Ask any American, “Why did Washington cross the Delaware, and why does it matter?” and you’ll be met, most likely, with silence.
But on Christmas Day, 1776, crossing the Delaware was the difference between victory and death for the American Revolution. Having been chased out of New York and New Jersey by the British, and facing the dissolution of most of his militia army at year’s end, George Washington knew he had one last chance to prove himself. So he drew up a daring plan. He would split his army into three forces, cross the Delaware in three places, converge on Trenton, and capture the city, which was being held by Hessian mercenaries employed by the British. It was an extremely complicated strategy that would require each part of the army to perform perfectly. The orders were drawn and distributed. The password: “Victory or Death.”
The operation began on Christmas night. And it started badly. The crossing required that soldiers, horses and cannons be rowed in heavy Durham boats across a strong current choked with ice. As the loading began, it began to rain, then sleet, and then finally it started to snow. Though the crossing was managed by a regiment of sailors from Marblehead, Massachusetts led by Brigadier General John Glover, it was all they could do to keep the boats from being swept downstream. At the northernmost crossing point, the Americans were delayed by more than three hours; when they had finally assembled in New Jersey, it was 3 AM. Even worse – and unbeknownst to them – the two other parts of the American army failed to get across altogether. That left just 2,400 tired and bedraggled men to attack Trenton. And they still had an 8-mile night march ahead of them.
At 4 AM, they headed south. Almost on cue, the weather got worse; soon it was a blizzard. Many of the men did not have boots and as they marched they left a bloody trail in the snow. They struggled and staggered for about two miles, until some local civilians joined in and guided them along more passable roads. When they came to a small ravine called Jacob’s Creek, Washington’s horse slipped and nearly threw him into the stream, but with expert horsemanship he righted the animal. This athletic feat encouraged the Americans as they hurried south. As they neared Trenton, the operation was nearly ruined. Washington came upon a rogue force of 50 Americans who – not knowing about the operation – had just attacked a Hessian outpost nearby, which threatened to give away the surprise. But ironically, their failure led the enemy to believe that a suspected American attack had been thwarted. The Hessians dropped their guard and went back to bed.
What happened next was as shocking as it was sudden. At 8AM, the Americans appeared out of the blizzard and stormed into Trenton, seemingly from all directions. Washington had once again divided his troops, and this time his strategy was executed to perfection, with both forces arriving at the town simultaneously. There were American guns on King Street, there were American guns on Queen Street, the road to Princeton was blocked, as was the bridge over Assunpink Creek. The Hessians were trapped. They poured out of their garrisons and tried to organize themselves, but each time they met heavy American fire. Their leader Colonel Rall was killed. The Hessians retreated; the Americans poured in; the two armies fought house-to-house through the town. The Hessian defense soon collapsed and they retreated to an orchard on the edge of town.
And then, almost as soon as it began, it was over. Nearly 1000 Hessian soldiers surrendered. Almost 100 of their comrades had been killed or wounded. The Americans, meanwhile, had suffered only 2 killed and 5 wounded (plus 2 soldiers who had died during the overnight march).
Trenton had been taken, and one of the British army’s elite forces had been defeated. In the coming days, the news would hit Europe like a cannonball.
In the colonies, news of the victory at Trenton would reignite support for the Revolution. In the coming week, two more startling victories would give the Americans hope that the Revolution had reached a turning point. And maybe, just maybe, they had a leader who could lead them to victory.
General George Washington had crossed over indeed…