One of the most iconic surprise attacks of the American Revolutionary War also happened on Christmas night, December 25th, 1776. It was the daring crossing of the Delaware River. In the cover of darkness, George Washington and his troops crossed the river and marched on the enemy troops in Trenton, New Jersey.
(The Passage of the Delaware by Thomas Sully/Museum of Fine Arts/Wikimedia Commons)
The turning tide of the war
The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, but the British were not going to cede power over the 13 American colonies without a fight. The fighting had started in 1775 and leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and things had been going relatively well for Americans.
In March of 1776, the British had evacuated from Boston, representing a major victory for American hopes. Unfortunately, the defense of New York City did not go as well. From August to November, the British were able to push George Washington and the Continental Army completely out of New York. It was a major setback for the Americans, and with winter coming, they needed a big plan to swing momentum back into their favor.
Finding the right opportunity
The British hunkered down in New York, deciding they would recharge and continue their offensive in the spring of 1777. Washington knew that waiting was to his army's disadvantage. His army was hungry, cold, and tired. According to Washington Crossing, Many troops deserted or left because their enlistments expired. The morale of the American troops was at an all-time low.
A speech called The Crisis by Thomas Paine was published in The Pennsylvania Journal on December 19th, 1776. George Washington had it read to his troops. A line from the speech reads:
"Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
Paine's words reinvigorated the American troops. Reinforcements also arrived with General John Sullivan on December 20th, and with Colonel John Cadwalader shortly after.
Washington had identified Trenton as a weak point for the British. The British had hired German troops, known as Hessians, who controlled the area, but it was not as heavily defended as New York City.
(The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton by John Trumbull/Yale University Art Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas Night 1776
According to History, Washington's army commenced crossing the Delaware River at 11 p.m. on Christmas night. Washington led about 2,400 soldiers, hoping to catch the Hessians in Trenton unprepared after Christmas festivities.
Another 3,000 troops were meant to join Washington after crossing the river at different points, but they were delayed. At about 8 a.m. on December 26, the Americans descended on Trenton and the unsuspecting Hessians. For Washington, the victory was swift and decisive.
The Americans managed to capture about 1,000 enemies at the cost of only a few American lives. Washington and his troops crossed back over the Delaware River with prisoners, plundered supplies, and a renewed confidence from a much-needed victory. It was the perfect Christmas gift for American revolutionaries.
George Washington's military prowess was further cemented in the daring surprise attack. It would lead to a string of victories for the American army, including at the Battle of Assunpink Creek on January 2nd, 1777, and the Battle of Princeton the day afterward.
Washington had been named General and Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army by Congress on June 15, 1775, and he lived up to the title with his strategy and leadership.
Of course, Washington would become America's first president after being inaugurated on April 30, 1789, where his duties as Commander in Chief would be reaffirmed.
In 1976, as a part of the United States Bicentennial, President Gerald Ford posthumously appointed Washington to the rank of General of the Armies of the United States. It is the highest possible rank in the United States Army and equates to being a six-star general.
(Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze/The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons)
The founders of America, including the great leader George Washington, battled for American independence, even fighting on Christmas. They made sacrifices so that future generations could enjoy the holidays and everyday life independent and free.
Christmas is the time of year to be happy for what we have. As an American, I am thankful for the sacrifice of all those who continue to make sacrifices to keep this country safe. America's active service members and veterans will remain on my mind during the holiday season, and I thank them for their service and sacrifice.