How George Washington crossed the Delaware

If General George Washington had not led American troops across the Delaware River on Christmas, 1776, and defeated Hessian troops in Trenton, American secession from the British Empire probably would have failed, and the United States would not have become an independent nation when and how it did.

I recently finished reading Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, which tells the story of that victory— how it was achieved, what came after and why it mattered.

By describing events in fine-grained detail, drawing in letter, diaries and reminiscences of many individuals on both sides, he drew a vivid picture of what it was like to fight in that era, and also showed how differently the two sides viewed the war.

Fischer’s history begins with the British driving the Continental Army out of New York City in the summer of 1776, and then winning victory after victory until they occupied all of New jersey.  He ends with the turning of the tide in a way that showed how Americans would win ultimate victory.

In grade school, I was taught to think of the British redcoats as fools, who marched in formation while Virginia and Pennsylvania riflemen picked them off from behind trees and stone walls.

The fact was that the British troops who occupied New York City in the summer of 1776 were veterans of regiments who, a short time before, had won battles in every continent in the Seven Years War against the French Empire.  They were backed up by the British fleet , which commanded not only the high seas, but the waters around Manhattan island.

They out-fought and out-maneuvered the inexperienced American troops, driving Washington’s troops out of New York and south through New Jersey.

By Christmas, the British and their Hessian allies had every reason to think they had all but won.   Washington’s desperate plan to attack across the Delaware River involved coordinated crossings at three different locations.   Two of the crossings failed.  Washington failed to make his crossing on schedule or as planned, but he pressed on to the attack anyway.

He pressed on and won.  As a schoolboy, I also was taught that he caught the Hessian garrison hung over from a drunken Christmas Eve party the night before.  Not so!  The Hessians were tough and well-disciplined troops who put up a brave fight, but were defeated in the end.

Fischer gives a powerful account of what it was like fight in those days, marching and pushing wagons through knee-deep mud and freezing rain, and fighting on despite hunger, exhaustion and lack of adequate shoes or clothing.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to march through mud that was literally knee-deep or worse.

David Hackett Fischer

The opposing armies were very different in their makeup.  One of the merits of Hackett’s book is that he shows how things looked from both sides, and how their differences reflected different ways of life.

British officers and men believed in hierarchy, obedience and discipline. They thought of the rebels as a disorganized criminal rabble who could easily be defeated.

British troops were told that their particular regiment was the best in the British army at whatever it did, and that it had a unique personal relationship with their King.

The Hessian and other German regiments that were hired to fight thought of war as normal and honorable.  They had a strict sense of honor that, however, applied only to other honorable soldiers, not to civilians.

George Washington commanded very different kinds of troops.  He himself was an experienced officer, having been commissioned a major in the Virginia militia in 1752 at the age of 20.  He has extensive experience fighting Indians and little or none in fighting professional soldiers..

As a Virginia plantation owner, Washington was conscious of rank and hierarchy.  He would have preferred to command professional soldiers and enforce his will, as European armies did, through harsh punishments.

But this was not an option for him.  He commanded volunteer militias who had different ideas of freedom.  The New England Yankees believed that freedom consisted of town-meeting democracy; the Virginia and Pennsylvania backwoodsmen believed that freedom consisted of lack of constraint; others had their own ideas.

Washington learned to adapt to the the ways of the army he had and to appeal to their differing ideas of patriotism and freedom.

A good example of this was his reaction to New England militias that included free black people.  He first accepted the existing black troops, but opposed enlistment of more of them.  Then he accepted enlistment, but opposed recruiting.  By the end of the war, both sides were actively recruiting black troops, and, according to Fischer, at least one black American soldier rose to the rank of Colonel.

Washington recognized the importance of public opinion.  He was far from agreeing with the ideas of Thomas Paine, but he encouraged Paine to embed with the Continental army as a war correspondent, and to write the Crisis paper to boost morale.

The armies had different skills.  The favorite British tactic was the bayonet charge, which required a mass attack. American troops didn’t even have bayonets.

But the Pennsylvania and Virginia backwoodsmen could hit a target the size of a present-day 25-cent piece with their long rifles from a distance of 250 yards.  I don’t see how this is even possible, but the fact is well-attested.

