Exclusive--O'Donnell: America’s First Christmas that Changed the Course of History
December 1776 was one of the darkest times for America: hyperinflation gripped the economy, Washington’s army lost one battle after another, the mood of the country changed from optimism to defeat. But on Christmas Day, Americans amid a raging Nor’easter crossed an impassable ice-filled river, surprised and killed an expertly trained enemy, and changed the course of history.
Thomas Paine epically captured the days leading up to Christmas 1776 in “The American Crisis.”
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine wrote. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Washington’s army had lost one battle after another. The economy had tanked. And the paper money the United States printed seemed worthless. Americans were abandoning the cause in droves.
During the fall of 1776, the British issued an amnesty proclamation that offered pardon and protection to rebels who signed an oath of loyalty to the king within sixty days. Thousands of Americans, including several members of Congress, clambered to sign the oath. One disgusted American Patriot recalled, “To the disgrace of the country and human nature, great numbers flocked to confess their political sins to the representative of Majesty, and to obtain pardon. It was observed, that these consisted of the very rich and the very poor, while the middling class held their constancy.” Making matters worse, the enlistments for the Continental Army expired in December and January 1, 1777.
Most Americans could read, and the pamphlet immediately raised the morale of both the military and civilians. The looming prospect of disaster seemed to spur Americans into action, and some even believed that such a crisis was necessary to give people the proper motivation to fight. “Our republic cannot exist long in prosperity,” Doctor Benjamin Rush later wrote in a letter to John Adams. “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” The crisis had a direct positive effect that steeled resolve. That December 245 years ago marked a period where Americans from all stripes came together to alter the course of history in a great counteroffensive on Christmas night.
On the eve of the battle, General George Washington sat in his tent on the banks of the Delaware River and methodically wrote the same three words over and over on several small pieces of paper. He had decided on a daring plan: crossing the ice-choked Delaware River and mounting a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison there. Knowing that the assault could not hope to succeed if word of the plan reached the enemy, he detailed a Virginia The to serve as sentries around the Patriot camp. The general himself selected the password for the night, and that was what he was writing on scraps of paper for distribution to the unit commanders.
While the surgeon general of the Continental Army was visiting Washington, one of the slips happened to fall to the floor. “I was struck with the inscription on it,” the physician wrote. “It was ‘Victory or Death.’”
Contrary to the myth perpetuated by many children’s books, the Hessians in Trenton were neither drunk nor idle. Their experienced commander, Colonel Johann Rall, the hero of White Plains Chatterton’s Hill and the breakthrough at Fort Washington, kept his men in constant readiness and on patrol. A series of raids by the local militia in the prior days had put them on edge, and the men slept dressed and armed.
Rall realized the precarious nature of the Trenton outpost and frequently demanded reinforcements—to no avail. In exasperation, he complained, “Scheiszer bey Scheisz! [shit on shit] Let them come. . . . We will go at them with the bayonet.” British spies had warned of an impending attack on Trenton, but no one knew the exact day and time. The intelligence, combined with the raids, put Rall and his men in a perpetual state of alert and began to fray their nerves.
Washington settled on a complicated plan to envelop Rall’s garrison. The main force, which included the elite troops from Maryland, would cross at McConkey’s Ferry. The unflappable John Glover and his Marblehead Mariners led the assault river crossing on the Delaware. Asked if the plan was doable, he confidently reassured Washington “not to be troubled about that as his boys could manage it.” I tell their untold story along with the story of America’s founding in my bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band-of-Brothers style treatment of this unique group of Americans who changed the course of history.
In December 1776, Washington turned to the only group of men he knew had the strength and skill to deliver the army to Trenton. The Marblehead men miraculously transported Washington and the bulk of his army across the Delaware in the heart of the raging storm. He ordered two additional groups of American troops to cross the river below Trenton to cut off the enemy’s retreat. These groups not guided by the Marbleheaders found the icy river impassable. But the courage and nautical talent of The Indispensables enabled the battle that changed the course of the Revolutionary War.
When the main body reached the crossing point as the sun was setting on Christmas night, the water had begun to freeze near the shore, and even sections in the center of the river were covered in ice. Yet the men followed Washington. One participant recalled, “Our General halted his Army and raising on his stirrups made us such an animating speech that we forgot the cold, the hunger and the toil under which we were ready to sink and each man seemed only to be anxious for the onset. The Snow & Slush ice covered the firm ice in the River, yet when our brave commander gave the word and turned his horse’s head across the stream, no one complained or held back, but all plunged in emulous who should next touch the Jersey shore after our beloved.”
The army was in pitiful condition as one American officer remembered, “It would be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain.”
By 11:00 p.m., a massive storm pelted the men with snow, sleet, and biting wind as they crossed the Delaware in Durham boats. For the troops, many of whom could not swim, falling over the side would likely have meant death in the icy currents.
Despite the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, the indefatigable Continental Army pressed on. Washington was out front leading the operation, “I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined…the storm cuts like a knife.”
