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Washington Fording the Delaware Saved the Revolution

By Walker Joyce

To prove yet again that New Jersey was truly Ground Zero in the fight for our independence, one need look no further than the famous Christmas night of 1776.

That was the evening when General George Washington bet his aborning nation’s fate, and his own command and reputation, on a daring raid in Trenton. The famous painting of him and his troops ferrying across the ice-choked Delaware River, while idealized, does do justice to the Gravity and Glory of the event.

The stakes could not have been higher. 

When Washington left the Continental Congress to take charge of the troops the prior summer of 1775, he found a rabble instead of an army. The men were poorly equipped and lacked any real military discipline. He had to start from scratch to build a force about to face the most powerful nation on earth.

At first, hope was kindled when the British evacuated Boston, but not long after the Declaration was signed a campaign to defend New York went from bad to worse. 

With no navy to counter the English ships circling Manhattan, the Continentals were beaten through all five future boroughs, and only avoided annihilation when they escaped Brooklyn in rowboats during a favorable storm. 

Thus, began a strategic retreat after losing the first major battle of the war, plus hundreds of men and precious supplies. 

As winter loomed, the Americans were huddled in the Pennsylvania woods, their morale as low as their treasury. Washington’s leadership was being openly questioned, and worst of all, what was left of his army would disappear when enlistments ran out with the 1776 calendar.

“I think the game is pretty near up,” the Commander wrote his brother.

Washington needed a miracle, and so in desperation he decided to manufacture a win. With “Victory or Death” as the password and rallying cry, he targeted a force of German mercenaries occupying Trenton.

The Hessians, as they were called, were veteran soldiers being paid as proxies by the British. They were commanded by an arrogant Colonel named Johann Rall, who contemptuously called the Americans “country clowns,” and threatened to bayonet them if they ever showed their faces.

In addition to the men, horses, wagons and artillery had to be ferried across the river. An ad hoc fleet of watercraft was assembled, with heavy Durham Boats, built to transport iron ore, becoming the main instruments. John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment, the intrepid Massachusetts sailors who saved the army in Brooklyn, were once again in charge of the navel aspect.

The plan was to complete the Crossing in darkness, then march to Trenton and attack at dawn. However, the weather complicated things, turning from a light drizzle to a full-blown n’or easter, pelting the troops with sleet and snow. The amphibious operation lasted until 4 AM, when the Army finally embarked on the Jersey shoreline. 

The attack still managed to be a surprise, and a complete rout of the Hessians. Col. Rall was mortally wounded, while only three Americans were killed.

In the wake of the battle, Washington led his victorious troops to their first winter encampment at Morristown. More years of struggle and sacrifice lay ahead, but the General’s role was never in jeopardy again, and “The Cause” was saved.

Right here, in our state’s capital.