General George Washington's commitment to cross the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 foreshadowed the many hardships faced as well as the eventual victory of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. At first glance, the decision to transport 2,400 Continental soldiers across an icy river in one night, directly into a severe winter storm of sleet and snow seems irrational.
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Washington's decision, however, was based on strategic motivation, understanding that the Continental Army desperately needed a victory after months of intense fighting with several significant defeats and no major victories. Washington also understood that the element of surprise was the only way that he and his army stood a chance of defeating the highly trained Hessian mercenaries.
On the morning of December 25, 1776, Continental soldiers woke up in their camps along the Delaware River to a frozen, snowy covered ground. Weather conditions worsened and temperatures continued to drop throughout the day. Late in the afternoon, the Continentals left their tents and began to form along the river in anticipation of the night's events. Washington kept almost all of the details of the crossing a secret; as a result, none of the soldiers knew anything about their upcoming mission.
Washington's plan was to cross the river at night, march to the nearby town of Trenton, New Jersey, and attack the Hessian garrison right before dawn. Time was Washington's greatest enemy; to combat it his orders called for the various regiments to assemble at their designated crossing points no later than sunset. The close proximity to the crossing points allowed the soldiers to begin the journey immediately after nightfall struck and complete the crossing no later than midnight. Once across, Washington intended for the armies to reassemble and march approximately ten miles to Trenton, arriving there no later than five o'clock in the morning to achieve surprise. Despite his meticulous planning, the schedule failed almost before it even began. (Map: Battle of Trenton)
Many of the regiments did not arrive at the river until well after dark. Additionally, a severe winter storm that included wind, rain, snow, hail, and sleet met the soldiers at the banks of the river significantly slowing their crossing. Many of the boats had to combat ice jams and unfavorable currents. To make matters even worse, the extreme darkness caused by the storm made it hard for the boatmen to see the opposite shore.
The necessity of using larger ferries to carry pieces of artillery across the river caused even more delays. Washington crossed the river with John Glover's Marblehead mariners and upon arrival debated whether or not to cancel the entire operation because it was more than three hours behind schedule. Washington decided it was too costly to retreat and he painfully watched as his army continued to trickle across the river.
Modern view of the Delaware River where Washington’s forces crossed on Christmas night, 1776 (Rob Shenk)
The freezing and tired Continental Army assembled on the Jersey shore without any major debacles. Once ready, Washington led his army on the road to Trenton. It was there that he secured the Continental Army's first major military victory of the war. Without the determination, resiliency, and leadership exhibited by Washington while crossing the Delaware River the victory at Trenton would not have been possible.
Texas Tech University
Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983.
Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.