VICTORY OR DEATH AT TRENTON - CHRISTMAS 1776

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware - December 25, 1776

By December 1776, the prospect of victory seemed dim for the Continental Army. Six months after the colonies declared independence from Great Britain -- the most powerful nation on earth -- the British had driven General Washington from New York into Pennsylvania. The Continentals had only worn-out summer clothes to wear in the New England winter; many had no shoes, and the progress of the army could be traced by bloody footprints in the snow. The number of soldiers had plummeted from 17,000 to 2,400, and many of those who remained had enlistments expiring at the end of the year. Funds were low, and morale lower still. Washington, the picture of dignity and courage, quite plainly stated that unless he could get some hard currency for the starving troops, it was all over for the Continental Army. Washington needed a victory. America needed a miracle.

Late Christmas night, General Washington loaded his men and 18 cannons into boats to cross the icy Delaware River into New Jersey. He planned to wage a surprise attack on the Hessians (German regiments hired by the British empire). The crossing was dangerous, treacherous, terrifying; the risk of being spied was great. Should they be found out by the Hessians, they would surely lose this battle and, quite probably, the war itself. In fact, a Tory did see them and ran to warn Hessian Colonel Rahl, but because Rahl had given strict orders not to be disturbed as he played cards with other officers, the Tory had to send in a note, which Raul tucked into his pocket, unread.

As it turned out, the British had already warned the Hessians that there would be an attack, so when a small band of American soldiers -- on their own and unbeknownst to Washington -- provoked the Hessians, the Hessians mistakenly believed this was the attack, relaxed and went to bed. Early the morning of December 26, 1776, General Washington and his troops took the Hessians by complete surprise.

Colonel Rahl tried to rally his troops, but because the Hessians only knew how to fight in drill formation, they were at a disadvantage in the freezing wind -- each time they tried to form up, the Americans overwhelmed them with cannon fire. Rahl was shot in lungs, and died shortly thereafter -- with the note warning of the advancing Americans still in his pocket.

The victorious Battle of Trenton -- a Christmas miracle -- boosted morale and encouraged the new nation to continue its struggle for liberty. The unflagging courage shown by our Founding Fathers gave us a gift that can never be repaid except, in some small measure, through devotion to our duty to keep that liberty alive. May the God who watched over America that night have mercy on us, and help strengthen our commitment to this greatest nation the world has ever known.