Washington Crossing the Delaware
What factors impact who wins a battle?
The number of soldiers on each side is important. So are the weapons. And strategy. But there’s another factor, which the generals have no control over: the weather.
A storm can change the course of a battle, and the course of history, too. That’s what happened on December 26, 1776.
In December of 1776, George Washington’s Continental Army arrived in Philadelphia. They had just lost four battles in a row to the British army and were forced to retreat a hundred miles from New York through New Jersey to Pennsylvania.
The army was falling apart. Over the previous months, most of the soldiers had gone home: for some, their enlistment time was up; others deserted the army when they just couldn’t take the terrible conditions any longer. They were suffering from ragged uniforms, lack of shoes and blankets, no food, and the frigid cold of winter.
As Washington wrote: “To see men without clothes… without blankets to lay on, without shoes by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet… marching through frost and snow and taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them till they could be built…”
How did they keep from giving up, and then go on to win the war? What inspired them?
Washington, the Leader
Part of the answer is George Washington himself. Washington was a charismatic figure, a born leader.
Most of his men were farmers and fishermen. They came ready to fight, but they needed someone to train them and show them how. Washington was that man, an experienced soldier. He wasn’t the only soldier in America at the time, but there was nobody like him.
He stood out in a crowd. The patriot Benjamin Rush said that Washington had “so much dignity” that you would pick him out “as a general and a soldier from among 10,000 people. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a chamber servant by his side.”
He was also a great horseman. When he rode down the street in Boston or Philadelphia, it was, wrote historian David Hackett Fischer, like “a one-man parade,” and people would stop to watch him go by.
Washington was far from perfect. He lost many battles. He had a bad temper, and wasn’t always able to control his anger, especially when people disagreed with him.
But in battle, he was calm and fearless; and throughout the war — which lasted 8 years – he never gave up.
Except, that is, when he almost did, at the crossing of the Delaware.
Washington chose to attack the Hessian forces (soldiers from Hesse in Germany, hired to fight for the British) on the other side of the Delaware River in Trenton, on December 26. But that same day, the weather turned against them.
As they got ready for the campaign, ice began forming in the river; chunks of ice that the boatmen had to push their way through with long poles, hoping they could get across before the ice filled and blocked the whole river.
Meanwhile, the pouring rain mixed with blinding snow and sleet. It soaked their uniforms and splattered in their faces. The wind howled and blew into their eyes, so they could hardly see.
An officer made a note in his diary: “It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow-storm is setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men… the storm is changing to sleet and cuts like a knife.”
Ever since Washington Crossing the Delaware was painted in 1851 by the German artist Gottlieb Leutze, who was inspired by the story, it has inspired patriotism in others. The heroic scene makes you want to be like that: standing up against the storm for a great cause.
The painting has inspired something else too: Debate.
The debate is over how accurate the picture is. Is that the way things really looked? Or is it only the artist’s imagination (the imagination of an artist who lived almost a hundred years later)?
Historians have argued about this for years. Some dismiss it as myth-making, pointing out that some things in the picture just weren’t like that.
For example, it wasn’t daytime; it was night. That was an essential part of the battle plan, to cross under cover of darkness.
The American flag in the picture is wrong: the Stars and Stripes hadn’t been adopted yet.
As for Washington standing up in the boat… well, if he tried that, he’d soon have been in the freezing water.
Those who defend the painting agree that Leutze got the lighting and the flag wrong. However, they “stand up” for Washington standing up in the boat. They explain that the icy water in the bottoms of those low boats made it almost impossible to sit down, and that not only Washington but others also had to stand and stamp their feet to keep from getting soaked.
They also make the point that the overall scene is historically true, and captures a great moment in history as few works of art ever have.
Washington Almost Gives Up
Everything was going wrong. Two of the three American forces which were supposed to attack Trenton never made it across the river.
With the men under his personal command, Washington planned to cross the Delaware at midnight, in order to be at Trenton while it was still dark, to surprise the enemy. The Hessians were a strong force of well-armed professional soldiers, and without the element of surprise, Washington didn’t stand much of a chance against them.
But because of the bad weather, icy roads, slow progress in pulling the heavy cannon, and other problems, they weren’t ready to go until 4 a.m. Four hours late! By the time they finished marching the ten miles from the river landing to Trenton, it would already be day, and the Hessians would be ready for them.
