Sunday, November 10, 2019

Episode 122 Crossing the Delaware

For the last few weeks I've been building up Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River, famously portrayed in Emanuel Leutze’s  painting.  Despite the attention given to this famous act, it's hard to exaggerate just how important this event was to the course of the war.  Had Washington not attempted the attack, or failed in its execution, there is a very good chance that the Continental Army would have dissolved that winter and the rebellion come to an end.

Continental Army in Tatters

Washington's Army had fallen to a few thousand men without adequate food, clothing, or shelter to get through the winter. the British regulars had pushed them back to Philadelphia.  The only thing that had kept the regulars from taking Philadelphia that winter, was General Howe’s decision not to deliver the final blow.  A great many of Washington’s soldiers had already gone home, and many of those remaining were simply waiting for their enlistments to end on December 31st.  Conventional wisdom was that, if there was still an army in the field to oppose it, the British Army would begin its final offensive in the spring, continue conquering territory, and suppress all armed resistance and talk of independence.

Washington's Crossing by Emanuel Leutze
(from Metropolitan Museum of Art)
It was far from clear that Washington's surprise attack would be successful or even that it would be a surprise.  The combined British and Hessian forces in southern New Jersey probably outnumbered the forces that Washington could put into any attack.  Washington had to have considered the precedent a year earlier when generals Montgomery and Arnold conducted a similar winter attack against Quebec leading to Montgomery's death, Arnold’s serious injury, and the capture of most of the northern army.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I have often wondered if Washington really thought he could pull off a victory that night, or whether he thought it preferable to die in a desperate battle rather than lose the war and surrender. Whatever he really thought about his chances, Washington never expressed any defeatism even to his closest associates.

Washington’s situation had improved a little.  Following the capture of General Charles Lee on December 13, his army in northern New Jersey, which Lee had complained could not make the journey to join up with Washington, seemed to have no problems making the march without their commander.  General Horatio Gates had also led regiments from Fort Ticonderoga to join Washington.  The Pennsylvania Associators, which were militia, also assembled to provide support.

By December 22, Washington reported that the men under his command numbered over 11,000, though only about half were ready for combat.  The other half of his army remained on the sick rolls.  Lack of adequate winter clothing and shoes, as well as inadequate food, contributed largely to the numbers of sick.  Even so, his effective fighting force of just over 6000 gave him a slight numerical advantage over the British and Hessian outposts along southern New Jersey, or as it was called at the time, West Jersey.

The Decision to Fight

That same day, Colonel Joseph Reed sent a letter to Washington saying that his spies had seen little activity between the scattered and isolated British outposts, and that Colonel Samuel Griffin’s force of 600 had engaged Colonel Carl Von Donop’s Hessians at Mt. Holly and were in high spirits.

Reed’s letter continued by recommending that Washington either send more troops to reinforce Griffin, or use the opportunity to make a major attack on another isolated outpost.  Reed thought the latter a better choice.  He stressed his recommendation by saying:
I will not disguise my own Sentiments that our Cause is desperate & hopeless if we do not take the [opportunity] of the Collection of Troops at present to strike some Stroke. Our Affairs are hasting fast to Ruin if we do not retrieve them by some happy Event. Delay with us is now equal to a total Defeat.  Be not deceived my dear General with small flatterg Appearances, we must not suffer our selves to be lulld into Security & Inacti[o]n because the Enemy does not cross the River—It is but a Reprieve the Execution is the more certain for I am very clear that they can & will cross the River in Spite of any Opposition we can give them.
Remember Reed and Washington had a strained relationship at this time, because Washington had recently learned of Reed’s letter to General Lee criticizing Washington for his indecision in his battles with the British in New York. Reed ended his letter asking pardon for his impertinence in recommending strategy to his commander, but again stressed the desperate circumstances.
Pardon the Freedom I have used, the Love of my Country, a Wife & 4 Children in the Enemys Hands, the Respect & Attachment I have to you—the Ruin & Poverty that must attend me & thousands of others will plead my Excuse for so much Freedom.
A courier brought Reed’s letter to Washington that same day.  Within hours, Washington convened a council of war with his most senior officers to discuss their options.  Washington submitted the proposal to cross the Delaware and attack a Hessian outpost as Reed’s, not his own.  He wanted his generals to speak openly before he presented his own views.  Everyone seemed to agree that an attack was the best option.  Even if it was risky, the consensus that doing nothing would lead to almost certain dissolution of the army meant that such a risk was justified.  The council then turned to the tougher question of how this would be done.

