Washington Plucks Christmas Victory from Defeat

Just before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the various colonies had sent delegates to Philadelphia to discuss the situation. This body was called the First Continental Congress. In May,1775, the Second Continental Congress met. It was only a body of delegates, but it became the government of the league of colonies and elected George Washington commander-in-chief of the colonial army. Washington went to Boston and took command of the New England forces soon after the battle of Bunker Hill. Reinforcements arrived from other colonies, and the army became the army of America. Washington forced the British to sail away from Boston. They then turned toward New York, which they wished to make the center of their power in America. Washington opposed them, but was defeated in the battle of Long Island. Fort Washington, just north of New York, soon after surrendered with a large body of patriot troops.

These disasters almost overthrew the patriot cause. On July 4, 1776, the colonies had declared themselves independent of the mother country and taken the name of the United States of America; but as the year 1776 drew to an end the prospects of winning independence seemed small. Washington retreated across New Jersey to the Delaware River with a little army which dwindled away at every step. The English thought that the war would be over in a few weeks. The following description, taken from Paul Leicester Ford’s novel, Janice Meredith, describes the Christmas celebration of the German troops in the British army and Washington’s great victory over them.

The story shows how Washington’s soul rose indomitable above defeat and disaster and made the very cold and gloom of winter the means of winning a triumph that changed the history of America. This battle was the main turning – point of the war.

TRENTON

From Janice Meredith, by Paul Leicester Ford.

I

Over in Trenton the Hessian troops were celebrating Christmas with merry – makings. In the afternoon, after dinner, the three regiments of Anspach, Lossberg, and Rahl, and the light horse, with beating drums and flying colors, paraded from one end of the town to the other, ending with a review in front of Rahl’s headquarters. Following this, the regimental bands played a series of airs which the now disbanded rank and file joined in vocally. Then, as night and snow set in, a general move was made indoors, at Rahl’s quarters to the parlor, where a tall spruce tree, brilliant with lighted tallow candles and decorated with bits of colored paper, red – tinted eggs, and plunder from the town, drew cries of admiration from the people present.

After a due enjoyment of the tree’s beauty, the gifts were distributed; and then the company went to the dining-room, where the table sagged with the best that barnyard and pantry could produce, plus a perfect forest of bottles. The sight of such goodly plenty was delightful, and the cheer and merriment grew apace. Presently the fun grew until it began to verge on the riotous. Just as the uproar was at its greatest came a thundering at the door, and when it was opened a be-cloaked dragoon, white with snow, entered and gave Rahl a dispatch. The noise ceased for a moment as everyone paused to see what the dispatch was about.

The commander was by this time so fuddled with drink that he could not so much as break the seal, much less read the contents; and another officer came to his assistance and read aloud as follows:

Burlington, Dec. 25, 1776. 

SIR: By a spy just in I have word that Mr. Washington, being informed of our troops having marched into winter quarters and having been reinforced by the arrival of a column under command of Sullivan, meditates an attack on some of our posts. I do not believe that in the present state of the river a crossing is possible, but be assured my information is true, and in case the ice clears I advise you to be on your guard against a sudden attack on Trenton. I am, sir, your most obed’t h’ble serv’t,

JAMES GRANT, Major-General.

“Nein, nein,” grunted Rahl, tipsily,“ I mineself has vort dat Washington’s mens hass neider shoes nor blankets und die mit cold und hunger . Dey vill not cross to dis side, mooch ice or no ice, but if dey do ve make prisoners of dem.”

And once more the toasting and merry making was resumed.

At the same hour that the Hessian’s were parading through the village streets a horseman was speeding along the river road on the opposite side of the Delaware. As he came opposite the town, the blare of the horns sounded faintly across the water, and he checked his horse to listen for a moment and then spurred on.

A hundred rods brought the rider within sight of the cross – road at Yardley’s Ferry just as a second horseman issued from it. The first hastily unbuckled and threw back his holster flap, even while he pressed his horse to come up with the new arrival. The latter, hearing the sound of hoofs, halted and twisted about in his saddle.

“Well met, Brereton,” he called when the space between them had lessened. “I am seeking his excellency, who, I was told, was to be found at Mackonkey’s Ferry. Canst give me a guidance?”

“You could find your way, Wilkinson,” replied the handsome young staff officer addressed,” by following the track of Mercer’s brigade. For the last three miles I could have kept the route, even if I knew not the road, by the bloody footprints of the Virginians. Look at the stains on the snow.”

“Poor fellows!” responded Wilkinson, feelingly.

“Seven miles they’ve marched today, with scarce a sound boot to a company, and now they’ll be marched back with not so much as a sight of the enemy.”

“You think the attack impossible?” asked Wilkinson.

“Impossible!” said Brereton. ” Look at the rush of the ice, man. T’would be madness to attempt a crossing.  The plan was for Cadwallader’s brigade to attack Burlington at the same time we made our attempt, but I bring word from there that the river is impassable, and the plan abandoned.”

