he had nothing to strike with. And if successful, he just might be able to convince many of his men that the game was not over and those committed to the patriotic cause should stay the course and re-enlist.

General James Grant. Appointed Commander of New Jersey forces and who also commanded the 55th Regiment
General James Grant. The American army’s most hated aristocratic British officer who declared that with just 5,000 men, he could march from one end of the colonies to the other.

By mid-December, Howe’s plan to pull back to winter quarters was complete. His forces had spread themselves very thinly, extending from Perth Amboy and New Brunswick as far south as Burlington and Mount Holly, a total distance of ninety miles. General James Grant, the obese and arrogant ‘aristocrat’ whose vile hatred of colonialists was renowned, was in command of the British forces in New Jersey, stationing himself at comfortable quarters in Brunswick, the hub of British supply lines. On December 17th, he saw little danger of attack from the American Army and assured his nervous German allies that “I can hardly believe that Washington would venture at this season of the year to pass the Delaware at Vessels Ferry (afterwards becoming McConkey’s Ferry where indeed Washington would cross prior to the attack on Trenton), as the repassing it may on account of the ice become difficult. I should rather think that Lee’s Corps has proceeded to Philadelphia, for we have heard nothing of them since Lee was made prisoner…” After repeated rumors by Pennsylvania Tories of troops massing along the river’s borders and frequent guerrilla attacks on Hessian outer works, he thought it necessary to reassure his fidgety subordinates writing on December 21st to Lieutenant Colonel Johann Rall, in command of the Hessian garrison at Trenton. He included that the American army was “almost naked [18th century meaning of the word naked meant thread-bare or thinly clothed] dying of cold, without blankets, and very ill supplied with provisions.” On this east side of the Delaware “they have not three hundred men.”[7] Grant’s optimistic note to Lt. Colonel Rall, perhaps to try and calm the tense Hessians on the front line of their winter outposts, left the German Brigade commander ill-prepared for what was about to follow.

Washington Crossing Delaware 1
One step ahead of the British, Washington removes a distraught and beaten army from the Jersey shore on December 8, 1776.

Perhaps the thought of a rapid return to New Jersey had already been on Washington’s mind from the time of his retreat when he huddled in a boat while crossing the Delaware on the 8th. Within six days, on the 14th, he had penned a letter to Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut that “with my present Force and that under Genl. Lee, enable us to attempt a Stroke upon the Forces of the Enemy, who lay a good deal scattered and to all appearance in a state of Security. A lucky Blow in this Quarter, would be fatal to them, and would most certainly raise the Spirits of the People, which are quite sunk by our late misfortunes…”[8] That same day, the 14th, he expressed a desire to form some counterstroke writing to General Gates who was marching to Washington’s aid with 500 regular soldiers: “I expect Genl. Lee will be there this Evening or tomorrow, who will be followed by Genl. Heath and his division. If we can draw our forces together, I trust, under the smiles of providence, we may yet effect an important stroke, or at least prevent Genl. Howe from executing his plans.”[9]

American soldierOn December 20th, even as Washington was forming the details of a bold counterattack and having received news that Howe was intent on settling into winter quarters, he still feared for Philadelphia, writing to Congress that “…I rather think the design of General Howe is to possess himself of Philadelphia this winter if possible, and in truth, I do not see what is to prevent him, as ten days more will put an end to the existence of our Army…”[10] It is a touching letter as he offers a rare insight into his person, claiming he does not seek power. That “no person ever had a greater choice of difficulties to contend with than I have.” And then, as if a clue as to what he had up his sleeve, he penned, “…I can only add, that desperate diseases require desperate remedies…”

Colonel Joseph Reed, advocate general and personal secretary to Washington, urged just such an offensive stroke. He wrote to his commander from Bristol, Pennsylvania (just over eleven miles south of Trenton), on December 22nd. “We are all of opinion, my dear General, that something must be attempted to…give our cause some degree of reputation…in short, some enterprise must be undertaken in our present circumstances or we must give up the cause. In a little time, the Continental Army will be dissolved…Will it not be possible, my dear General, for our troops…to make a diversion, or something more, at or about Trenton?…If we could possess ourselves again of New Jersey, or any considerable part of it, the effects would be greater than if we had never left it…I will not disguise my own sentiments, that our cause is desperate and hopeless if we do not take the opportunity of the collection of troops at present to strike some stroke. Our affairs are hastening fast to ruin if we do not…Delay with us is now equal to a total defeat.[11]

The Decision to Attack.

