Significance of Washington crossing the Delaware River

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Emanuel Leutze's depiction of Washington's att...

Emanuel Leutze’s depiction of Washington’s attack on the Hessians at Trenton on December 25, 1776, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While majority of Americans spend Christmas Day opening presents around a Christmas tree, there was a time when a group of men spent Christmas Day preparing for battle. Hundreds of years ago, the colonists were too busy fighting for independence from Great Britain to celebrate Christmas. It was on Christmas night when George Washington led his men across the Delaware River, a moment that would forever be immortalize since it was one of the turning points of the war. By the end of November 1776, morale amongst the army was low due to the colonists losing several battles that resulted in losing New York to the British. As the end of the year approached so did many enlistments. Washington was worried that the colonists would forget about the cause and return home, further depleting the number of colonists in the army.

On December 19, Thomas Paine published the pamphlet “Common Sense” stating “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 his 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.” Washington ordered that this be read out loud to his army in order to remind them that even though times were currently hard, they were fighting for freedom. The next day, General Horatio Gates and General John Sullivan arrived to camp while more militia arrived from New Jersey and Pennsylvania; Washington now had enough men to plan one more attack before the year was over.

Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, by John Tr...

Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, by John Trumbull (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Washington was planning to attack the Hessians in nearby Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians were Prussian soldiers hired by the British Army to fight in the American Revolutionary War. The term “Hessians” comes from the fact that majority of the Prussian solders were from Hesse-Kassel. About 30,000 Prussians served during the American Revolutionary War. The surprise attack was kept secret from the American army and on Christmas morning, Washington ordered that every man, including the musicians, carry a loaded musket and march toward the river. As the men approached the river a storm began – first it rained, which then turned to sleet, and then it finally began to snow. Washington hoped to begin crossing the river at sunset but due to the weather, they did not begin to cross until 90 minutes after the sunset. Washington put Chief of Artillery Henry Knox in charge of the crossing which involved horses, carriages, canons, supplies, and 2,400 soldiers crossing the icy river in boats. Famous men that crossed the river included future President James Monroe, future Justice of the United States John Marshall, and future Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The soldiers had to dodge giant floating icebergs and avoid falling into the freezing water. After the crossing was finished at 3 am on December 26, the army was split into two groups; one group was led by Washington and General Nathanael Greene and the other was led by General Sullivan. While the Hessians were waking up, and recovering from their Christmas celebration, the American army attacked. The battle only lasted 90 minutes and while 4 Americans were killed, 22 Hessians were also killed and 1,000 were taken prisoners. In the next few weeks, Washington and his army won two more battles: the Second Battle of Trenton and Princeton.

The Crossing of the Delaware did not mean much to the colonists at the moment since little damage was done to the British Army in the next few battles resulted from the crossing, but if Washington had failed to cross, then Trenton would have remained under Hessians’ control. The Second Battle of Trenton and the Princeton Battle never would have happened, resulting in morale remaining low among the soldiers and an increasing number of army men returning home. As British General Cornwallis said at the end of the war, Washington won his highest laurels along the banks of the Delaware.

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