Planned Crossing Points
(from US Marine Corps College)
With Von Donop’s force of around 3000 Hessians in Mount Holly facing Colonel Griffith’s 600 Americans, the smaller outpost at Trenton was isolated.  Von Donop had been stationed at Bordentown, only five miles from Trenton.  His current location at Mount Holly was about 20 miles away, a day’s march given the weather.  Support from the outpost at Princeton was 14 miles from Trenton and had fewer troops to deploy.  The 1400 Hessians isolated at Trenton became the target of the Continental attack.

Once again, Washington relied on Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead regiment to get his army across the river.  Glover had been invaluable in moving the army across the rivers around New York.  His New England mariners would once again use their experience to move an army across the Delaware River at night.

The next day, December 23, Washington sent out his orders to senior officers for the planned attack on the night of December 25.  Surprise was a key element of the attack.  Washington instructed his senior officers not to reveal the plan the rank and file.  Surprise, though, was out of the question.  The British had numerous spies at top levels of the Continental Army.  Shortly after the American officers learned of the planned attack, an express rider took off for Brunswick New Jersey to inform British General James Grant.  After learning of the plans, Grant sent another express rider back to Trenton to inform the local commander, Colonel Johan Rall, of the planned attack.  Rall received this intelligence on the evening of December 25.  The intelligence was vague, but it told Rall to be on alert for a possible attack.

The Plan

Washington had long had a penchant for drawing up hopelessly complex plans of attack.  This attack was no exception.  Washington divided his forces into three separate divisions.  Washington with his main force would cross the Delaware with the largest force of about 2400 soldiers at a small town with the amazingly coincidental name of “Washington’s Crossing” about 10 miles north of Trenton.  Ok, the area got that name after the fact.  At the time, it was known as McConkey’s Ferry.  His force would also make use of Johnson’s Ferry, a short distance upstream from McConkey’s.

A second force of 1200 men under the command of Pennsylvania Militia General James Ewing would cross at Trenton Ferry, just south of town.  Although Ewing was a militia officer, he had decades of experience.  He was actually an alumnus of the Braddock Expedition, along with Washington, from way back in 1755.  Ewing’s mission was to capture and hold the bridge just south of Trenton, to prevent any Hessian retreat as Washington’s forces attacked from the north.

John Cadwalader and Family
(from Wikimedia)
A third force under the command of Colonel John Cadwalader with 1200 Philadelphia Associators, and Colonel Daniel Hitchcock with 600 Continentals, would cross about 12 miles south of Trenton from Bristol, Pennsylvania to Burlington New Jersey, the current location of the Burlington Bristol Bridge.  Of course, there was no bridge at the time.  The men would have to cross in boats.  Their mission was to attack Colonel Von Donop’s Hessians and British Colonel Stirling’s Highlanders, possibly joining up with Colonel Griffith’s 600 militia who had already engaged Von Donop at Mount Holly.  Although the enemy outnumbered the patriot attackers here, they were mostly there to act as a diversion and prevent Stirling or Von Donop from marching to rescue the forces at Trenton.  As Washington put it in his orders to Cadwalader: “if you can do nothing real, at least create as great a diversion as possible.”

General Israel Putnam also planned to make a fourth crossing further south, moving several hundred Philadelphia militia to attack and distract the enemy at Mount Holly from the south.  Putnam’s attempted crossing, however, was considered the most difficult, and was not considered critical to the Trenton attack.

The plan was for each of these separate crossings take place at night and then have all of them reach their targets at the same time just before dawn in order to surprise the enemy.  This seemed like a tall order. Washington was dividing his forces in the face of the enemy and simply counting on nobody having problems keeping to the planned schedule.  In truth though, Washington had little choice.  There was no way he could get all of these forces across the river at one location in one night. Crossing the river in small boats, loading and unloading men and equipment took considerable time.  It probably would have taken at least two or three days to effect a crossing of all the forces from one location, even in good weather.  Dividing his forces was not so much a tactical choice as it was a necessity.

