A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!
The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.
Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.
George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!
-David Shulman, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”
Some 237 years ago today, the Continental Army was stationed along the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border preparing for a secret attack upon British and Hessian troops. Beleaguered and under-supplied, the brave men under General George Washington’s command knew they needed a miracle. The plan was to send three raiding parties across the Delaware River at different points to surprise the enemy at Trenton.
Weather and the elements had other ideas.
The crossing of the River using the Durham boats, ferry boats and other craft took longer than expected as a nor’easter effected the area causing sleet and freezing rain to pelt the weary troops. Large ice flows and flood-like conditions hindered the nighttime maneuvers.
From an archived column by National Review‘s Rich Lowry:
Arriving at Trenton at 8 a.m. the following morning, his spirited troops seemed “to vie with the other in pressing forward,” he wrote afterward. They surprised the Hessians, not because they were sleeping off a Christmas bender. Harried in hostile New Jersey, the Hessians had exhausted themselves on constant alert. They didn’t expect an attack in such weather, though. The battle ended quickly — 22 Hessians killed, 83 seriously wounded, and 900 captured, to two American combat deaths.
“It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world,” British historian George Trevelyan wrote.
Washington followed up soon enough with another victory at Princeton. In the space of a few weeks, the Americans killed or captured as many as 3,000 of the enemy and irreversibly changed the dynamic of the war.
David Hackett Fischer (author of Washington’s Crossing) sees in that resurgence after our fortunes were at their lowest a reassuring aspect of our national character in this season of discontent: We respond when pressed. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a great supporter of the American cause, wrote: “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.”
May it still be so.
A great reminder of an important story from our nation’s unique past. The freedoms we enjoy were won with a price. Violence on this holiday was the result of something a tad more important than the newest Air Jordan sneakers.