William Keith farmhouse four miles north of Newtown, Bucks County Pennsylvania. Washington resided there from December 14th until he crossed back into New Jersey.
William Keith farmhouse four miles north of Newtown, Bucks County Pennsylvania. Washington resided there from December 14th until he crossed back into New Jersey.

By the time Washington responded to Reed’s letter, December 23rd, he’d already set in motion a daring plan. He wrote to Reed: “…Christmas-day at night, one hour before day is the time fixed upon for our attempt on Trenton. For Heaven’s sake keep this to yourself, as the discovery of it may prove fatal to us, our numbers, sorry am I to say, being less than I had any conception of; but necessity, dire necessity, will, any must, justify an attempt…”[12] However, the die was already cast for on the 21st of December, General Greene wrote to Governor Nicholas Cooke of Rhode Island: “We are now on the west side of the Delaware; our force is small when collected together; but small as it is, I hope we shall give the enemy a stroke in a few days. Should fortune favor the attack, perhaps it may put a stop to General Howe’s progress.”[13] Rumors soon reached Philadelphia of a possible attack by the Americans. Robert Morris, patriot and financier of the rebellion, wrote to Washington on the 21st: “I have been told today that you are preparing to cross into the Jerseys. I hope it may be true…”[14] So too an officer nearly let the cat out of the bag, when writing to a friend in Connecticut on December 19th in which he spoke of a possible coming engagement: “The Continental troops are really well disciplined, and you may depend will fight bravely, and I doubt not before one week, you will hear of an attack… both officers and men are determined to check the pride of the redcoats. They [British] are flushed with their successes, which perhaps may lull them into too much security for themselves.”[15]

Philadelphia prepares for the worst as the British army approaches.
Philadelphia prepares for the worst as the British army approaches.

James Wilkinson, who had been with General Sullivan, noted on Dec. 20th that “I saw him [Washington] in that gloomy period and attentively marked his aspect; always grave and thoughtful, he appeared at that time pensive and solemn in the extreme.”[16] And well he might, for it was no ordinary expedition that Washington was planning, no affair of an American detachment whose defeat would be merely a regrettable incident of the war.[17] More than half of the Continental army was to be risked, mostly experienced veterans, and the stakes could not be higher. If the attempt failed, the remains of the army, America’s hope for survival, would be cut off from retreat by the river behind it. There could be no hope of another unmolested crossing. It was a desperate venture, and Washington knew it to be so. The next evening, December 23rd, he met with his generals:

Washington called a council of war at his headquarters at the William Keith house and what Washington’s correspondence noted as Trenton Falls (at Knowles’s Creek, a few miles north of Newtown). The following officers were present: Major-Generals John Sullivan and Nathanael Greene; Brigadier-Generals Lord Stirling, Roche de Fermoy, Hugh Mercer, Adam Stephen and Arthur St, Clair; Colonels Paul D. Sargent, John Stark, Henry Knox, and John Glover. The plan was presented, discussed, and adopted. And if executed rapidly, with stealth and surprise, it just might work. The dice were cast, orders given, and the generals dispersed to ready their men.