Washington spent Christmas Eve moving his forces into position for deployment the following night.  The crossing would take place on the night of December 25-26 with the attack on Trenton scheduled for dawn on December 26.  There is a famous story of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a member of the Continental Congress from Philadelphia, visiting Washington on Christmas Eve.  They spoke as Washington wrote out the following day’s password on small slips of paper.  Rush picked up one after it fell to the floor and noted that the password was victory or death.

Crossing the Delaware

On December 25th, each soldier received three day’s rations and 60 rounds of ammunition.  Though they still did not know their mission, everyone knew something was coming.  Almost immediately, things began to go wrong.  Washington had planned for all of his forces to be in place by dusk on the 25th, so that that immediately after dark, just before 5PM, they could move down to the bank and begin crossing.  The entire army had to be across the river by midnight so that they could make the ten mile march to Trenton before dawn.

By dusk though, most of the troops had not arrived at their embarkation points.  With everything so tightly scheduled, even a short delay meant they would arrive in Trenton after dawn. With that, that they would lose the element of surprise.

As Washington was trying to deal with his delays, a messenger delivered a dispatch from General Gates.  Now that General Lee was a prisoner of war, Gates was the ranking general officer with real combat experience as an officer in the regular army before the war started.  You may recall from Episode 118 that Gates had been conspiring with Lee to oust Washington just before the British captured Lee.  Now Gates seemed to be abandoning Washington entirely.  Washington had asked Gates to oversee the crossing at Trenton.  Gates begged off, saying that he was too sick to command the crossing and that he was headed for Philadelphia.  Washington asked him at least to check on the crossing at Bristol on his way to Philadelphia.  But again, Gates claimed he was too sick and had to go straight to Philadelphia.

Now Washington learned that the “sick” General Gates was riding 100 miles to the Continental Congress in Baltimore where he would try to get Congress to order Washington to cancel his attack and pull back the army to Maryland where it could protect the Congress at Baltimore.  Gates was essentially calling Washington a complete failure and saying they needed to give up any defense of Philadelphia because of his failures.  The obvious next step seemed to be to remove Washington and give command of the army to someone else, maybe General Gates.  Upon reading Gates’ message, Washington apparently lost his temper for a moment, something extremely rare, but almost immediately composed himself.  Right now, he had a desperate battle to fight.  He would have to worry about his top general stabbing him in the back later.

Washington likely crossed on a ferry, as portrayed
here (from Washington's Crossing State Park)
Washington’s more immediate problem was the weather. Just after dark, a light drizzle began to fall.  Very quickly it turned into a driving combination of rain, sleet, and snow, soaking his army and causing the soldiers to freeze.  Ice flows in the river made the crossing almost impossible.  The river had not frozen solid enough for the army to walk across but large chunks of ice made the use of boats extremely hazardous as well.

Further down river, the ice situation was even worse.  General Ewing’s planned crossing just below the Trenton Falls never even started.  The ice jam prevented any chance of a passage.  Ewing’s men did not even get into their boats, but simply turned back and gave up.

At the Bristol Crossing, a similar problem with ice floes made crossing impossible.  Colonel Cadwalader marched his men six miles further south go Dunk’s ferry, where they thought they might have a better chance.  The boats were able to make it about 150 feet from the Jersey shore, when they hit solid ice.  The soldiers were able to get out and walk over the ice, but could not land their cannon or other heavy equipment.  Later attempts to cross found conditions even worse.  After several hours only about one-third of the force had crossed and none of the cannons or horses.  Colonels Cadwalader and Hitchcock decided to call off the attempt and bring the soldiers back to the Pennsylvania side.

The 600 or so soldiers who had already crossed were upset, not only that the rest could not make it, but that they were now required to make the perilous return trip.  Many debated continuing the attack without their leaders.  But after some discussion, they decided that if none of the other divisions had crossed either, they would only be taken prisoner.  Reluctantly, they troops returned to the Pennsylvania by dawn: cold wet, and miserable over the failure of the mission.

Although Washington was not yet aware of these failures, he was dealing with his own problems.  His soldiers were crossing, but the late start and the weather was destroying his time schedule.  Most of the army came over in Durham boats.  These were large high walled flat bottomed boats built for the Durham Iron Works, to ship iron down river.  They looked like really large canoes, 30 to 60 feet long. They were very stable and could carry lots of weight.  The army filled the boats with soldiers, standing for the entire trip in order to cram as many as possible into each crossing.  Also, since they had no seats, sitting down would have meant sitting in a puddle of ice water in the bottom of the boats.

