The Battle Of Trenton

And such they are--and such they will be found:

Not so Leonidas and Washington,

Their every battle-field is holy ground

Which breathes of nations saved, not worlds undone.

How sweetly on the ear such echoes sound!

While the mere victor's may appal or stun

The servile and the vain, such names will be

A watchword till the future shall be free.


In December, 1776, the American Revolution was at its lowest ebb. The

first burst of enthusiasm, which drove the British back from Concord

and met them hand to hand at Bunker Hill, which forced them to abandon

Boston and repulsed their attack at Charleston, had spent its force. The

undisciplined American forces called suddenly from the workshop and the

farm had given way, under the strain of a prolonged contest, and had

been greatly scattered, many of the soldiers returning to their homes.

The power of England, on the other hand, with her disciplined army and

abundant resources, had begun to tell. Washington, fighting stubbornly,

had been driven during the summer and autumn from Long Island up the

Hudson, and New York had passed into the hands of the British. Then

Forts Lee and Washington had been lost, and finally the Continental army

had retreated to New Jersey. On the second of December Washington was

at Princeton with some three thousand ragged soldiers, and had escaped

destruction only by the rapidity of his movements. By the middle of the

month General Howe felt that the American army, unable as he believed

either to fight or to withstand the winter, must soon dissolve, and,

posting strong detachments at various points, he took up his winter

quarters in New York. The British general had under his command in his

various divisions twenty-five thousand well-disciplined soldiers, and

the conclusion he had reached was not an unreasonable one; everything,

in fact, seemed to confirm his opinion. Thousands of the colonists were

coming in and accepting his amnesty. The American militia had left the

field, and no more would turn out, despite Washington's earnest appeals.

All that remained of the American Revolution was the little Continental

army and the man who led it.

Yet even in this dark hour Washington did not despair. He sent in every

direction for troops. Nothing was forgotten. Nothing that he could do

was left undone. Unceasingly he urged action upon Congress, and at the

same time with indomitable fighting spirit he planned to attack the

British. It was a desperate undertaking in the face of such heavy odds,

for in all his divisions he had only some six thousand men, and even

these were scattered. The single hope was that by his own skill and

courage he could snatch victory from a situation where victory seemed

impossible. With the instinct of a great commander he saw that his only

chance was to fight the British detachments suddenly, unexpectedly,

and separately, and to do this not only required secrecy and perfect

judgment, but also the cool, unwavering courage of which, under such

circumstances, very few men have proved themselves capable. As Christmas

approached his plans were ready. He determined to fall upon the British

detachment of Hessians, under Colonel Rahl, at Trenton, and there strike

his first blow. To each division of his little army a part in the

attack was assigned with careful forethought. Nothing was overlooked and

nothing omitted, and then, for some reason good or bad, every one of

the division commanders failed to do his part. As the general plan was

arranged, Gates was to march from Bristol with two thousand men; Ewing

was to cross at Trenton; Putnam was to come up from Philadelphia; and

Griffin was to make a diversion against Donop. When the moment came,

Gates, who disapproved the plan, was on his way to Congress; Griffin

abandoned New Jersey and fled before Donop; Putnam did not attempt

to leave Philadelphia; and Ewing made no effort to cross at Trenton.

Cadwalader came down from Bristol, looked at the river and the

floating ice, and then gave it up as desperate. Nothing remained except

Washington himself with the main army, but he neither gave up, nor

hesitated, nor stopped on account of the ice, or the river, or the

perils which lay beyond. On Christmas Eve, when all the Christian

world was feasting and rejoicing, and while the British were enjoying

themselves in their comfortable quarters, Washington set out. With

twenty-four hundred men he crossed the Delaware through the floating ice,

his boats managed and rowed by the sturdy fishermen of Marblehead from

Glover's regiment. The crossing was successful, and he landed about nine

miles from Trenton. It was bitter cold, and the sleet and snow drove

sharply in the faces of the troops. Sullivan, marching by the river,

sent word that the arms of his soldiers were wet. "Tell your general,"

was Washington's reply to the message, "to use the bayonet, for the

town must be taken." When they reached Trenton it was broad daylight.

Washington, at the front and on the right of the line, swept down the

Pennington road, and, as he drove back the Hessian pickets, he heard the

shout of Sullivan's men as, with Stark leading the van, they charged in

from the river. A company of jaegers and of light dragoons slipped away.

There was some fighting in the streets, but the attack was so strong and

well calculated that resistance was useless. Colonel Rahl, the British

commander, aroused from his revels, was killed as he rushed out to rally

his men, and in a few moments all was over. A thousand prisoners fell

into Washington's hands, and this important detachment of the enemy was

cut off and destroyed.

