On a dark, snowy Christmas night in 1776, the soldiers of Gen. George Washington’s army left their shelters and went down to the banks of the Delaware River. The men slipped and stumbled through ice and snow. Some of them had no boots. Others had clothing so thin that they were almost naked. All of them were hungry.
The 2,400 men in Washington’s command were soaked by an icy rain as they waited for the boats that had been assembled. This was the night that the “Old Fox” had planned to surprise the enemy forces across the river in Trenton, New Jersey. These soldiers were Hessian troops, well-trained German mercenaries hired by the British to put an end to the American Revolution.
The Delaware River was filled with fast-moving chunks of ice, but Washington had to take his small boats across anyway. In a few days the river would freeze solid again, and the Hessian soldiers would march across the ice to capture Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence had been signed just six months earlier. The benefits gained by the brave words of that document were close to being lost.
As he watched his men, General Washington carefully reviewed his plans. It had only been a week since he had decided to try to surprise the enemy. Final plans for the crossing had been checked by his lieutenants the night before—Christmas Eve. He had kept his men parading around during the day to deceive any British spies who may have been watching. Now it was time to go.
Experienced sailor-fishermen from Marble Head, Massachusetts, used all of their skill to maneuver the boats that had been hidden behind some weed-covered islands. One of his officers wrote: “I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the loading of his troops.”
The men filed aboard the boats, but the snow was biting into their eyes and faces and the loading was going more slowly than planned. When the boats were ready, Washington took his place among his men, to lead them across the dangerous waters.
The swirling river and fast-moving pieces of ice threatened time and again to overturn the heavily laden boats as the sailors fought their way across. At long last, waiting patriots waded into the water to help pull the boats safely ashore on the New Jersey side of the river. The first crossing had been successful!
Back and forth the boats crossed the Delaware, bringing Washington’s men safely together, but the general was deeply troubled. If they were to surprise the enemy, they had to march out by midnight and the crossing was going to last much later than that.
It was after 2 A.M. when the troops began to march toward Trenton. Dawn was not far away and it would be broad daylight when the army reached Trenton. The element of surprise was in danger of being lost.
The snow changed to sleet and cut the men like a knife. General Greene, who was leading one column of troops, sent a message to Washington, “Muskets wet and can’t be fired.” Washington replied, “Use your bayonets then. The town must be taken.” But many of the men had no bayonets!
The troops arrived at Trenton at eight o’clock. No one tried to stop them. The Hessians had been celebrating the holiday far into the night and many still slept, some in a drunken state.
The surprise attack was entirely successful and the enemy soldiers quickly routed. In just two hours the Americans took control of the whole town. Twenty or thirty Hessians were killed and more than nine hundred prisoners were taken. The revolutionists had gained a complete victory without a single death in the battle!
The “Old Fox” had hit the enemy where they least expected it and so alarmed them that they fled from many outposts during the next few days. Most importantly, Washington had demonstrated that the cause of the colonies was far from finished. Confidence in the Continental army was restored among the colonies and their allies. It was with new hope and determination that the patriots went forth to fight—and win—the War of Independence.