Washington was almost in despair. After landing on the New Jersey side, he sat down on a wooden box as the men continued struggling across, and wondered if he should call the whole thing off.
If Washington lost the battle, he could lose the war; and if he lost the war, he’d lose the revolution and the fight for freedom.
And he would be blamed. Not only that, but he and his fellow revolutionaries — Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison — would all be hanged by the British as traitors. The list had already been drawn up.
But Washington decided it was too late to call it off. There was no going back. As he wrote later, “I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered, and [attacked] on repassing the river. I determined to push on at all events.”
Doing the Impossible
The sun rose that day at 7:20 a.m., when the Americans were supposed to be attacking the Hessians. But they were still on the march, two miles from Trenton, at 7:30 a.m., and it was already daylight.
But the daylight wasn’t much. The storm clouds blocked out the sun. Sleet and snow were falling heavily, and it was so dark that it was hard to see where they were going. That made things tough for the Americans; but it also helped them, because the enemy couldn’t see them either.
Incredibly, even though they were way behind schedule, they still had the element of surprise going for them.
The Hessians had been on alert for several days and nights (thanks to information from spies in Washington’s camp). They had patrols going all the time, and were supposed to be ready for an attack. Stories about the Hessians being drunk and asleep when the Americans arrived are simply not true.
But they were tired and frazzled from the steady rumors and alerts, which also helped the Americans.
And if the Americans didn’t think it was possible to launch an attack in the middle of this raging storm, neither did the Hessians. Both sides thought it was a crazy thing to do. Armies just didn’t do this, they waited for storms to pass before attacking.
The Americans surprised the Hessians by doing the impossible.
When dawn came, it was also only natural for them to think the moment of danger was over, since they expected the Americans to attack at night, if at all. So the lateness actually helped Washington’s cause.
The Hessians were soon roused by sounds of shooting, shouts for help, bugles and drums, and they rushed to defend the town. But now it was too late for them. The Americans had already surrounded them and had rolled their cannons in position to smash their defenses.
The actual fighting was over in an hour and a half. The numbers told the tale: 23 Hessians killed, 1,000 taken prisoner and 400 who escaped. On the American side: None killed, 2 officers and 2 privates wounded.
The Americans went on to defeat the British at Princeton and Saratoga, and that convinced France to join on their side, which eventually led to the surrender of the British at Yorktown.
Paine, the Writer
Thomas Paine was a British-born writer who marched with the army across New Jersey. He saw their sagging spirits and decided to do something about it. He sat down and wrote what was to become one of the most famous essays ever written, and a historical event in itself. Paine wrote it at stops along the path of retreat — at the Passaic River crossing, in Newark and in Philadelphia, where he finished it.
It was called The American Crisis, and it was published on December 19, 1776, at just the right time.
“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 thanks of man and woman.”
Washington was so impressed, he ordered that it be read aloud to the troops. Within a day, copies were being carried on horseback around the country. The effect was electric. Paine’s words helped strengthen the soldiers. When the time came a few days later to strike again in New Jersey at the Battle of Trenton, they were determined for victory.
But most important of all, the American soldiers themselves had the ability to be inspired. They believed in their cause, a new concept in the world then: a country ruled not by a king but by the people. If they didn’t have that, they would not have been able to be inspired by Washington and Paine the way they were.
“You’d be amazed to see them”
They showed that the most important supply in war is something called morale, a feeling of determination to overcome all obstacles to achieve the common goal. All the guns won’t help if you don’t have that.
As one officer from Connecticut wrote home about the men: “You would be amazed to see what fine spirits they are in… and the troops you may depend will fight bravely.”
That spirit held up through the coming battle. As fife player John Greenwood wrote of the Delaware crossing: “The noise of the soldiers coming over and clearing away the ice, the rattling of the cannon wheels on the frozen ground, and the cheerfulness of my fellow comrades encouraged me beyond expression, and big coward as I [admit] myself to be, I felt great pleasure…”
There were many factors in the American victory. But perhaps the most remarkable was the weather. Rarely has weather played so dramatic a role in a battle. So bad, it almost wrecked Washington’s crossing the Delaware; and so bad that the Hessians thought it would stop the Americans. Wow, were they were surprised!
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 851)
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