The Plan

Hessian Grenadiers in Trenton
Hessian Grenadiers

The objective was Trenton. And garrisoned at that town situated on the Delaware River, with Assunpick Creek running along its southern limit before emptying into the Delaware, was 1,400 enemy troops: three regiments of Hessian infantry, a detachment of artillery manning six three-pound field pieces, and fifty Hessian Jaegers (riflemen) including twenty light dragoons of the 16th British regiment. This force comprised a brigade led by Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, who was given the command in return for his gallant conduct at the battle of White Plains and during the assault on Fort Washington. The regiments consisted of one of six grenadier companies and the other two having five fusilier companies and one grenadier each. The regiments were designated as Rall, von Knyphausen, and von Lossberg. Rall’s and von Knyphausen regiments had crossed New Jersey with the main army and arrived at Trenton on December 12th. Von Lossberg’s regiment had been delayed at Brusnswick and then at Princeton, arriving on the 14th. When Major von Hanstein of von Lossberg’s regiment came into Trenton with his tired men, he asked Colonel Rall if these were the “good quarters” in which they had been promised by the British. Rall replied, “No, but we will have them soon in Philadelphia.” To the south of Trenton, about six miles at Bordentown, Colonel von Donop commanded an outpost of about 1,500 men. Both outposts were confident that if attacked by what was left of the rebel forces, one could easily hold out until the other force raced to their aid.

Colonel John Cadwalader
Colonel John Cadwalader. He led the militia of 1,800. They were to cross farthest south to attack General Donop’s force as a diversion from the main attack at Trenton.

For the assault, Washington would risk most of his small army, nearly 5,000 men in the venture. The artillery, of which 18 fieldpieces would accompany the attack on Trenton, was under the command of Colonel Henry Knox. The Delaware River was to be crossed at three places by three separate divisions. Lt. Colonel John Cadwalader, acting as a temporary brigadier general, was to command the division farthest south near Bristol and the Bordentown to Dunk’s Ferry. His command was composed of about 1,800 men. He drew his troops from Hitchcock’s Rhode Island Continentals, 1,000 militia from the Philadelphia Associators, Captain Thomas Rodney’s Delaware militia company from Dover, and two artillery companies, each with one six-pounder. This division was to engage Colonel Donop’s German troops, including the British 42nd Highlanders, a total of nearly 2,000 men at Mount Holly, about 18 miles south of Trenton. On December 24th, Donop had been drawn south towards Mount Holly and Burlington by a 450-man militia led by Colonel Raile. Once he drove the militia off, Donop remained at the Mount Holly area foraging. Cadwalader’s faint was to divert attention from the principal attack at Trenton and keep Donop from sending aid to Colonel Rall’s troops.

The second division was placed under the command of Brigadier General James Ewing. It was made up of mainly Pennsylvania militia, with a few from New Jersey. About 700 men in all were to cross at the Trenton Ferry and take up a position south of Assunpink Creek. There they were to hold a bridge over the stream and close off any avenue of escape by the Hessian garrison after the principal attack on the town from the north.

Road to Trenton

The third and principal division was to be commanded by Washington. It comprised about 2,400 men, selected from the brigades of Stephen, Mercer, Stirling, St. Clair, Glover, Sargent, and Roche de Fermoy, each of whom was to lead his own men. They would cross the river at McConkey’s Ferry, about nine miles above Trenton. This force was divided into two corps and each were to advance down one of two roads that led south to the town. The right-hand road ran roughly parallel to the curve of the river and entered the town at its south or lower end. The other, the Pennington road, swung left in a similar shallow curve and came into Trenton at its upper end. They were about equal in length, four to five miles from where they split towards Trenton. Stephen’s advance, followed by Mercer’s and Stirling’s corps and a small troop of Philadelphia light horse, all under Greene, with four cannon in advance and a total of nine guns, were the left wing and took the Pennington Road – Washington rode with this corps. Roche de Fermoy followed with orders to break off to the left and place his men between the Trenton garrison and any British troops garrisoned at Princeton. The corps that advanced along the other road that ran along the river was commanded by General Sullivan with St. Clair’s, Glover’s, and Sargent’s troops along with four guns in advance, also a total of nine cannon in this column.

