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Christmas in 1776: George Washington

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Winter was a bad season for Washington. His Continental Army had been driven out of New York, and then it was driven out of New Jersey, leaving just a few thousand men shivering on the far side of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, while the British made camp in New Jersey.

The Continental Army was desperate for a victory. Many men had left the military after finishing their enlistments. Others were low on morale after the series of bitter defeats. Santa, it appeared, was siding with the British forces.

On December 25, George Washington ordered the few thousand men at his disposal to cross the Delaware River. Ice flowed down its waters–further downstream a unit that was supposed to join him couldn’t cross because of the ice flow–but Washington forced his men across, and was one of the first to land on the shores of British-occupied New Jersey.

Through the cold night air and sleet and snow, his men marched another nine miles, and then in a few quick maneuvers, launched a surprise attack against the Hessian forces encamped at Trenton. He took a thousand soldiers prisoner. He killed over 20 and injured almost a hundred. Only two of Washington’s soldiers were killed (another man, future President James Monroe, was also injured in the attack).

The men moved back across the Delaware, lugging their artillery and plunder, and settled back in Pennsylvania as victors. It was December 26.

Trenton was not a strategic win, but it was a psychological one. Recruitment increased. So did morale. For the first time in months it appeared that America would win its independence.

Source: National Archives