Gen. George Washington’s army retreated from New York in ignominy in November 1776. As it moved through New Jersey, Lt. James Monroe, the future president, stood by the road and counted the troops: 3,000 left from an original force of 30,000.
In December 1776, the future of America hung on the fate of a bedraggled army barely a step ahead of annihilation.
The Americans confronted about two-thirds of the strength of the British army, and half of its navy, not to mention thousands of German mercenaries. Ron Chernow recounts in his new book, Washington: A Life, that when the British fleet showed up off New York, an American soldier marveled that it was as if “all London was afloat.”
The defense of New York was barely worthy of the name. When British troops crossed into Manhattan at Kips Bay, the Americans ran. Washington reportedly exclaimed in despair, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”
Later, from the New Jersey Palisades, he watched as the British took Fort Washington across the Hudson, held by 3,000 American troops, and put surrendering Americans to the sword. According to one account, Washington turned away and wept “with the tenderness of a child.”
British strategy depended on shattering American faith in the Continental Army and reconciling the rebellious colonies to the Crown. As the Americans fled to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, the British occupied New Jersey and offered an amnesty to anyone declaring his loyalty. They had thousands of takers, including one signer of the Declaration of Independence.
As David Hackett Fischer emphasizes in his classic Washington’s Crossing, the American revival began spontaneously. Low on supplies, occupying troops had to forage for food. The forage turned to plunder. That fueled a grassroots rising among “the rascal peasants,” in the words of a Hessian officer.
With New Jersey boiling and expiring enlistments about to reduce his army further, Washington decided on a scheme to cross the Delaware on Christmas and surprise the Hessian garrison in Trenton. “If the raid backfired,” Chernow writes, “the war was likely over and he would be captured and killed.”
Behind schedule, Washington’s main force of 2,400 started crossing the river that night. Yes, most of them were standing up in flat-bottomed boats. Yes, there were ice floes. It wasn’t until 4 a.m. that all the men were across the river. They had nine miles still to march to Trenton in a driving storm and no chance of making it before daybreak. Washington considered calling it off, but he had already come too far.
Arriving at Trenton at 8 a.m., his spirited troops seemed “to vie with the other in pressing forward,” he wrote afterward. They surprised the Hessians, not because they were sleeping off a Christmas bender. Harried in hostile New Jersey, the Hessians had exhausted themselves on constant alert. They didn’t expect an attack in such weather, though. The battle ended quickly — 22 Hessians killed, 83 seriously wounded, and 900 captured, to two American combat deaths.
“It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world,” British historian George Trevelyan wrote.
The American troops found 40 hogshead of rum in the town, which temporarily blunted their effectiveness. Washington followed up soon enough with another victory at Princeton. In the space of a few weeks, the Americans killed or captured as many as 3,000 of the enemy and irreversibly changed the dynamic of the war.
David Hackett Fischer sees in that resurgence after our fortunes were at their lowest a reassuring aspect of our national character in this season of discontent: We respond when pressed. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a great supporter of the American cause, wrote: “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” May it still be so.