American regiments had more cannons than British regiments did.  Even in the earliest days of our nation, Americans relied on superior firepower.

The rival armies’ systems of command worked differently.  Generals William Howe and Charles Cornwallis made detailed plans of command by themselves and held staff meetings for the purpose of explaining the details of the mission.  They disregarded advice, sometimes to their regret.

Washington instead encouraged his staff to propose their own ideas, although he made the final decisions himself.  In the second Battle of Trenton, his troops were backed against the Delaware River.  His line could not be defended; the troops also could not retreat safely across the river.  He put the problem to his officers.

One of them, Arthur St. Clair, said his men had learned from a civilian of a way the troops could slip away unobserved, outflank their enemy and attack Princeton and Brunswick.  The officers talked it over and agreed.  They asked the opinion of a couple of farmers who lived in the area; the two men volunteered as guide.  The escape and the attacks were successful.

The two British generals, Howe and Cornwallis, were well-disposed toward Americans and sought to win the hearts and minds of the people through humane behavior.  They rejected advice to ravage the country.  But the nature of a military occupation is such that their strategy was bound to fail.

The laws of war in Europe at that time allowed soldiers to live off the land.  If a house was vacant, they were entitled to strip it bare.  If a civilian offered the least resistance, they were entitled to kill him and take all his possessions.  But if the civilian family submitted quietly, the soldiers were supposed to leave them the means of subsistence—possibly one cow, one horse and a few chickens.

The Hessians regarded the opportunity to loot as part of their wages as mercenaries.  They went on the march with empty wagons to carry the valuables they expected to collect.

As you might expect, this created a backlash.  Foragers were attacked by bands of armed men not part of any recognized military unit.  Under the law of war, the resisters were considered bandits who deserved to be hung.

Another part of the law of war was that victorious troops had discretion of whether to spare the lives of enemies –  “give quarter” – to troops that surrendered.  Mercy was a privilege, not a right.  The British were not inclined to give quarter and they treated prisoners of war badly.

The Americans took a different path.  They treated enemies who surrendered with kindness, which of course showed remaining enemies that surrender was an option.  They recognized that the war was partly a war for public opinion, and they won it.

I like this book at lot.  I also like a previous work, Paul Revere’s Ride, which is about Paul Revere as a revolutionary conspirator and the events leading up to the battles of Lexington and Concord.  Both books reveal a lot about the Revolutionary War as a whole by focusing on specific events.  It is important, though, to remember that a lot was going in other theaters of war during the events Hackett described.

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10 Responses to “How George Washington crossed the Delaware”

  1. whungerford Says:

    I wonder about the source of the story that the Hessians were too drunk to fight. Was this the British explanation for their defeat?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fred (Au Naturel) Says:

      More likely that the Americans were starving. Hunger often defeats courage. It creates a courage to dare anything.

      Interesting factoid: Alexander Hamilton was one of the commandoes who were tasked with *silently* killing the Hessian sentries.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fred (Au Naturel) Says:

    I haven’t read this book but now I shall.

    It is good to hear someone discuss the Revolution as it really was and not rant about rich white slave owners oppressing the lower classes. That doesn’t get you thru Valley Forge. Given the description of the kinds of people who fought on the American’s side, one must understand it was so much more than that.

    I was told as a child that all that ice in the Deleware River was a figment of the artist’s imagination. Actually, they were in the “little ice age”, a period of cold not seen since. The starvation of the little ice age would lead to revolutions across Europe. Ice in that river was common happening at the time. It is also why Valley Forge and later winter camps were so desperate.

    I don’t know about a .25 cent piece at 250 yards but great accuracy was possible with the Kentucky long rifle. It had an effective range in the hands of a skilled marksman many times greater than any other firearm The British fought entirely with the Brown Bess smoothbore and fired in huge volleys that mostly missed. Real carnage was from grapeshot fired from cannon or close combat with bayonets.

    Americans fought with whatever gun was available and had a few small dedicated rifle units. If you didn’t have a force armed with bayonets, it behooved one to run away rather than engage in close combat. A really good idea of what was available can be seen in Jefferson’s Return of Militia.

