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Washington's Crossing

18th century map of the Delaware River area
The Delaware River posed a formidable barrier to troops crossing between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

It was a demoralized, ill-equipped army which stood on the shore of the Delaware River in December of 1776...

The year had not gone well for the army. Washington's men had suffered horrendous defeats in New York at the hands of British and Hessian soldiers. The losses of Forts Washington and Lee had levied a heavy toll to the Patriot cause as many troops were killed or taken prisoner, much needed supplies/munitions were abandoned in the evacuation of the forts, and the belief in the possible achievement of independence was dwindling at every turn. As much of the army was forced to retreat across New Jersey, the collective mood of Washington, Congress, and the army darkened. Enlistments were down, desertion was high, and monies from Congress were unavailable. Men on both sides of the conflict and of all stations and ranks began to question if the Revolution could be ending in the same year in which independence was declared.

Continental troops marching to the Durham boats
Continental troops march to the edge of the Delaware River to board the Durham boats.

In early December of 1776, Washington and his army approached the Delaware River in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington ordered all watercraft to be gathered. He especially noted the large Durham boats. The army crossed into Pennsylvania.

As winter set in and the troops found shelter in Bucks County, many felt the campaign season, if not the war, was over. It would have been acceptable for both sides to go into winter quarters to regroup, re-supply, and strategize for the start of the 1777 spring campaign. The main contingent of British troops did just this and returned to New York for the winter, leaving mainly Hessian troops, under the command of Col Rall and Col. Von Donop, to garrison small outposts in and around Trenton. Washington, fearing his army would not survive in its current state to the next campaign season, decided to make a bold move and attack the Hessian outposts. He planned for the army, including the militia recently connected to the army, the Philadelphia Associators, to divide into three units and cross the Delaware River on December 25, 1776. Armed with the phrase "Victory or Death" and, according to tradition, inspired by Thomas Paine's recently printed work entitled, The American Crisis, the men began to cross the Delaware River around 4:00 pm. Lt. Col. John Cadwalader with most of the Philadelphia Associators was to cross near Bristol Ferry and attack or at the least distract Col. Von Donop's men, who were at the time in Mt. Holly. This would keep Von Donop's men from coming via Bordentown to aid Col. Rall's troops in Trenton. General Ewing was to cross with members of the Bucks County militia at Trenton Ferry to take a position south of the Assupink Creek and hold the bridge — a viable escape route for the Hessians at Trenton. Washington with commanders John Sullivan, Nathaneal Green, John Glover and Henry Knox along with 2400 troops, 18 cannons, baggage, and approximately 50 — 75 horses would cross the Delaware River at McKonkey's Ferry Inn and attack the Hessian stronghold before daylight 9 miles away in Trenton. 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. Colonel Glover's Marbleheaders from Massachusetts steadily rowed the boats back and forth until all of Washington's troops were on the New Jersey side. However, Cadwalader and Ewing were unsuccessful in crossing the River. Cadwalader turned back because he was unable to get his artillery across and Ewing abandoned the plan entirely.

With the crossing completed by Washington, he and his troops proceeded to march to Trenton at 4 am, several hours later than intended and losing the cover of darkness for the assault. Washington divided his troops around 6 am for a two-prong attack, which occurred flawlessly. The Hessians were defeated and approximately 900 of them were captured and brought back to Pennsylvania as prisoners. The Patriot cause was invigorated and pushed the morale of the troops to new heights. The victory gave rise to new enthusiasm in Congress and cemented Washington's role as a leader. No patriot loss of life is attributed to the Battle of Trenton, however William Washington and a young James Monroe were among the wounded. The following days would bring another attack at Trenton (the second battle of Trenton or the Battle of the Assunpink) and a victory for the Patriot cause at Princeton before the main body of troops would go into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. (Local militia continued to harass British troops throughout the season in what has been termed the forage wars.) It was this turn of events that caused British General Cornwallis to concede at the end of the War that Washington won his highest laurels along the banks of the Delaware.