Washington's crossing of the Delaware

Wednesday, February 21, 2007 - Teutpolis Press-Dieterich Special Gazette

By Nancy Bence

Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River was the turning point, many history scholars say, in the Revolutionary War. Up to that time a number of key battles had been lost by the Continental Army to the British occupation of New York City. It was December of 1776, only five months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and to the newly independent country of America things looked very grim. Because of extenuating circumstances it looked like if Washington did not cross the Delaware and win the Battle at Trenton, New Jersey, the war could very possible be lost. Up to that time, many of George Washington's army had been killed, wounded, captured or had deserted. Morale was extremely low and to top it all off many of the men's commissions were to end on December 31, 1776 which meant they could legally leave the Army and go home. It was imperative Washington and his men win this battle especially since new recruits were hard to come by because of such heavy battle losses.

Jacket cover for book entitled, "Washington's Crossing" by David Hackett Fischer.

So on Christmas Day, December 25, 1776, General George Washington and a small army of 2,400 men crossed the Delaware River to surprise between 1500 and 2000 Hessians along with a few British solders who were lodged in Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians were German mercenary soldiers who fought on the side of the British and were tough to beat in battle. In 1776, Britain had the best army and navy in the world and the Continental Army looked like a ragtag band of men in comparison. At that time, the 13 colonies were like 13 countries each having their own characteristics and not always getting along with one another. General Washington had to deal with spies, traitors, deserters, men who were not used to discipline or following orders, men who wanted to take his place and much more but Washington persevered. He knew early on in the War he would have to lead his men not drive them. His men learned to respect him and hold him in high esteem.

It was decided that the Continental Army would cross the Delaware River on Christmas night and surprise the Hessians before dawn. At about 4 p.m. that evening, a terrible winter storm blew up with hurricane force winds, snow, sleet, and hail. What they didn't know was that the Hessians had been up for 3 days with little sleep due to their spies telling them there would be an attach on them made by American forces. When the Hessians became aware of the howling storm in the brutal cold, they called off their predawn River patrol because they never thought an attack would happen on such a stormy night. Exhausted from lack of sleep, the Hessians relaxed for the first time in 8 days.

In the meantime, on the other side of the river--the Pennsylvania side (McKonkey's Ferry, PA), General George Washington and his army were getting ready to cross the Delaware River. That morning the women had cooked them 3 days worth of rations. They had walked on snow-covered ground in temperatures below freezing with many of the men ill, not dressed warmly enough and more than a few without shoes. Their route to the River from their camp was traced out with blood from the men who didn't have shoes. When they got to the River, they waited until dark to cross it. What they saw at the River was floating ice as is shown in the famous painting of "George Washington Crossing the Delaware" by a German-born American history painter Emanuel Gottlieb-Leutze. The wind was howling at almost hurricane force, the water was extremely turbulent and in order to cross the River they had to stand in their boats; otherwise, they would have been sitting in icy water. As it was, they were standing in icy water. Very few of these men knew how to swim; however, none of them were lost to the river. One officer did fall in but he was pulled out in time and ended up marching 10 miles with swollen legs without complaint.

This is a view of the Delaware River very close to the McConkey Ferry Inn. This is around the place where Washington crossed the Delaware. The exact area of the crossing has been lost to history. Also, every year since 1954, at this location a re-enactment is performed on Christmas Day of Washington crossing the Delaware River. -Photograph by David A. Hanauer

Only 1 of Washington's forces made it across the Delaware River, the other 2 forces had to return to the Pennsylvania shore because there was so much ice in the river. Once they made it to the Jersey shore, some boats were left by the chunks of ice and the men had to walk about 150 yards on ice to get to land. One great blessing was that the artillery pieces were in good order.

The men were shaking with cold and wet to the skin but they were cheerful and this encouraged everyone. They wanted to get on with their mission even though many of them didn't know all the specifics; they just knew to trust their leaders and follow them. At this point General Washington almost despaired because he realized he and his men were more than 3 hours late due to the storm and it would be very hard for them to surprise the Hessians after dawn. But he also knew he couldn't cross back over the River before dawn, in time not to be spotted by the enemy, so he chose to keep going. Besides, the Continental Army and all of America needed this victory no matter how impossible it seemed.

The heavy storm still brewed around them as they march approximately 9 miles to Trenton, New Jersey. Washington, on his horse, rode up and down the column of marching men encouraging them on to battle. They marched on snow and ice, soaking wet, but in freezing weather they knew they could not stop for that would surely mean death and at least a couple of men did freeze to death that night.

McConkey Ferry Inn, dating from the 1750's, which is where Washington spoke to his troops before crossing the river. The Inn did not look exactly like this at the time of the crossing because additions were made after 1776. The Inn is located in the city which is now called Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. -Photograph by David A. Hanauer

The storm was so violent with thick clouds that when the enemy Hessians had been out patrolling near their lodge around dawn they saw nothing. The storm was protecting General Washington and his Army.

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on December 26, 1776, General George Washington and his ragtag Continental Army, against all odds, surprised the Hessians who had gone inside to warm up and dry themselves off from the storm. In less than an hour, the Battle of Trenton was won and the Hessians were either killed or captured. Shortly after this win, the Continental Army went on to win the Battle at Princeton and the Revolutionary War took a turn for the Americans and increased their morale significantly, so much so that many men stayed on to fight instead of going home on December 31. It's an amazing story of courage, extreme hardship, loyalty and the great leadership of General George Washington.

The book to read on this subject is entitled, "Washington Crossing" by David Hackett Fischer. He's a popular history writer who tells history like a story and makes it very interesting. The book can be found in most bookstores.

Republished with permission from Nancy Bence and Teutopolis Press.

Information for this article was obtained from David Hackett Fischer's book "Washington's Crossing," wikipedia.org and David's Photographic Tour of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.