“I thought the game was up when my general refused the command and set out for Philadelphia,” remarked Wilkinson.

“Gates is too good a politician and too little of a fighter to like forlorn hopes,” sneered Brereton. “He leaves Washington to bear the risk and sets off to make favor with Congress, hoping, I have little doubt, that another defeat will serve to put him in the saddle.”

A half hour brought the two officers to their destination, a rude wooden pier used to conduct teams to the ferryboat. Now, however, ice was drifted and wedged in layers and hummocks some feet beyond its end; and outside this rushed the river, black and silent, save for the dull crunch of the ice-flows as they ground against one another in their race downstream. 

On the end of the dock stood a tall and majestic figure, draped in a cloak, watching a number of men, who, with pick and ax, were cutting away the lodged ice that blocked the pier. Already a variety of boats being filled with men could be seen at each point of the shore where the ground ice made embarkation possible. Along the bank groups of soldiers were clustered about fires of fence rails wherever timber or wall offered the slightest shelter.

Dismounting, the two aides walked to the dock and gave their letters to the tall man, who was no other than George Washington, commander of the American army. The disasters of the campaign had left their marks on his grave, strong face, but it was still calm and confident, even at this moment when the cause seemed on the point of utter breakdown. Taking the papers, Washington gave a final word to the sappers and miners: “Look alive there, men. Every minute now is worth an hour tomorrow”; and, followed by Brereton, he walked to the ferry-house that he might find light with which to read the dispatches. 

By the aid of a smoky lantern, he glanced hastily through the two letters. “General Gates leaves to us all the honor to be gained tonight. Colonel Cadwallader declares it impossible to get his guns across,” he told his aide, without a trace of emotion in his voice. Then his eyes flashed with a sudden exultation as he went on: “It seems there are some in our own force, as well as the enemy, who need a lesson in winter campaigning.”

“Then your excellency intends to attempt a crossing?” asked Brereton.

“We shall attack Trenton before daybreak; and as we are likely to have a cold and wet march, stay you within doors and warm yourself after your ride. You are not needed and there is a good fire in the kitchen.”

Brereton, with a shake of his head, stepped from the hallway into the kitchen. Only one man was in the room, and he, seated at the table, was occupied in rolling cartridges. It was a friend, McClure, a preacher.

“Ho, parson, this is new work for you,” greeted Brereton.

“Yes, making cartridges with the leaves of the Watts’ Hymnal. ”

“Good! No danger of those cartridges getting wet, for Watts will never be anything but dry.”

“Tut, tut,” reproved the clergyman. “Dry or not, he has done God’s work in the past, and, with the aid of Heaven, he’ll do it again tonight.”

The rumble of artillery at this point warned the aide that the embarkation was actually beginning, and, hastily catching up the cartridges already made, he unbuttoned the flannel shirt he wore and stuffed them in. Throwing his cloak about him, he hurried out.

II

The ice had finally been removed and a hay barge dragged up to the pier. Without delay two 12-pounders were rolled upon it, with their men and horses; and, leaving further superintendence of the embarkation to Generals Greene and Knox, Washington and his staff took their places between the guns. Two row-galleys having made fast to the front, the men in them bent to the oars, and the barge moved slowly from the shore. Its start was the signal to all the other craft to put off.

The instant the shelter of the land was lost, the struggle with the elements began. The wind, blowing savagely from the northeast, swept upon them, and, churning the river into foam, drove the bitterly cold spray against man and beast. Masses of ice, impelled by the current and blast, were only kept from colliding with the boat by the artillerymen, who, with the rammers and sponges of the guns, thrust them back, while the bows-men in the galleys had much ado to keep a space clear for the oars to swing. To make it worse, before fifty yards had been covered the air was filled with snow, now sweeping one way and now another, shutting off all sight of the shores and making the rushing current of the black, sullen river the sole means by which direction could be judged.”

“What horrible weather!” said Brereton.

Washington turned to him. “Be thankful you’ve something between you and the river, my boy. Twenty-four years ago this very week I was returning from a mission to the French on the Ohio, and to cross a river we made a raft of logs. I was poling, and the current threw the raft with so much violence against the pole that it jerked me out into ten feet of water, and I was like to have drowned. This wind and sleet seem warn when I remember that; and had Gates and Cadwallader been there the storm and ice tonight would not have seemed to them such obstacles. ‘Twas my first public service,” he added after a slight pause. “Who knows that tonight may not be my last?”

“’Tis ever a possibility,” spoke up Webb,” since your excellency is so reckless in exposing yourself to the enemy’s fire.”

Washington shrugged his shoulder but gave no answer.

