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Christmas at Trenton gave us freedom
As we celebrate this most joyous of seasons, perhaps we should also remember another Christmas event. A Christmas in Trenton, when America found its real unity and became a nation.
In November 1776, the Colonial Army was forced into a series of strategic withdrawls by a superior British army.
Leaving New York, the colonials, a loosely joined combination of local and state militia, moved across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. They left behind supplies, tents and food.
They arrived on the west bank of the Delaware River just before the winter freeze set in. Along the march, numbers dwindled when enlistment periods ended and militia simply went home. They left without overdue pay and with only the clothes on their backs, a shabby sight.
Those who stayed, either through loyalty or awaiting the end date of their enlistments, were also without basic shelter, scrounging for food, and outfitted in clothing well past serviceable life. Washington’s “army” would be considered a disgrace by any military expert and certainly classed “ineffective” as a fighting force.
Having suffered serial defeats at the hands of a superior force, and having no reasonable possibility of reconstituting as an effective fighting force, the Colonial Army was on the verge of complete collapse.
George Washington and the approximately 2,500 militia who remained with him had little to be thankful for on Christmas Day, 1776. The glory of summer was gone and the army now faced “The times that try men’s souls” so eloquently described by Thomas Paine.
With the fate of the American revolution and the nation in absolute jeopardy, Washington, with certain desperation and absolute faith in the men he commanded, set forth on a gamble that stands today in the records of history as one of the most audacious military raids. Washington executed a plan that could not succeed and yet it did.
Washington did cross the Delaware on the late evening of Christmas Day. The crossing was not the heroic boat picture we all know so well but rather using crowded flat, shallow draft scows with about 40 men huddled on each one. Each boat that crossed encountered icy currents and a normal 15 minute trip took 45 minutes.
The small band of colonial militia landed about nine miles north of Trenton, a town garrisoned with about 1,500 top line Hessian troops. The march from the landing site to Trenton was over rough roads covered with ice and icy cold streams to ford, all this while maintaining secrecy.
The weather was bitterly cold with freezing rain and hail. The colonial troops were without winter clothes and many were without shoes. Feet wrapped in torn rags or barefoot, their blankets serving as cloaks soaked through, they marched on.
The road behind the army was stained red by the bloodied feet and lined with men who simply could go no further. But arrive at Trenton they did. They were exhausted, cold, hungry, and ready to fight.
The 2,500 colonials who left the west bank of the Delaware became a cohesive fighting force and an army during the march to Trenton and the battle that ensued.
With a watchword “Victory or death,” each man knew what was at stake for themselves and all other patriots. To lose was a sure path to slavery under the crown while victory only provided an opportunity to fight another day.
Fight they did, and win they did.
During the battle for Trenton, the American army was born. During the battle, Americans finally demonstrated the signs of a unified nation.
Although Washington withdrew from Trenton after the victory, he took with him clothing and food for his men, replacement weapons and ammunition, and pride in accomplishment that would see his men through the terrible winter to follow and the years of hardship before ultimate victory.
The exhausted men marched home with shoes on their feet, new clothes on their backs, new blankets, food in their knapsacks, and about 1500 Hessian prisoners.
They also marched as victors over the best the enemy had to offer and they marched as Americans.
As we count our blessings at Christmas this year, perhaps we should count one more. Trenton is perhaps the most important Christmas present any American ever received.