March to Trenton 2

All three crossings were to be conducted simultaneously. Washington expected his division to be across the river by midnight, allowing five to six hours to march the nine miles, placing his small army in Trenton for a dawn attack. Once Trenton was taken, the three divisions were to join and, if circumstance favored, should push on against the British posts at Princeton and New Brunswick. It was a bold and desperate plan in which any number of obstacles could doom the attack to complete failure. As it was, the weather and ice on the lake proved a major factor. Both southern divisions failed in their crossings. Only the one personally commanded by Washington succeeded. It did so by sheer determination even though delayed several hours. But it was enough. That one crossing turned the war on its heels.

The Crossing: “Victory or Death”

Crossinig the Delaware 4

Historian William Stryker said it best, writing, “With his skeleton bands of faithful and true soldiers, mere fragments of his own army and those of Lee and Gates, reinforced by some militia who had yet to face an enemy, he proposed as a desperate resort, to throw this frail body of men on the drilled soldiers of Hesse.”[18] On the evening of December 24th, Washington rode to the headquarters of General Greene, at the Samuel Merrick house, outside Newtown. There he met with his officers and staff for a final council of war. The day before, Washington had written to Colonel Reed who was at Bristol, where Cadwalander’s force was to embark against Colonel Donop at Mt. Holly: “I have ordered our men to be provided with three days’ provisions ready cooked, with which and their blankets are to march: for if we are successful, which Heaven grant and the circumstances favor, we may push on…” Elisha Bostwick of the 7th Connecticut wrote that “our army passed through Bethlehem and Moravian town and so on to the Delaware…encamped on the Pennsylvania side and there remained to the 24th of December.”[19] Provided and equipped as ordered, on December 25th in the late afternoon, the various elements of the main division were paraded in the valley behind the hill at McConkey’s Ferry, out of sight of the opposite shore and inquisitive Tories. By three o’clock that afternoon, they were on the march toward the river, where the boats had been assembled.[20]

Durham boat under sail on the Mohawk River
Durham boat underr sail on the Mohawk River.

The boats that were to transport Washington’s men, supplies, horses, and artillery across an ice clad river were called Durham boats, from their builder, Robert Durham, who had been turning them out for more than twenty-five years. They were from forty to sixty feet long, eight feet wide, and two feet deep, and were provided with keels. Pointed at both ends, they could travel in either direction, the heavy steering sweep fitted to either end. Each carried a mast with two sails (which proved very useful when Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs used these craft to cross the Long Island Sound during the Sag Harbor Raid, May 24, 1777). The boats were designed to be manned by a crew of five. Setting poles, two on each side, were thrust against the river bottom at the bow and the four men walked aft on running boards built along each side, pushing the boat forward its full length before returning to the bow to repeat the operation.

Colonel John Glover
Colonel John Glover and his Marblehead mariners manned the Durham boats.

Though poles may have been used to push off ice flows, the boats, packed as they were with men and equipment, for the most part were rowed across the 1,000-foot stretch of river at McConkey’s crossing. Durable and because of their wide berth, they could navigate shallow waters, each capable of fifteen tons while drawing only twenty inches – ideal for conveying artillery, horses, and many men.[21] The boats were manned by Colonel John Glover’s amphibious Marbleheaders of his regiment, the same men who rescued Washington’s army on August 28, 1776, after the disastrous Battle of Long Island.

Once night fell, the embarkation began. The Virginia Continentals of Stephen’s brigade, the advance party, were the first to enter the boats and push off for the Jersey side. The river was caked with sheets of ice, so that the crossing was slow and exceedingly difficult even for Glover’s hardy and veteran mariners. The second section to cross was Mercer’s command composed of men from Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts, mainly Continentals. Stirling’s men followed drawn from two regiments of Virginia Continentals, Haslet’s Delawares, and a Pennsylvanian rifle regiment under Colonel Hand. These three corps constituted the left wing of the expedition under Greene with Stirling forming the reserve. Roche de Fermoy followed with men chosen from the German Regiment and one from the Associators – all untried militia. Sullivan’s division was next, drawn from the brigades of St. Clair, Glover, and Sargent; men from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. This constituted the right wing with Sullivan commanding.[22]

Geroge Caleb Bingham Washington Crossing the Delaware
Washington Crossing the Delaware by George Caleb Bingham.