Departure had been taken from the Pennsylvania shore before ten; but ice, wind, and current made the crossing so laborious and slow that a landing of the first detachment was not affected until nearly twelve. Then the boats went back for their second load, the advance meanwhile huddling together wherever there was the slightest shelter from the blast and hail that was now cutting mercilessly. Not till three o’clock did the second division land, and another hour was lost in the formation of the column. At last, however, the order to march was given, and the twenty-four hundred weary, soaked, and well-nigh frozen men set off through the blinding storm on the nine-mile march to Trenton.

At Yardley’s Ferry the force divided, Sullivan’s division keeping to the river turnpike, intending to enter Trenton from the south, while the main division took the cross – road, so as to come out to the north of the town, the plan being to place the enemy thus between two fires.

Owing to the delay in crossing the river, it was daylight when the outskirts of the town were reached, but the falling snow veiled the advance, and here the column halted temporarily to permit of scouting. While the troops stood at ease, an aide from Sullivan’s detachment reported that it had arrived on the other side of the village and was ready for the attack, save that their cartridges were too wet for use.

“Very well, sir,” ordered Washington. “Return and tell General Sullivan he must rely on the bayonet.”

“Your excellency,” said Colonel Hand, stepping up, “my regiment is in the same plight, and our rifles carry no bayonets.”

“Here are some dry cartridges,” said Brereton, unbuttoning his shirt.

“Let your men draw their charges and reload, Colonel Hand,” commanded Washington.

In a moment, the order to advance was given, and the column opened out on the post road leading toward Princeton. The first sign of life was a man in a front yard, engaged in cutting wood. The Commander-in-Chief, who was leading the advance, called to him:

“Which way is the Hessian picket?”

“Find out for yourself, “retorted the chopper.

“Speak out, man,” roared Webb, hotly; “this is General Washington.”

“God bless and prosper you, sir!” shouted the man.” Follow me and I’ll show you,” he added, starting down the road at a run. As he came to the house, without a pause, he swung his ax and burst open the door with a single blow.“ Come on,” he shrieked, and darted in, followed by some of the riflemen.

Leaving them to secure the picket, the regiments went forward, just as a desultory firing from the front showed that the alarm had been given by Sullivan’s attack. Pushing on, they gained a sight of the enemy — a confused mass of men some three hundred yards away, but in front of them two guns were already being wheeled into position by the artillerists, with the obvious purpose of checking the advance until the regiments had time to form.

“Capture the battery!” came the stern voice of the commander.

“Forward, double quick!” shouted Colonel Hand.

Brereton, putting spurs to his horse, joined in the rush of the men as the regiment broke into a run.“ Look out, Hand!” he yelled. “They’ll be ready to fire before we can get there, and in this narrow road we’ll be cut in pieces. Give them a dose of Watts.”

“Halt!” roared Hand, and then in quick succession came the order, “Take aim! Fire!”

“Hurrah for the hymns!” cheered Brereton, as a number of the gunners fell, and the remainder, deserting the cannon, fell back on the infantry,” Come on,” he roared, as the Virginia light horse, taking advantage of an open field, raced the riflemen to the guns. Barely were they reached, when a mounted officer rode up to the Hessian regiments and cried, “Vorwärts!” waving his sword toward the cannon.

“We can’t hold the guns against them!” yelled Brereton. “Over with them, men!”

In an instant the soldiers with rifles and the cavalry with the rammers that had been dropped clustered about the cannon, some prying and some lifting. Before the foe could reach them the two pieces of artillery were tipped over and rolled into the ditch. The Americans scattered the moment the guns were made useless to the British.

This gave the Continental infantry in the rear their opportunity and they poured in a scathing volley, quickly followed by the roar of Captain Forrest’s artillery, which unlimbered and opened fire. A wild confusion followed, the enemy advancing until the American regiments charged them in the face of their volleys. Upon this they broke and, falling back in disorder, tried to escape to the east road through an orchard. Stevens’ brigade and Hand’s riflemen headed them off. Flight in this direction made impossible, the enemy retreated toward the town, but the column under Sullivan blocked this outlet. Forrest’s cannons were pushed forward utterly unheeding of both the enemy fire and of the protests of his staff. Showing the new position for the guns, he ordered them loaded with canister.

Captain Forrest himself stooped to sight one of the cannons, then cried, “Sir, they have struck!”

“Struck!” exclaimed Washington.

“Yes, their colors are down, and they have grounded their arms.”

Washington cantered toward the enemy.

“Your excellency,” shouted an officer, “the Hessians have surrendered. Here is Colonel Rahl.”

Washington rode to where, supported by two sergeants, that officer stood, his brilliant uniform darkened by the blood flowing from two wounds, and took from his hand the sword the Hessian commander, with bowed head, due to both shame and faintness, held out to him.

“Let his wounds have attention,” the general ordered. 

Wheeling his horse, he looked at the three regiments of Hessians. “’Tis a glorious day for our country,” he said, the personal triumph already forgotten in the greater one.

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