Miraculously, the Americans didn’t lose a single soldier in the initial crossing. However, the storm had put them far behind their original timetable. Washington had planned to have everyone over the river by midnight, but his army wasn’t reassembled on the far side of the Delaware until nearly four in the morning. Not knowing that the two other groups had not made it across, Washington ordered his exhausted, shivering men to proceed at once on the nine-mile march to Trenton.
Through snow and sleet driven nearly horizontal by the punishing winds, the men and horses trudged through drifts and slid across the icy roads. As always, the Americans were poorly equipped, and few had clothing equal to the conditions. “Many of our poor soldiers are quite barefoot and ill clad,” wrote one of the officers on the scene. “Their route was easily traced, as there was a little snow on the ground, which was tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.” Another man recalled, “Our Army was destitute of shoes and clothing — . . . It was snowing at this time and the night was unusually stormy. Several of our men froze to death.”
Not wanting to lose any more of his troops, Washington shouted encouragement to the men: “Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God’s sake, keep by your officers!” Throughout the night, the commander in chief remained determined; adversity brought forth his best qualities. “Press on! Press on, boys!” he shouted as he rode up and down the line.
The Americans arrived on the outskirts of Trenton just before eight o’clock in the morning. Thanks to the reduced visibility from the storm, they approached within two hundred yards before the sentries sounded the cry, “Der feind! Heratus! Heratus!” (The enemy! Turn out! Turn out!).
Shots were fired, and the Americans charged, some yelling “These are the times that try men’s souls!” the famous words penned by Thomas Paine, as their battle cry. The Hessians, disorganized, fell back from the onslaught that seemed to come from all around them. Small groups clashed throughout the city in the house-to-house fighting. Soon smoke from the cannons and muskets filled the streets and, combined with the continuing storm, added to the confusion and lack of visibility.
Very quickly after entering Trenton, Washington’s army captured several Hessian artillery pieces. In the thick of the fighting, Rall ordered his men to retake the guns because their loss was considered a dishonor to the regiment.
With kettle drums beating, Rall shouted, “All who are my grenadiers forward!”
By this time, the Americans had infiltrated the entire city, and marksmen took up secure positions in houses and behind fences where they could pick off the enemy fighters. American artillery, commanded by Bostonian Colonel Henry Knox, pummeled the oncoming Hessians. Knox later wrote, “Here succeeded a scene of war, of which I had often conceived but never saw before.” Another participant captured the macabre melee: “My blood chill’d to see such horror and distress, blood mingling together, the dying groans, and ‘Garments’ rolled in ‘blood’ the sight was too much to bear.”
After retaking his artillery, Rall tried but failed to rally his men. Acting on faulty intelligence, he assumed that his only escape route, a bridge across the Assunpink Creek (a tributary of the Delaware River that flows through Trenton), had been captured by the Marbleheaders. He ordered the Hessians to retreat through an orchard to the southeast.
At that moment, two bullets struck the commander in the side. Mortally wounded, he “reeled in the saddle.” His men attempted to evade the Patriot forces, but the Americans pursued. On horseback, Washington led the attack, urging the Marylanders and his other troops forward, shouting, “March on, by brave fellows, after me!”
Hit from three sides, the Hessians, now leaderless, lowered their guns and their flags around 9:00 a.m.
Word of the surrender soon spread to the Continental forces throughout Trenton. A huge shout shook the town as the triumphant Americans threw their hats into the air and cheered the victory. In short order, they found forty hogsheads of rum and cracked them open. By the time Washington found out about the alcohol and ordered the casks destroyed, “the soldiers drank too freely to admit of Discipline or Defense.”
Washington had intended to continue his push forward and to attack Princeton and New Brunswick after Trenton, but these plans for a further offensive had be scotched due to the state of the army. The victorious, drunken men rowed back across the icy Delaware.
The blizzard continued to rage, and this crossing was even more treacherous than the first, costing the lives of three men. It was noon the next day before all the Americans got back to their camp, some having been awake and fighting against the elements and the enemy for fifty hours.
The Americans had killed 22 Hessians, severely wounded 84, and took 896 prisoners, while suffering few losses of their own. Equally important, they captured “as many muskets, bayonets, cartouche boxes and swords,” as well as the artillery, swelling their supplies.
The Americans had won a great victory, but they had little time for rest. Washington needed to capitalize on the victory at Trenton by eliminating the other British troops garrisoned in New Jersey.
But for that he would need troops. The enlistment period for the bulk of Washington’s men expired on New Year’s Day, and they had every right to return home, having fulfilled the terms of their enlistment.
What was left of the Continental Army went into formation and stood at attention as Washington mustered his oratorical prowess and appealed to the men to continue fighting. “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected,” he began. “But your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. . . . If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.”
Moved by the general’s words and his “most affectionate manner,” men slowly stepped forward from the ranks, more soldiers followed, as the majority of the army decided to continue fighting. Many of those who stepped forward would help turn the tide in the coming battles to win us the liberty we enjoy today. While the sacrifice was great, many of those volunteers died in battle or from smallpox, America’s resolve is at its strongest in its darkest hours.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books including The Indispensables, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com@combathistorian