The news of Trenton alarmed the British, and Lord Cornwallis with seven

thousand of the best troops started at once from New York in hot pursuit

of the American army. Washington, who had now rallied some five thousand

men, fell back, skirmishing heavily, behind the Assunpink, and when

Cornwallis reached the river he found the American army awaiting him on

the other side of the stream. Night was falling, and Cornwallis, feeling

sure of his prey, decided that he would not risk an assault until the

next morning. Many lessons had not yet taught him that it was a fatal

business to give even twelve hours to the great soldier opposed to him.

During the night Washington, leaving his fires burning and taking

a roundabout road which he had already reconnoitered, marched to

Princeton. There he struck another British detachment. A sharp fight

ensued, the British division was broken and defeated, losing some five

hundred men, and Washington withdrew after this second victory to the

highlands of New Jersey to rest and recruit.

Frederick the Great is reported to have said that this was the most

brilliant campaign of the century. With a force very much smaller than

that of the enemy, Washington had succeeded in striking the British at

two places with superior forces at each point of contact. At Trenton he

had the benefit of a surprise, but the second time he was between two

hostile armies. He was ready to fight Cornwallis when the latter reached

the Assunpink, trusting to the strength of his position to make up for

his inferiority of numbers. But when Cornwallis gave him the delay of a

night, Washington, seeing the advantage offered by his enemy's mistake,

at once changed his whole plan, and, turning in his tracks, fell upon

the smaller of the two forces opposed to him, wrecking and defeating

it before the outgeneraled Cornwallis could get up with the main army.

Washington had thus shown the highest form of military skill, for

there is nothing that requires so much judgment and knowledge, so much

certainty of movement and quick decision, as to meet a superior enemy at

different points, force the fighting, and at each point to outnumber and

overwhelm him.

But the military part of this great campaign was not all. Many great

soldiers have not been statesmen, and have failed to realize the

political necessities of the situation. Washington presented the rare

combination of a great soldier and a great statesman as well. He aimed

not only to win battles, but by his operations in the field to influence

the political situation and affect public opinion. The American

Revolution was going to pieces. Unless some decisive victory could be

won immediately, it would have come to an end in the winter of 1776-77.

This Washington knew, and it was this which nerved his arm. The results

justified his forethought. The victories of Trenton and Princeton

restored the failing spirits of the people, and, what was hardly

less important, produced a deep impression in Europe in favor of the

colonies. The country, which had lost heart, and become supine and

almost hostile, revived. The militia again took the field. Outlying

parties of the British were attacked and cut off, and recruits once more

began to come in to the Continental army. The Revolution was saved. That

the English colonies in North America would have broken away from the

mother country sooner or later cannot be doubted, but that particular

Revolution Of 1776 would have failed within a year, had it not been

for Washington. It is not, however, merely the fact that he was a great

soldier and statesman which we should remember. The most memorable thing

to us, and to all men, is the heroic spirit of the man, which rose in

those dreary December days to its greatest height, under conditions

so adverse that they had crushed the hope of every one else. Let it

be remembered, also, that it was not a spirit of desperation or of

ignorance, a reckless daring which did not count the cost. No one knew

better than Washington--no one, indeed, so well--the exact state of

affairs; for he, conspicuously among great men, always looked facts

fearlessly in the face, and never deceived himself. He was under no

illusions, and it was this high quality of mind as much as any other

which enabled him to win victories.

How he really felt we know from what he wrote to Congress on December

20, when he said: "It may be thought that I am going a good deal out of

the line of my duty to adopt these measures or to advise thus freely.

A character to lose, an estate to forfeit, the inestimable blessing of

liberty at stake, and a life devoted, must be my excuse." These were the

thoughts in his mind when he was planning this masterly campaign. These

same thoughts, we may readily believe, were with him when his boat was

making its way through the ice of the Delaware on Christmas Eve. It was

a very solemn moment, and he was the only man in the darkness of that

night who fully understood what was at stake; but then, as always, he

was calm and serious, with a high courage which nothing could depress.

The familiar picture of a later day depicts Washington crossing the

Delaware at the head of his soldiers. He is standing up in the boat,

looking forward in the teeth of the storm. It matters little whether the

work of the painter is in exact accordance with the real scene or not.

The daring courage, the high resolve, the stern look forward and onward,

which the artist strove to show in the great leader, are all vitally

true. For we may be sure that the man who led that well-planned but

desperate assault, surrounded by darker conditions than the storms of

nature which gathered about his boat, and carrying with him the fortunes

of his country, was at that moment one of the most heroic figures in


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