    A single American sniper could be why we won that war. At the Battle of Saratoga, the British commander was killed by an American sniper on his 3rd shot. The resulting confusion led to a British rout. Had he not died it is likely the British would have won. Without the victory it is doubtful we would have kept the support of France. Without France, there is little chance we’d have won independence.

    It is interesting that the British command sequence to commence shooting was “ready, present arms, fire”. The Americans modified it to “ready, aim, fire”. British troops were expected to point their gun in the direction of the enemy and fire in a volley while Americans were expected to pick a target and try to hit it. That is part of our hunting heritage and Washington would have been a part of that.

    The Return of Militia still colors the gun control debate today. There were a huge number of firearms relative to the population at the time. The British required these to be stored at central locations and not in the personal possession of their owners. That made it easy to march on local armories and disarm the populace. However, word got out (Thank you, Paul Revere, et al.) and the farmers of Concord and Lexington were waiting.

    The later American model was private possession (right of the people to keep and bear arms) and locally organized drills. (That’s the “well-regulated militia”, which both sides dance around.)

    Jefferson wanted to know what was available, so he inventoried what was out there. This inventory has been used as an argument for universal national firearms registration. However, there were no penalties for not mentioning any particular gun one owned nor any penalty for not responding at all, so that argument is weak.

    Speaking of Paul rever’s ride, the most auspicious rider of them all was a teenage girl, Sybil Ludington, who covered 40 miles in the rain. She was able to rally the farmers of Danbury Connecticut to drive the British troops out. Unfortunately, they weren’
    t in time to prevent the city from being burned.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. philebersole Says:

    Alexander Hamilton was a remarkable young man. As a 20-year-old college student, he read up on military science, recruited and equipped a company of artillery and commanded it in battle.

    Hamliton’s New York Artillery Company crossed the Delaware and fought with distinction in the Battle of Trenton and many other battles. He was noted for being a strict disciplinarian, but sharing the hardships of his men.

    A short time after the events in this book, he was transferred to George Washington’s staff. Washington considered him more valuable there than as a field officer, although he did allow Hamltion to command a company at the Battle of Yorktown in 1783, the final battle of the war.

    So far as I know, the Continental Army did not use the commando tactic of stalking and strangling sentries. There is no mention of such a tactic in Washington’s Crossing and I don’t remember any mention in any other history book I’ve read.

    The Continental Army achieved surprise because of a strong blizzard that prevented sentries from seeing beyond a short distance.

    The Continental troops may well have been hungry, but they were not starving or desperate for food. They were well-disciplined and did not spend a lot of time looking for provisions.

    The myth of the drunken Hessians may well have been invented by British officers, who did not want to believe that Americans could fight and win on equal terms.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. philebersole Says:

    George Washington commanded troops who were often hungry, usually cold in winter and sometimes sick.

    But when going into battle, they were motivated by patriotism and devotion to duty.

    They fought in spite of being hungry and cold, not out of a desperate need for food and warmth.

    They won because their courage and discipline were a match for the courage and discipline of the enemy

    The quickest way for a solider who wanted food and warmth would be to desert. The second quickest way would be to not re-enlist when his term of service expired.

    Many enlistments did expire during the period covered by this book, and part of Washington’s achievement was in persuading soldiers to re-enlist. True, he did offer re-enlistment bonuses in certain cases as well as appealing to patriotism.

    American troops also could have obtained food and firewood by plundering the farms and towns they marched through, as the British and Hessians did. Washington had the wisdom to see that if they had done that, Americans would have ceased to support the Revolution.

    The primary purpose of the crossing of the Delaware and the attack on Trenton was to stop the British advance. In the absence of Washington’s crossing, they would have marched on Philadelphia the following spring.

    The other purpose was to improve American morale. The British victories during the summer and fall of 1776 left many Americans thinking that the cause of independence was hopeless. Washington’s crossing changed all that.

    After the Battle of Trenton, according to Fischer, Americans seized Hessian cannon and stores of firearms and ammunition. This was a third goal of the attack.

    They may well have found stocks of food, clothing and shoes, but Fischer did not mention that.

    Liked by 2 people

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