Otherworldly silence. Blood-speckled snow, patterned by oozing, frostbitten feet. Unconquerable hunger. And the cold. The needling, soul-penetrating cold.
The Battle of Trenton was mantled in sleet and pursued in desperation. If Washington’s army could cross the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey to surprise the encamped Hessian troops, it would be a victory of enormous scale – and significance.
Washington’s generals were on board with the daring, almost bizarre plan – a four-pronged overnight attack on the nearly-deserted town of Trenton. All except General Gates who, after faking sickness, trotted off to Congress to tattle on Washington’s strategy in brazen disloyalty.
Ignorant of what lie ahead, Washington urged his men to carry on. No man shall quit his ranks on pain of death, he warned them. As he warned, he led them in reverential, pensive quiet. The General knew full well that if his plan failed, he and his men would be captured. The war would be over. Yet he pressed on.
In darkest night, Washington’s 2,400 men began their 800-foot journey across the Delaware in Durham boats, also transporting panicky horses and hundreds of tons of artillery. It took hours - as a hellacious storm quaked the ice-capped waters and impending daylight threatened their secrecy.
With all men safely on shore, eyes fixed and jaw set, Washington directed his troops on the nine-mile march to Trenton. Snow and sleet pelted the troops directly in the face. Weapons were soaked through and rendered useless. Asking to fix bayonets, Washington galloped alongside the column of shattered men, rallying them in the early, snow-dimmed light: “Press on, boys!” he yelled, “Press on!”
Positioned on the high ground, Washington’s men met with the unsuspecting Hessians. General Knox’s cannons boomed their welcome. “March on, my brave fellows,” Washington said, urging his horse. “Follow me!”
American victory was secured in just an hour. When the General learned of the final German surrender, he vigorously shook his officer’s hand. “Major Wilkinson,” he said, “This is a glorious day for our country.”
Washington promised to treat the Hessian prisoners with dignity. And In his general orders of December 27, he kindheartedly praised his troops:
“The General, with the utmost sincerity and affection, thanks the officers and soldiers for their spirited and gallant behavior at Trenton yesterday.”
Perhaps it was his spirit and gallantry that inspired them.