Washington had successfully escaped Long Island, but things were looking bleak for the Continental Army. It was the middle of winter, and he and his men had no supplies, and no clothing. Men were deserting in droves as their enlistment periods came to an end, and those who stayed were susceptible to all the elements.
As we look to New Jersey, we see that the British were trying to make their way to Philadelphia. It seemed inevitable that they would take Philadelphia as soon as they crossed the Delaware River. It was also around this time that General Howe, commander of the British, issued a proclamation of pardon, meaning those who swore their allegiance to the King would be pardoned for all war crimes once the war was over. Many took that proclamation, and morale was low on the side of the colonists.
Washington was desperate and he knew he needed to attack the British and the Hessians who were at Trenton, New Jersey. It seemed like all odds were against them, but the enemy needed to be stopped before they made it to Philadelphia. His plan was a surprise attack on Christmas night; no one would be expecting an attack on Christmas. In order to do this, Washington had to ferry a few thousand men across the Delaware River, which was mostly frozen. Word got out that the colonists were planning an attack on Christmas Day, but General Rall (who oversaw the British at Trenton) mostly ignored these warnings. He knew that even if they attacked, he and his men would be able to defeat them quickly.
Christmas Day came, and at 7:00 in the evening, a small group of colonists began firing at the British who were on patrol in the north part of town. General Rall sent men to fight them, and they quickly resolved the outburst. A severe winter storm had settled over Trenton on Christmas Day, and General Rall allowed his men to go inside for the evening and enjoy themselves in games and drinking; there was no way anyone else would try to attack them in this weather. What is so interesting about this small rebellion is that, to this day, no one can definitively say who those rebels were who fired on the British. It wasn’t Washington and his men, but the fact that this outburst occurred proved to help Washington maintain secrecy- General Rall thought that this small outburst was the American attack that he had heard would happen and so he did not see a reason to keep his men on the lookout for another attack.
A few hours later, a farmer appeared at the door of General Rall’s residence, asking to speak to him. He was met by a servant who could not understand him and would not let him in to see General Rall. The farmer decided to write a message on a piece of paper and asked for it to be delivered to General Rall. He then went on his way.
Across the river, Washington and his men, using local fishing boats, were making their way across the half-frozen river in a terrible storm. The conditions were so bad, that some of the men froze to death during this advancement. They did not make it across the river until 4:00 in the morning the next day. Just before 8:00, they arrived in Trenton. A surprise attack took place, and within an hour, the British and Hessian troops were surrendering to the colonists. General Rall was killed in this battle.
What about that note that was supposed to be passed to General Rall the night before? The servant who took it did not feel like it was necessary to bother General Rall with it. It was tucked away and forgotten about til the next day. That note was a warning to the British that the farmer had seen the Americans crossing the river and advancing on Trenton. Had General Rall received the note and read it, things probably would have turned out very differently. Washington and his men would continue to fight on in the battle for freedom.
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands 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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
These famous words were penned by Thomas Paine in 1776. He was with Washington and the troops during the crossing of the Delaware. He saw first-hand how brutal the fight was, how unrelenting the weather could be. These words come from the opening article in a series of articles written by Paine that would be printed and become known as The American Crisis and would provide morale boosting content to the colonies.
It is important to remember that freedom is precious, and the fight to gain it and keep it will be difficult. But it is one of the most precious things that we as human beings can fight for.
Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis.
Spivey, Larkin. Miracles of the American Revolution. Chattanooga, Tennessee, God and Country Press, 2010.