On this day, during the American Revolution, Patriot General George Washington crossed the Delaware River with 5,400 troops hoping to surprise a Hessian force celebrating Christmas at their winter quarters in Trenton, New Jersey. He was 44 years of age at the time.
The unconventional attack occurred during one of the lowest points of the American Revolution following several months of staggering defeats for Washington’s army including the loss of New York City and other strategic points in the region.
In an effort to boost morale, General George Washington ordered all of his troops to read Thomas Paine’s new pamphlet of December 19th titled The American Crisis. From that pamphlet:
“These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Washington’s attack plan incorporated three different crossings. Colonel Cadwalader was to lead a force across the river near Burlington, New Jersey to prevent British and Hessian units from reaching Trenton in its defense. General James Ewing was to cross the river at Trenton and take up a defensive position along the Assumpink River to prevent retreat.
Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead fishermen were to ferry the American main force across the Delaware River at McConkey’s and Johnson’s ferries then march to Trenton. Colonel Henry Knox was given command of the operation for which Washington chose the challenge or counter-sign “Victory or Death” for his forces.
Temperatures for the crossing ranged from 29 degrees to 33 degrees, with brisk winds coming out of the northeast. Only the 2,400 soldiers under Colonel Knox’s command successfully crossed at the appointed time.
It took these soldiers four hours to march from the river crossing site to the outskirts of Trenton. Future US President James Monroe crossed with the American forces and was wounded in the Battle of Trenton. Although several hundred Hessians escaped, nearly 1,000 were captured at the cost of only four American lives.
The news of Washington’s initiative raised the spirits of the American colonists who previously feared that the Continental Army was incapable of victory.
The unincorporated communities of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania and Washington Crossing, New Jersey are named in honor of this event.