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View Full Version : A Christmas Morning to Remember (1776)



megimoo
12-24-2008, 08:29 PM
Christmas morning dawned gloomy and cold over the rebel camp.
The low, overcast sky promised drizzle, or worse, by afternoon. The temperature, hovering just above freezing the past few days, was now dropping rapidly. The weather conditions did not improve the mood of the soldiers who, having skewered chunks of meat with the ramrods from their flint-lock firearms, were squatting around low campfires preparing the morning's repast.

The general of this rag-tag army was cold too, but for the good of his men he tried not to let it show.

Standing six feet, two inches tall and weighing nearly 220 pounds, the commanding officer towered over most of his men. Now, setting his square jaw and squinting against the falling temperature, he grimly reviewed the circumstances that brought him to this place.

A month before, Fort Lee had fallen. Coming on the heels of a similar loss at Fort Washington, the loss of Fort Lee was a disaster.
The enemy had pressed the attack sooner than expected. Surprised, the rebel army hurriedly withdrew. There had been no time to save the fort's stores and provisions, and these, including irreplaceable blankets and cooking utensils, fell into enemy hands. Worse, the men had to abandon their 300 pitched tents. When the enemy occupied the fort, they found the rebel campfires still burning, breakfast boiling in the kettles suspended above.

Then began the retreat across the countryside. Always the enemy was at the rebel army's heels, chasing them, hounding them.
Under the worst imaginable conditions, the general held together his retreating forces and maintained a semblance of order and discipline. Still, the pursuers felt victory was assured. One of their officers recorded that "many of the Rebels who were killed in the late affairs, were without shoes or stockings, and several were observed to have only linen drawers on, with a rifle or hunting shirt, without any proper shirt or waistcoat. snip

Finally, despite all privation, the general brought his army to the banks of a great river.
Gathering all the boats in the region, he got his men across and, having posted guards at all the ferry crossings, ensured a measure of security for his troops. And here the situation had stood since December 6, 1776, with the British and their Hessian mercenaries on one bank of the Delaware River, and the American rebels under the command of General George Washington on the other.

A Precarious Position
But their security was only temporary. With winter setting in, the dark, swirling waters of the Delaware would begin to congeal. Already in the mornings, in the sloughs and along the banks, a thin crust of ice appeared. In the river channel, where the water ran faster and deeper, the swirling current carried great blocks and floes of ice. It wouldn't be long before a solid crust, several inches thick, would stretch from bank to bank, allowing the British to march across at will. This, Washington knew, would mean his army's annihilation.

Then again, by the time the river froze, there might not be an American army.
Many of his 5,000 soldiers were "entirely naked," Washington noted, "and most so thinly clad as to be unfit for service." Daily their numbers decreased due to sickness and desertion, and, with the new year approaching, most of the army's enlistments would expire. Washington and America would be left with barely 1,400 men with which to oppose more than 10,000 British and Hessian troops under British Generals Howe and Cornwallis. "[Y]our imagination can scarce extend to a situation more distressing than mine," Washington, in a gloomy mood, wrote to Lund, his nephew, on December 17th. "Our only dependence now is upon the speedy enlistment of a new army. If this fails, I think the game will be pretty well up, as, from disaffection and want of spirit and fortitude, the inhabitants, instead of resistance, are offering submission and taking protection from Gen. Howe in Jersey."

In Pennsylvania too, civilian confidence ebbed low. The streets of the nation's capital, nearby Philadelphia, were deserted.
One Philadelphia resident saw "numbers of families loading wagons with their furniture [etc.], taking them out of town.... Great numbers of people moving.... All shops ordered to be shut.... Our people in confusion, of all ranks, sending their goods out of town." Finally, and hauntingly, he noted that the city was "amazingly depopulated." Having participated in the American retreat across New Jersey, and fully aware of the dire circumstances facing the young nation, Thomas Paine wrote his famous words. These, indeed, were "the times that try men's souls."

Bold Plan
With 1,500 Hessian mercenaries occupying Trenton just across the Delaware River from the American position, something had to be done. Colonel Joseph Reed, an adviser to George Washington and Trenton native, urged a last-ditch attack. "[S]ome enterprise must be undertaken in our present circumstances or we must give up the cause," Reed wrote to Washington on December 22nd. "Will it not be possible," he asked, "for your troops, or such part of them that can act with advantage, to make a diversion, or something more, at or about Trenton?"

Reed's urgings corresponded with and bolstered Washington's own instincts.
Since early December, Washington had been considering just such a plan. On the 14th he had written that he might, "under the smiles of Providence, effect an important stroke." By the 23rd, Washington had formulated a plan of attack and determined when to carry it out. To Col. Reed, "or in his absence, to [Lt. Col.] John Cadwalader," Washington wrote, "that Christmas-day at night, one hour before [midnight] 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, nay must, justify an attempt."

Washington's plan called for three divisions to simultaneously cross the Delaware River and attack Hessian positions.
Cadwalader would take one division, about 2,000 strong, to engage in a diversionary attack against the Hessians quartered south of Trenton at Mount Holly. Brigadier General James Ewing would take 700 Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia to the the south end of Trenton to hold the bridge over Assunpink Creek and cut off a possible Hessian retreat. Finally, Washington himself would accompany the main body of troops attacking Trenton. These, 2,400 strong, were divided into two groups, one under General Nathanael Greene and one under General John Sullivan. It was a bold plan for it risked everything. If the Americans were put to rout, there was no hope of escape back across the Delaware River. If the expedition were to fail and the army lost, the dream of American independence would die in Trenton.

Time for Action
At nightfall on Christmas Day, 1776, the first American troops boarded Durham boats, the largest being 60 feet in length and equipped with one mast. As they made way for the New Jersey shore, the weather quickly deteriorated and the river was choked with ice. Of the conditions, one American officer wrote, "It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow-storm setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet, but I have not heard a man complain." By 11 p.m., a winter storm was at full fury. "It was as severe a night as ever I saw ... [with this] storm of wind, hail, rain and snow," wrote Captain Thomas Rodney.

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http://www.thenewamerican.com/culture/family/602-a-christmas-to-remember

asdf2231
12-24-2008, 08:34 PM
For anyone that has never seen it I cannot recommend the A&E movie "The Crossing" which details these events highly enough.