Though the moon was full, the sky was shrouded by dense clouds, so all were consumed by darkness. It was a dreadful night, bitterly cold, the current was swift, and the floating ice prolonged the passage. Colonel Knox wrote, “The floating ice in the river made the labor almost incredible. However, perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible…”[23] Around 11 PM, hail and sleet, driven by a high wind, broke upon them, doubling the difficulties of the boatmen and making the soldiers huddled in the crafts or on shore waiting their turn acutely miserable. Captain Thomas Rodney wrote, “It was as severe a night as ever I saw… [with this] storm of wind, hail, rain, and snow.”[24]

After crossing the river, and before his horse had reached him, General Washington, seated on a box once used as a beehive, was silent. Undisturbed, his mind must have been filled with anxious thoughts but so too with high resolve, desperate earnestness, and it has been said, with a clear determination to win a victory or die in the attempt. The plan called for the force to be across the river by midnight; but for nine weary hours they toiled and struggled with the floating ice, and it was after three o’clock in the morning before the last man reached the shore of New Jersey. It was almost four o’clock that Thursday morning, the day after Christmas, when the army was formed for its march from McConkey’s Ferry to Trenton; but at last, when the chain of sentries placed by General Stephen around the landing place had been called in, the order was given to “shoulder your firelocks.” At that, the weary tramp south towards Trenton in cold and sleet commenced. Instructions had been given to the men to march quietly, keep in good order in the ranks, give prompt obedience to their officers, and to bear in mind the emphatic password, ” Victory or Death.”[25]

 

March to Trenton
In incy sleet and rain, soaked to the skin, Washington’s small army marches to Trenton.

The ground was still covered with snow and at times a storm of hail from the east-northeast peppered the ill-prepared soldiers. None of the men were warmly clad; many of them wore threadbare summer clothing. Few were properly shod, and many were not shod at all, wrapping and tying off old rags around their feet against the ice and cold, the exposed skin leaving a bloodied trail through the snow. Slogging along on the rough, frozen road made slippery by ice and snow, buffeted by hailstones and rain that froze upon their hair and their clothes, they underwent a prolonged and continuous torture. Elisha Bostwick slogged on in the cold sleet and icy rain. He wrote, “…our march began with the torches of our field pieces stuck in the exhalters[26]. [They] sparkled and blazed in the storm all night…”[27] He reported that Washington rode up and down the line of march. He wrote, “I heard his Excellency as he was coming on speaking to and encouraging the soldiers… ‘Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God’s sake, keep by your officers!’” When on the march, Lt. Colonel Samuel B. Webb, Washington’s aide-de-camp, informed him of word from General Sullivan’s detachment – that the storm was wetting the muskets and rendering them unfit for service. In unbending resolve Washington immediately bellowed, “Then tell the general to use the bayonet; for the town must be taken and I am resolved to take it!”[28]

No Going Back

Battle of Trenton 2

No matter the delay, loss of surprise, the attack having to be made in broad daylight, the sleet and rain rending their firelocks near useless, the attack would continue. Both assaults to the south under Cadwalander and Ewing failed to cross the river. That would not halt Washington’s columns, strung out over frozen roads caked in snow and ice. The objective remained Trenton where over 1,400 professional German mercenaries awaited. These were the same veteran soldiers who scaled the heights of Fort Washington where they determinedly braved a constant hail of rifled shot and cannon grape for nearly two hours to swarm over the American barricades to claim victory. But for these worn out troops that had been written off by the British high command, none of that mattered. For this moment would be among America’s finest. Fate would sit back and watch a firmly committed man grasp destiny with one swoop. General George Washington’s desperate venture would prove incredibly successful, resurrecting new life into a cause that just two weeks previously, had all but breathed its last.


The above report was first published on August 24, 2019 and includes all sources for fact checking at the bottom of the following Web Address: http://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/washingtons-crossing-and-friday-the-13th-two-days-that-saved-america/

Posted by C-VINE Dream Team Volunteers


 

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