The month of December is host to many great tales. Some of heroism and bravery, others of self-sacrifice and generosity, and some tell of unsuspecting peace and tranquility. The month of December is a special time for many when magic is in the air and the impossible is made possible. The Battle of Trenton in December of 1776 is one such tale to be told where a brave group of rebels trekked across frozen wastes into a storm of ice and fire, yet still took the day despite all the wailings of the world seemingly against them.
Sailing the Frozen River
The Continental Army under George Washington was often plagued with low morale. Few scarcely believed they could defeat the British Empire, and yet they fought nonetheless for they knew in their heart of hearts it was a stand worth taking. Washington had brought together both boys and men from different state militias with enlisted Continental troops. They were to set out across the icy river of the Delaware under cover of storm and march almost 10 miles through the snow to attack the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton. It was a plan so perilous, it seemed doomed to fail. As such, the Hessians were ill prepared when the Americans arrived.
On Christmas Day, George Washington, with Nathaneal Greene and John Sullivan by his side, set out on boats across the frozen river with their troops in tow. The journey over the water was long and arduous, and as such, 3,000 of Washington’s men were not able to make it across and found themselves forced to turn back. The air was deathly cold and the waters nearly frozen solid. Only those nearest to Washington’s formation managed to carry on to the other side, pushed onward with an unseen hand at their backs. They knew the Hessians would be drunk and hungover from celebrating Christmas on this night, and tonight was their best chance to strike. So, they pressed on.
The March of Ice and Blood
After a treacherous journey across the icy Delaware, and having already lost more men than they had left, the American rebels marched through the snow and wind to the city of Trenton. They marched nearly 10 miles from the river’s edge to the Hessian encampment. Many of the troops were without boots, and so they wrapped their feet in rags to ward off the cold and save their toes. A trail of blood is said to have stained the snow a deep red as many of the Americans bled at the feet after their soles froze stiff and cracked wide open. Yet still, they marched, for they knew the cost of failing to defeat their enemy was far greater than any temporary hardship or individual death.
Many colonists saw the rebels marching through the snow leaving their trail of blood, and volunteers came out to offer aid. They gave food, clothes, and directions to the brave young warriors on their march to fight for freedom. General Washington acquired a horse and used it to ride along the column of men, encouraging them to continue on. With this generous aid, the Continental forces managed to trek all the way to Trenton and only lost two souls to exposure on what should have been a death march fraught with hundreds of casualties. Selfless Americans came out of their homes and gave what little they had to offer the rebels to keep them warm, fed, and dry as they marched on through the winter winds and mountains of snow into the fields of the unknown.
On the Eve of Battle
As they approached the city of Trenton, General Washington was informed by a courier from Major General John Sullivan that the storm had wet the gunpowder they carried with them, and it would be unreliable at best. Washington was undeterred, and famously said to the courier to “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.” With that, the Americans prepared themselves to attack the Hessian forces. Whether their guns fired or not, they would charge nonetheless. They were determined and as ready as ever.
American spies had fed disinformation to the Hessian forces, and the weather forced regular patrols to stay back. The Hessian commander, Johann Rall also ignored earlier requests to fortify the positions of his troops with redoubts, feeling the American rebels were no threat after previous victories against them. In response to the threat of an American attack on his forces, Rall said, “Let them come … We will go at them with the bayonet.” As such, the Americans approached undetected and faced no fortifications to slow down their advance. The Hessians were overwhelmed as a result.
A Strike Decisive and Swift
At approximately 8:00am on December 26, 1776, the Americans emerged from the woods outside Trenton and were fired upon by the Hessian outposts stationed there. They returned fire and began to encircle the outposts. The Hessians saw the massive force was no small raiding party to which they were accustomed. They quickly began an organized retreat, firing on the Americans as they fell back from their positions outside the town. The Americans surrounded the city and blocked the roads before moving in.
The Hessians tried to warn their forces in the city that the outposts were lost and the city was now under siege. The Americans had set up cannons outside the city and were firing into the Hessian lines to break their control over the streets. The efforts of the Hessians to bring their own cannons to bear were stopped by the overwhelming amount of suppressing fire. As the fighting became apparent to the American colonists living in Trenton, they too gathered their weapons and took aim at the Hessians from their windows and rooftops. The Americans overwhelmed the German mercenaries with gunfire from every angle and broke their lines as swiftly as the battle began.
Hall and his mercenaries were routed, and the survivors were forced to abandon the city. As Washington lost most of his force crossing the Delaware, the enemy escape could not be completely locked down. Many Hessian mercenaries fled, but most surrendered, including Hall. Wounded and dying from the fighting, Hall asked only that Washington treat his men with humanity. Washington, an honorable man, obliged, and made sure to extract the prisoners from the combat zone rather than press further into enemy territory.
The battle was a decisive victory for the American rebels. Approximately 2,400 Continental Army troops and state militia members managed to inflict 905 casualties on the force of 1,500 Hessian mercenaries, killing and/or capturing 105 hostiles. With this feat, only 5 Americans were wounded in the battle, with none killed or captured. The outcome instilled confidence in George Washington among the Continental Congress, and among the young American rebels in themselves. It also proved something much more.
The Gift of Giving
One often hears the “gift of giving” in reference to the spirit of Christmas. This is the feeling we gain through giving unto others with no expectation of receiving in return. In so doing, we receive the greatest gift of all. With such an act of altruism and charity, we see the effect of giving on the recipient. We witness the smile on their face and the glow within their heart. While the actions of the troops under Washington’s command are quite impressive, the spirit of Christmas displayed by the American colonists who helped them along the way is also worth admiring.
As the Continental Army forces marched into the icy fields of certain death, selfless Americans who witnessed them on their journey came out to give aid, offering them food, shelter, directions, clothing, and any supplies they could spare. These gifts were surely never to be returned, yet the Americans opened their homes and their hearts to the courageous rebels on the perilous journey. It is through these acts of charity and selfless giving that Washington and his company made passage through the storm.
Yet the American spirit of Christmas did not cease there. When the rebels rushed into the fires of battle to oust the mercenaries occupying the city of Trenton, brave American townsfolk rose up with their guns to rain down fire from above. With the fear of death in their faces, the people of Trenton showed in the earliest days of the country what it meant to be an American, and they offered their lives in the fight for freedom in the spur of the moment. With this selfless act of courage and bravery, the enemy was overcome and driven out. The true spirit of Christmas rang out that day across the lands from every corner it was called and forever earned December 25, 1776 a spot in history as one of the great Christmas miracles of our world.
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