Reproduction Durham Boats
(from Boats Depot)
Although the Durham boats were large enough to handle heavy equipment, getting horses or cannons into the boats, over the high walls would have been difficult.  Instead, the army used the ferries to move cannon and horses across the river.

The river was a little narrower for Washington than for the divisions passing down river.  The crossing was about 800 feet, which was made difficult by a swift current and floating chunks of ice hitting the boats.  The men were forced to jump up and down in the boats to keep ice from forming along the sides of the boats.  Although there was a bright moon that night, storm clouds kept the night dark, making passage even more difficult.

Joining Glover’s New Englanders were men who had grown up on ships and docks.  These experienced sailors tested their limits that night against the tough conditions.  The fact that most soldiers could not swim made the passage even more perilous.  Of course, falling in might mean you could freeze to death even if you did not drown.

Eventually, Washington’s forces made it across the river.  His men built small fires along the banks in an attempt to keep warm.  Washington ordered pickets to cover all roads for several miles, capturing anyone found on the roads at night in order to prevent anyone from warning the Hessians.  But it seemed clear that they could no longer surprise the enemy.

By the time they were ready to march, it was 4:00 AM.  That meant they would not arrive in Trenton until long after daylight.  They would not be able to surprise the Hessians and they would have no other support from the other divisions that failed to cross.  It is not clear exactly when Washington learned that the other crossings were complete failures and this his force was on its own.  Not that it probably would have mattered.  Washington's password of victory or death was not simply an aphorism.  He was going to succeed or die trying.  Turning back, even with the odds against him, was not an option.

- - -

Next Episode 123 First Battle of Trenton 

Previous Episode 121 Battle of Iron Works Hill

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Further Reading


Letter from J. Reed to G. Washington, Dec. 22, 1776:

Washington’s Crossing the Delaware:

Reed, Joseph, General Joseph Reed's Narrative of the Movements of the American Army in the Neighborhood of Trenton in the Winter of 1776-77, originally published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 8 (Dec. 1884):

Miller, William P. An Examination of George Washington's Employment of the Pennsylvania Militia at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, US Army War College, 2005:'s-Employment-of-Miller/bcfd7e368687e0dab24858922591bce7882eb8d9

Colvin, Patrick. “Patrick Colvin the Ferryman of Trenton in 1776.” The American Catholic Historical Researches, vol. 7, no. 3, 1911, pp. 258–263.

Billias, George A. "Soldier In A Longboat" American Heritage, Feb 1960 Vol. 11 Issue 2:

Fischer, David Hackett "The Spirit Of ’76" American Heritage February/March 2004 Vol 55 Issue 1:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Collins, Varnum L. A Brief Narrative of the Ravages of the British and Hessians at Princeton in 1776-1777; a contemporary account of the battles of Trenton and Princeton, Princeton University Library, 1906.

Drake, Samuel A. The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77, Lee and Shepard, 1899.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book) or see below in "books worth buying" section.

Reed, William B. (ed) Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Vol. 1, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Ross, Charles Derek (ed) Correspondence of Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis, Vol. 1 J. Murray, 1859.

Stryker, William Battles Of Trenton And Princeton, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1898.

Stryker, William The Continental Army at the Crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night of 1776, J.L. Murphy Publishing Co. 1896.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019

Bill, Alfred Hoyt The Campaign of Princeton 1776-1777, Princeton Univ. Press, 1948.

Dwyer, William The Day Is Ours: How a Ragged Rebel Army Stood the Storm and Saved the Revolution,  Viking, 1983.

Fischer, David Hackett Washington’s Crossing, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004 (book recommendation of the week).

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Ketchum, Richard The Winter Soldiers, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973.

Kidder, William L. Ten Crucial Days: Washington's Vision for Victory Unfolds, Knox Press, 2019.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. The Long Retreat, The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey 1776, Upland Press, 1998.

Maloy, Mark Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776 - January 3, 1777, Savas Beatie, 2018.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

Thompson, Ray Washington Along the Delaware: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton as told by the men who were there and through Washington's own official dispatches, Fort Washington, Pa: Bicentennial Press, 1970.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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