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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Save an Army: George Washington and the Battle of Trenton 1776

One of the most iconic images of the American Revolution is that famous painting of George Washington Crossing the Delaware proudly standing with his stalwart soldiers rowing. This picture has been used to teach children about the American Revolution for as long as I can remember. While this painting has inspired generations of Americans and historians, the truth behind the event is even a more fascinating story.

In the fall of 1776, Washington was facing a crisis. His army had been forced to abandon New York and had by necessity to retreat from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Unlike conflicts in the future where recruits would flock to join the ranks, the Continental Army was in serious want of men. While Washington had limited militia troops at his disposal, he held no faith in their ability. Seeing Militia flee time and again during both the French and Indian War and on garrison duty on the Virginia frontier, and their dismal performance thus far, he had no faith in their ability to stand against trained English troops. By December of 1776, the only thing Washington had to oppose Howe’s army and protect Philadelphia, the home of the Continental Congress, was a bare 2,500 Continental troops and a scant few militia.

To compound these problems, the Continental Army faced an even graver threat. The enlistments of all the troops in the regular Continental forces were due to expire at midnight on December 31st. In a confidential letter, Washington wrote “If every nerve is not strained to recruit the new army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up…..”.[1] Each time the enlistments of troops expired, Washington was forced to spend valuable time in an attempt to re-train the new army. Without a core of veterans there was no way the Colonials could stand against the troops of the British Empire.
Not only was he facing the might of the British Army but his own army was about to walk away. While Washington pushed regimental officers to get their troops to re-enlist the tree had not bared any fruit. And why should the army re-enlist? They were ill clothed, ill fed, and largely ill led. After a series of constant defeats and forced retreats, many thought the cause was all but lost.

What Washington needed was one of two outcomes. He needed some sort of action to spur the army into re-enlisting. The army must be brought to believe they could win against British troops. He hoped that with a substantial victory they would gladly sign their new enlistment papers. On the other hand, if the army was to abandon the course of Liberty, he was determined to use it while he had it to keep Howe at bay long enough to train the new army.
So as it grew dark on December 25, 1776, Washington and his 7,900 Continentals (he had recently been augmented by 2,000 men of Lees command and 600 from Gates Command) started for the fords and boats to cross the Delaware. In the early dawn they attacked the town to Trenton New Jersey along 3 axis. In the ensuing battle, they managed to kill twenty-five to thirty of the Hessian mercenaries and capture 918, the most of the kings troops ever captured up to this point in the war. I would encourage my readers to brush up on Trenton as it provides the military historian with a great example river crossing operations. Quickly following this victory, the Continentals took the city of Burlington and the army was firmly back on New Jersey soil.

On December 29, 1776 Washington stepped in front of the regiments from New England and played his last card. In a speech that could only be described as passionate he touted the recent victories and explained that they would not have been possible without veteran soldiers. On his own accord, without congressional approval, he offered the troops a ten dollar bounty and a promise of more victories if these troops would only enlist for six additional weeks in order to get the new levies into fighting shape. Not a man moved. Was this the answer, heaping disgrace on top of humiliation?

With one final attempt, he pleaded his case with the assembled troops. As the drums beat their final tattoo, a few men stepped forward. Then in twos and threes they came forward with only those who were too sick or feeble remaining behind. These stalwart men became the core of the new Continental Army. Many would stay beyond the six weeks and served to the end of the war. Imagine what would have happened to the revolution if Washington had simply let the army fade away. As soon as the ice was thick enough on the Delaware, Howe could have crossed and crushed the new recruits and with them the American Revolution.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. Washington. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.

[1] This book is an abridged version of the original 7 volume work. Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968), 317.

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