After the First Battle of Trenton: Washington Crosses the Delaware, Again
Most people when referencing Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River are speaking of the crossing which occurred on December 25, 1776, which preceded the first battle of Trenton. However, to be truly correct, that is only one of many crossings which Washington and his men undertook during the Trenton/Princeton campaign of late 1776/early 1777. The boat ride across the River that Christmas night on the way to New Jersey had its own set of obstacles, inclement weather and exhaustion, and fears as the troops headed into the unknowns surrounding a battle, however the return trip after the first battle of Trenton had just as many difficulties and arguably more than that of December 25th. After the battle of Trenton, the weather continued to be debilitating as the sleet and snow fall which had just begun in full force during the Christmas crossing now lay heavy on the ground and ice surrounded the boats in the river as the cycle of melt and re-freezing continued to make travel difficult. Precipitation continued to fall in the bitter air, making weary troops more miserable and chilling the captured prisoners. A return to Pennsylvania was necessary to give the victorious Continentals some time to rest in a safe haven and plan their next move. It also allowed for dissemination of approximately 900 Hessian prisoners. The prisoners also had to make the treacherous river crossing, with the Marbleheaders and some Associators manning the oars. Some of the diary accounts left by both Hessian (translated by Bruce Burgoyne) and Americans tell the story best. The story of their crossing to Pennsylvania after the battle is told below:
After being made captive we were immediately transferred across the Delaware in boats, the river being full of ice, so that we had to resign ourselves to the possibility of death. The wind was so strong against us, and the ice prevented the boat I was in from reaching the shore, so that we were driven almost two miles down the Delaware. I therefore resolved, in order not to spend the night on this river, in such dreadful weather, and gradually to die, to jump into the river and either die quickly or to get on land. I did that and Lieutenant [Wilhelm] von Drach followed me, as did the troops in the boat. Fortunately we reached land, but had to wade through water up to our chest for seventy yards, breaking through ice in many places. It would have been no surprise if this destroyed our health and instead of a promotion and a good nest egg, returned home to an unhappy prince with a wasted body.
The scow, or flatbottomed boat, which was used in transporting them [Hessians] over the ferry, was half a leg deep with rain and snow and some of the poor fellows were so cold that their underjaws quivered like an aspen leaf.
The ice continually stuck to the boats driving them down stream[;]the boatmen, to clear off the ice, pounded the boats and, stamping their feet, beckoned the prisoners to do the same, and they all set to jumping at once with their cues [ponytails] flying up and down...sticking straight back like the handle of an iron skillet.
It began to rain...I had got thoroughly wet before we began our retrograde march, and the rain and half-melted snow and water was almost over shoes-our feet was drenched in water every step. I was seized with a kind of ague fit which lasted for half an hour. I went into an house with my teeth chattering in my head, but though my kind host made me a good fire and did everything to favor me, the fire failed to warm me for some time and I expected to have been taken down with a violent fever. After a while, however, I got warm, and made shift to get back to the ferry. Here we had to stand by the river until the prisoners were first got over. The wind by this time had shifted and blew a keen northwestern blast which chilled me to the heart...The ice was so thick near the shore as to bear for a rod or two. I went on the ice with a view to jump in, but it broke and let me into the river up to my waste, and the boat was filled before I could recover myself. The next boat, however, that struck I waded into the river to meet it, threw my gun into it, made leap with all my strength. I got in and got over to a fire, but almost dead with cold and fatigue.
Once the Hessians reached the Pennsylvania shore, the officers and privates were held in separate locations throughout the area. Some officers were held in what is believed to be the McKonkey Ferry Inn. Hessian officers were asked to meet and dine with Washington and his staff officers as a gesture of gentlemanly behavior in the etiquette of war. Some of the Hessian officers recalled their conversations with Washington and Lord Stirling.
Immediately after our capture, we were brought over the Delaware by Johnson’s Ferry to Pennsylvania. The privates were brought to Newtown on the same day and we officers, 25 in number, remained in a house not far from the Delaware, in a small room, altogether, where we spent this night very miserably... 27 December...Our staff officers ate at noon with General Washington...28 December — This morning we visited General Lord Stirling, who conducted himself in a very friendly manner toward us. He received us with these words, ‘Your General von Heister treated me like a brother when I was a prisoner, and so gentlemen, you shall be treated by me in the same manner...Lord Stirling...asked if it would be our pleasure to accompany him to see General Washington...He kept four of our officers for the noon meal and the rest of us ate with Lord Stirling.
As stated, I and several officers dined with General Washington. He did me the honor of conversing extensively with me concerning the unfortunate affair. As I frankly spoke my opinion, that our dispositions had been bad and otherwise we would not have fallen into his hands, he asked me how I would have made them. So I replied, mentioning the mistakes to him, showed what I would have done, and how I would have escaped this situation with honor. He not only applauded these but addressed praise to me about them and for my alertness and defenses with the few men of my picket on the morning of the attack.
There are further diary accounts by the Hessian prisoners who had to record and defend the details of their service to their princes/officers in their homeland, especially after their humiliating defeat at Trenton. They left extensive descriptions filled with their opinions of what happened during and immediately after the Battle. Some of the prisoners make reference to a local clergyman who spoke in the Hessian’s language. He visited them to tell them that they were misguided in taking up the English cause and tried to persuade them to join the ranks of Washington’s army. At the time, the prisoners were offended by this outcry against their allies, but eventually, many of the Hessians would find life in North America to be to their liking as several remained in the country after the American Revolution.
Eventually, some of the prisoners were taken to Philadelphia and ultimately marched all the way to Winchester, Virginia. Many were sent to work on farms in German speaking areas of the country like Lancaster, PA. Arrangements were made between the military and the farmers whereas a farmer could take a prisoner to work on his land and was responsible for shelter and food. If the prisoner escaped during that time, the farmer was responsible to pay for the loss of the prisoner.
It is not often we hear the story of when the Hessians crossed the Delaware, which as defeated prisoners crossing a river in horrid conditions in a strange land must have felt impossible to survive.