It’s December 24, 1776. General George Washington sits alone at a small desk in the Pennsylvania home of his friend William Mckonkey. With shoulders slumped, he appears in the throes of deep, concentrated despair. The General feverishly scribbles on small pieces of paper which he immediately grasps, crumples and throws to the floor. A lone member of Congress and close friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, quietly enters the room and retrieves one of the errant messages littering the floor. He un-crumples the paper and reads the words “Victory or Death”! Over the next 24 hours the fate a new nation would be determined.
Washington had reason to be depressed on this Christmas Eve. Since declaring Independence in July, the rebellion/revolution had faltered severely. King George of England was incensed by his English citizens in the American Colonies hastily deciding to break from the motherland. The King had seen fit to unleash the world’s most powerful Army and Navy to punish the rebellious ingrates and re-establish order amongst his American subjects.
Washington’s terse, ominous message on the discarded papers was a realization of his current situation. He knew the bold, possibly foolish, mission he was about to undertake was either the beginning of a revival or the end of a struggle.
In the past three (3) months his fierce Army of over 20,000 men had dwindled to less than 3,000 and most of those remaining would go home in a week as their enlistments ended January 1. In less than 6 months he had seen the entire Army evaporate by 94%. What was left was unpaid, hungry and tired!
General Washington had lost every major battle thus far and his strategy had devolved into a repeated series of defeats followed by retreats. Long Island, White Plains, New York City, Manhattan, all lost. Congress had vacated the Capitol in Philadelphia and thrust both Civil and Military matters to Washington. In addition to running an Army he was now burdened with the responsibilities of running a new, unrefined country.
Support for an independent America was not universal. Much like today, Americans were far from unanimous agreement. Large portions of New York were controlled by Loyalist staunchly in support of the King. Amazingly, Benjamin Franklin’s son, William, was the Loyalist Governor of New Jersey.
Despite the eloquent words of Washington, Thomas Paine and other founders, the people of America found it hard to impact their lives with war and revolution. Most wanted to work their farms, run their stores and raise their families. If that meant remaining English and being loyal to the King, so be it.
By December, Washington had focused his efforts in New Jersey. His repeated attempts to rally men to arms had met with dismal failure. The previous month he visited Newark in search of new recruits. He received 30 enlistments. That same day, also in Newark, the British recruited 300. Many New Jersey farmers had gone so far as to tape red ribbons to their doors as a sign of loyalty to the King and to ensure tranquility for their families…or so they thought!
It would be fate and love of family that helped save the revolution, not grand proclamations or inspiring oratory.
The British, as was their habit when colonizing, hired out much of the fighting work to German mercenary soldiers known as “Hessians”. These hardened, often times undisciplined, invaders performed an unspeakable act that united the New Jersey farmers to the Washington’s cause in a way no one, even Washington, could.
In mid-December an American patrol near Trenton came across a group of crying women by the riverbank and approached to investigate.
The American troops were shocked to learn the Hessians had brutally raped all the women including a 15 year old girl! From that day forward the farmers of New Jersey would no longer stand idly by. Washington’s Army now enjoyed the support of New Jersey militias who reveled in harassing and sabotaging the predatory invaders. On Christmas Eve a Hessian officer wrote in his diary “We have not slept one night in peace since coming to this place.” Little would he realize, Christmas in Trenton that year would be anything but peaceful!
As afternoon approached back at McKonkey’s home, Washington rose from his table of despair to embark upon his calculated, yet risky, gamble. He would take the remnants of his tattered Army, march them through snow mounds, cross the ice clogged Delaware river, march another grueling ten miles and invade the entrenched British forces at Trenton.
The night was as cold and stormy a night as could be imagined. Winds and water swept in to the overburdened 9 foot wide by 60 foot long iron ore barges Washington had commandeered. Men, horses, artillery and ammunition pushed the flat-bottomed vessels deep in the water as they struggled through ice flows across the river.
By 4 am Christmas morning the crossing was complete. The men regrouped and prepared for the march to Trenton. A march marked by blood soaked footprints from broken shoes and the bodies of two soldiers who stopped to rest and froze to death.
Along the way Washington would call upon every military instinct he possessed to help ensure victory. He rallied his men with calls of “Press on, boys, press on”. “Soldiers, keep by your officers, for God’s sake, keep by your officers.” His intensity was infective. One Captain wrote to his father, “I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now.”
At one point during the march an exhausted aide rushed to Washington with news from General Sullivan that the gunpowder for many of the men in the attacking force was wet from the river crossing and useless. Undeterred, Washington responded “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”
At 8:03am, with all forces in place the battle began. It was a rout! The Americans killed and/or captured the officers and men of the Rall and Lossberg Regiments, two of the best in the war.
Following the victory Washington smiled, embraced a firm handshake with 19 year officer James Wilkinson and exclaimed… “Major Wilkinson, this is a glorious day for our country’”
As we now know, that Christmas victory nearly 240 years ago saw the resurgence of the revolution which resulted in the country, freedoms and liberties we enjoy today. General Washington displayed uncommon character by resolving to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. We owe a debt of gratitude to General/President Washington, his countrymen and the spirit they embodied when all looked hopeless and the choices were few…”Victory or Death”.
Happy Presidents Day!
Kirk N. Hovious is a Honolulu based entrepreneur and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org