We all learn this phrase—Washington crossing the Delaware—in school in the U.S., but few of us remember what it refers to. It was actually a key moment in the Revolutionary War.
Washington’s Continental Army had been retreating almost from the moment it was formed. From August to October 1776 Washington had been steadily chased out of New York, from Long Island north to Manhattan and then across the Hudson River at the northernmost point of Manhattan to New Jersey. From November through December 7, Washington’s army was hounded by the British all the way through New Jersey, with the Continentals finally crossing the Delaware River from New Jersey into Pennsylvania.
At this point, the Continental Army seemed like it might be permanently beaten. The British saw no threat, and set up winter camps at Bordentown, Trenton, and Princeton in New Jersey.
In the 18th century, armies shut down operations for the winter months, as marching was difficult, food supplies low, and surprise hard to come by. The Continental Army followed this custom too, and would likely have made camp where it was in Pennsylvania without any further action had Washington not believed that the army desperately needed a victory, not only for its own morale, but for the sake of the fledgling nation.
He decided to make a surprise attack on the Hessian forces fighting for Britain at Trenton. His army would attack on Christmas Day.
In December 1776 Washington had around 4-6,000 soldiers in his army, although about 1,700 of those men were too sick to fight. The continual retreats had forced the army to leave behind valuable supplies of food and munitions. Two American generals, Gates and Lee, were nearby, and were ordered by Congress to join forces with Washington’s frail army in Pennsylvania, but neither did so. They each had their reasons, which included the thought that if they could pull off a great victory while Washington languished, one of them might be made commander-in-chief of the American forces.
Another problem for Washington was that many of the soldiers’ enlistments were up on December 31. They would be free to go home at that point, and why wouldn’t they?
Washington had to act quickly and boldly. One step he took to encourage men who might be leaving on the 31st to stay was to have Thomas Paine’s new pamphlet, The American Crisis, read aloud to the army. This is the familiar text we all know the first sentence of:
“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 love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Hoping that these stirring ideas and his own brave example would do their work, Washington prepared for the attack on Trenton. Early on Christmas Day the army went to the ferry landing on the Delaware and began the long process of being taken across the river as silently as possible. Washington was in the first boat, and found a good landing site for the rest of the men.
You have most likely seen this painting:
It is called “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and it is a mighty representation of tattered men fording the icy river, Washington standing tall and determined with the new flag behind him. The only real problem with this is Washington standing so tall—tall enough to throw off the balance of the boat and capsize it. He likely sat in the boat with the rest of the men. Otherwise, I think the tattered clothing and preoccupation of the men, few of whom are looking up from their oars, with getting safely across the river are very realistic.
It was not until 3 AM on December 26 that the entire Continental Army got safely across the river. It was snowing and sleeting. Washington broke the army into two columns, leading one with General Nathaniel Greene and putting General John Sullivan in charge of the other. They took parallel paths to Trenton, and fell on the Hessian camp, where some men were sleeping and others still drunkenly celebrating the holiday. No Americans were killed; the camp was taken, and 110 Hessians were killed or wounded. Precious muskets, powder, and bullets were seized, and the Continentals took 1,000 prisoners back with them into Pennsylvania—they did not stay in New Jersey to be attacked by the British at Princeton.
The victory did just what Washington had intended: it raised the morale of the soldiers and the nation. He was not concerned with the jockeying for leadership of Lee and Gates, but his victory sealed his role as commander-in-chief of the army. On December 27, the Continental Congress gave Washington special powers to recruit soldiers and get supplies from the states, to appoint officers, run the army, and arrest any citizens who did not take Continental currency as payment. Washington used these powers for six months, then relinquished them.
A last note on crossing the Delaware and the capture of Trenton: when Washington wrote to Congress with his report on the state of the Army on December 31, he said that “free Negroes who have served in the Army, are very much dissatisfied at being discarded.” Washington allowed those black Americans who wanted to re-enlist to do so. He had originally forbid any black Americans, free or enslaved, to serve in the Continental Army. Like the Union generals who would follow his footsteps 87 years later, Washington learned to see the courage and humanity of enslaved black Americans by virtue of black soldiers’ valor and determination in battle.
So, Washington crossed the Delaware from Pennsylvania to surprise-attack the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day, thus keeping the army and the nation’s hopes alive for another season of campaigning in the spring and summer of 1777. It was a very important success, and one that deserves to be remembered in full.