Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Selection from Chapter 4 “The Crossing, Christmas 1776” part of Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776 – January 3, 1777

Selection from Chapter 4 “The Crossing, Christmas 1776” part of Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776 – January 3, 1777 
By Mark Maloy

Washington’s force planned to cross the river at McConkey’s Ferry, located about nine miles upriver from Trenton. This was a narrow location in the river, naturally the best place to cross. The river was about 1000 feet wide at this point; here, Col. John Glover and his Marbleheaders, who had successfully saved Washington’s men in New York, would ferry the troops across in all the vessels they had available. Washington’s chief of artillery, portly Col. Henry Knox, would be the senior commander in charge of the crossing. Knox was a 26-year-old book seller from Boston and would eventually become one of Washington’s most trusted military advisors. He was conspicuous up and down on the banks of the Delaware exhorting men and aiding in the crossing. Major James Wilkinson remembered vividly from that night the “stentorian lungs and extraordinary exertions of Colonel Knox.”

Washington Crossing the Delaware. Painted by Emanuel Leutze, 1851. From the collection of the MET. Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897.
Washington’s soldiers received the orders to march as the sun began to set. John Greenwood, a fifer in the 26th Massachusetts in Glover’s brigade, remembered that “every man had sixty rounds of cartridges served out to him.” The Continentals marched five miles from Newtown to the vicinity of McConkey’s Ferry and began to ready themselves for the crossing. The first troops, though, did not arrive at McConkey’s until about 6:00 p.m. They were already an hour and a half behind schedule. The 2,400 men waited in the cold next to the river as the boats were prepared. The weather was not cooperating at all: as the evening progressed, it snowed more and more, and this mixed with sleet and freezing rain. Washington was undeterred. Everything rested with the successful crossing and attack.

A select group of about 50 men, under the command of Capt. William Washington of the 3rd Virginia Regiment, earlier had crossed upriver and began to secure the New Jersey side of the crossing; they intended to stop any people going to Trenton with information about their operation. William Washington was a second cousin of George Washington. Included in this vanguard was an 18-year-old man in the 3rd Virginia Regiment who had left his studies at the College of William and Mary to fight in the war. He was Lt. James Monroe, the future fifth president of the United States. Despite the winter storm, civilians still went out and about, and the Continentals wanted to make sure they would not warn the Hessians. Among the civilians detained was Dr. John Riker. Dr. Riker asked to join the army to aid it in case there were casualties in the impending battle. Lt. Monroe allowed him to come along with the American column.

With the New Jersey side secured, Col. John Glover began earnestly moving men onto the boats and across the freezing river. As for Washington’s anxiety about the crossing, Glover told him “not to be troubled about that, as his boys would manage it.” The Massachusetts Marbleheaders would have a long night. Their work that night would be much more hazardous than the night crossing of the East River. John Greenwood remembered, “After a while it rained, hailed, snowed, and froze, and at the same time blew a perfect hurricane.” Colonel Glover was undaunted and worked throughout the night moving the men, horses, and cannons over the river. The crossing used every vessel at Glover’s disposal. This included small row boats, ferry platforms, large bottomed scows, and large Durham boats made to ferry coal before the war. Luckily, the patriots had gathered all these vessels on the Pennsylvania side to make use of all of them this evening. While the actual event did not look like the famous Emanuel Leutze painting from 1851, the painting correctly captures the desperation and courage of the moment.

Washington became very nervous and impatient about halfway through the force’s crossing and decided to get himself across to the New Jersey side. Washington was nervous for good reason. Had the Hessians known about the operation, they could have easily crushed his army in the middle of this difficult crossing. Not knowing how much his enemy knew must have been a troubling feeling. Once on the New Jersey side, Washington sat on an old beehive box debating whether he should call off the whole operation. Ultimately though, the proverbial Rubicon had been passed, and they were at the point of no return.

Washington crossing reenactment rehearsal, Washington Crossing State Park, NJ.
The night wore on. The boats were moving very slowly as the men used poles to push the chunks of ice out of the way, and the boats pushed through the slushy water. The crossing was taking much longer than expected to get the American force across the Delaware. The commanders had planned on the army being on the New Jersey side by about midnight in order to get to the town of Trenton before dawn. It was now 2:00 a.m., and they were still crossing. Miraculously, no one died during this dangerous crossing, although a few men fell in the water. One was Col. John Haslet of the 1st Delaware Regiment. He was pulled out of the frozen water and continued with his men into the battle despite suffering from his icy plunge.

Finally, by 4:00 a.m., the last of the 2,400 troops, nearly 100 horses, and 18 cannons had crossed over to the New Jersey side. Colonel Knox noted that “perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible.” It had taken nearly 10 hours, but the entire American army was on the New Jersey side and was ready to march on Trenton. However, it was clear that the attack would not begin now until it was daylight. Part of Washington’s plan had already failed. At this point, he could still try to return to Pennsylvania; that, however, would almost assuredly end with the disintegration of his army. He wrote, “This made me despair of surprising the town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke, but as I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the river, I determined to push on at all events.” Major Wilkinson remembered, “he had resolved to stake his life on the issue.” Washington ordered his battered men to begin the march to Trenton and into the unknown. At this point the password “Victory or Death” took on a genuine meaning.

About the Book
December 1776: Just six months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and the new American Army sit on the verge of utter destruction by the banks of the Delaware River. The despondent and demoralized group of men had endured repeated defeats and now were on the edge of giving up hope. Washington feared “the game is pretty near up.”

Rather than submit to defeat, Washington and his small band of soldiers crossed the ice-choked Delaware River and attacked the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey on the day after Christmas. He followed up the surprise attack with successful actions along the Assunpink Creek and at Princeton. In a stunning military campaign, Washington had turned the tables, and breathed life into the dying cause for liberty during the Revolutionary War.

The campaign has led many historians to deem it as one of the most significant military campaigns in American history. One British historian even declared that “it may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater or more lasting results upon the history of the world.”

In Victory or Death, historian Mark Maloy not only recounts these epic events, he takes you along to the places where they occurred. He shows where Washington stood on the banks of the Delaware and contemplated defeat, the city streets that his exhausted men charged through, and the open fields where Washington himself rode into the thick of battle. Victory or Death is a must for anyone interested in learning how George Washington and his brave soldiers grasped victory from the jaws of defeat.

About the Author
Mark Maloy is a historian currently working for the National Park Service in Virginia. He works for the George Washington Memorial Parkway which administers important historic sites such as Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. He holds an undergraduate degree in History from the College of William and Mary and a graduate degree in History from George Mason University. He has worked at numerous public historic sites and archaeological digs for the past ten years. Among the sites he has previously worked at include the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, the Civil War Defenses of Washington, Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, Middleton Place Plantation, Fairfield Plantation and Pocahontas’ village Werowocomoco. His interest in history was sparked by visiting George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate as a child. When not working he is an avid Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactor and living historian. He resides in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife, Lauren, and son, Samuel. He is a regular contributor to the blog Emerging Revolutionary War (www.emergingrevolutionarywar.org).

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