Christmas in 1776

Order: "Hop on with cannons and horses...."

“The worst army in the world confronting the best.”  That’s how the docent at the Johnson Ferry house at Washington Crossing State Park described the state of George Washington’s 2400 soldiers once they had landed and regrouped on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. 

The crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day — really at night — has been labeled one of the “pivotal moments in American history.”  You can see why.  Had Washington failed, had his troops rather than the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, been defeated, the revolutionary cause would have suffered a fatal blow.   

In his book, Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fischer lines up all the disasters and problems which risked and forced changes into the plans for this bold three-pronged attack on Trenton.    Starting with a driving sleet and snow storm and dangerous ice flows in the river, two of the three landing parties were unable to reach the other side of the river.  Washington’s own crossing at Johnson’s ferry started late, took all night long, and lost him the element of surprise which a night-time 9-mile march to Trenton would have given him.

It was early December when I visited the site.  The river was overflowing the banks with a current strong from a wet fall and previous days’ rains.  Even with 45 degrees of daytime sun, no wind and REI clothing, I was cold.  Replicas of the Durham boats (large canoes with high walls) and the ferry barges looked to be no match for the strength of that river. 

Where I stood in the Johnson ferry house, next to the half-a-wall-length fireplace, was where the docent said Washington met with his aides to decide whether or not to continue on to Trenton.  I thought they were the lucky ones, inside.  It was easy for them to decide to keep going, especially when I learned some of the soldiers didn’t even have shoes. 

I thought of taking mine off and walking around the grounds, but I was already cold.  I walked down to the river in my Rockports, and tried to imagine the boatsmen – the Marblehead Massschusetts militia-sailors and the ferry operators – working all night long.  They dragged their boats up the NJ side of the river; let the current take them down and over to the Pennsylvania side; and then after loading up with men, horses, cannons, they maneuvered their shaky vessels further down and back over to the NJ side.  Then they did it again, and again over a ten hour stretch.

Ten minutes later I was back in my car.  I figured out how Washington and his army, after so many things had gone wrong, was able to surprise the Hessians and then defeat them the next day at Trenton.  No one, not the Hessians, nor I, 235 years later, could have imagined anyone undertaking a crossing march in such adverse elements. 

Give Washington credit, even if he was warm.  He could convince these soldiers, miserable and cold, after such a crossing to continue on, in the snow, for a nine-mile march and then attack and defeat the most formidable army the world knew at that time. 

"and cross this, at night, in driving sleet. Then march 9 miles to Trenton and fight the best army in the world."

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