A Christmas miracle
(First of three articles)
Late December 1776. The temperature is 29 degrees and we’re sitting by a fire — but neither of us are at home.
You and I are sitting near the banks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. We recently had one heck of a battle at Long Island where they say 800 to 1,000 of our fellow Americans were killed, but you and I managed to get out with the rest of the army across the river in a heavy fog — and thank God for that fog because it was daylight and the British were coming to annihilate this so-called army. But then fog! Gen. Tallmadge said only God could provide a fog like that at that time, but it saved our lives. It was also pretty bad to lose both forts Washington and Lee. Our army lost 2,000 men to captivity. There isn’t much left of this army and soon most enlistments will expire on Dec. 31 and a big group of soldiers will go home. Many whose enlistments were up have already left.
It doesn’t help that it is cold; my shoes came apart and my socks were gone a week ago. Both of us have feet that hurt, burn actually — all the time — and one of the guys said it looked like frostbite. But it doesn’t matter anymore — we’re both tired, cold, hungry — and we haven’t eaten in two days. Neither have the others, but we’re told food is coming. More than likely, this war could end soon and then is it a prison ship for us? Will they kill me or you? The British seem much better clothed. Charles Wilson Peale told me, “A man staggered out of line and came toward me. He had lost all his clothes. He was in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face so full of sores he could not clean it, which so disfigured him that he was not known by me on first sight. Only when he spoke did I recognize my brother James.”1 God, I am tired, cold and hungry. I just don’t know how much further I can go — at least there are no more rivers to cross! Christmas is here soon — but what of it. No warmth, no food, no drink, only more cold, more misery and half the army that is to stay is ready to mutiny.
Most whose enlistments are up are planning on leaving. It doesn’t matter what Gen. Washington or anyone else says. Me, I’m here for another few months. I can’t blame them for leaving. God knows, I’d love to as well, but I made the commitment. They say when the river freezes over, the Hessians plan on coming over the river, taking Philadelphia, and wiping us out. And the Hessians are harsh. Even a British officer wrote that, “A girl of 13 years of age was taken from her father’s house, carried to a barn about a mile, ravished, and afterward made use of by five more of these brutes.”2 We want to have at them!
I must go get wood and heat water. We can at least have warm water to drink. The wagons haven’t brought our tents yet, but we are hopeful they will come. They need to — there is already enough anger in this army at this point — just no energy to do anything about it.
I met a guy tonight that is with the army but isn’t a soldier. He was writing a pamphlet he said to help get people to enlist and fight to save our army and create a country. Washington ordered that the army hear it:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’tis dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but ‘to bind us in all cases whatsoever,’ and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.”3
Christmas Day evening we’re told to be ready to move out. Move out! Most of us can hardly move at all. We are starving, I mean starving. I’ve had nothing much to eat in what seems like days. We are to receive some rations and ammunition finally, which means we have a good chance of doing battle. And rations — most of those will be gone before we move out. We’ve been told to quiet our gear — everything, even my tin cup. I wrapped my feet in some wool that was available, but my feet have been cut on the ice, blistered, cracked, frozen- — I am so cold. We’ll go to McConkey’s Ferry to get on boats. The wind is howling and most of us are trying to cover our faces, our ears, our hands. Some of us were told to build up the campfires to distract the enemy if they should have spies nearby. That is the warmest job I have had in months.
Tories, those who are supposedly staying loyal to the king, have sniped at us and we at them but we can’t tell who they are, with the only exception possibly being they have better clothing and more of it.
The boats that had been gathered when we came across the river and secured them are now ready to be loaded with men and cannons. Now they are going to take us BACK across this river at night in the cold, the snow, the wind and the sleet, and a river that has ice floating on it. Everything has been muffled so the enemy spies won’t hear us embarking or disembarking. We wait for the order hoping it never comes, knowing it will, but wanting this all to be over — regardless of the end. To die here would be more welcome than to continue as we are facing the elements and the enemy. And on Christmas night.
The wind is howling, but I can still hear Col. Henry Knox yelling out commands to get the cannon on the boats. Col. John Glover is telling us to move quickly across the ice that just a few minutes ago was snow, but the weather has deteriorated and walking has packed the snow. Remarkably, no one falls in the river enough to drown. Glover and his men ferry us across and it is then that we find out we will march nine miles in this storm and attack the Hessian outpost at Trenton. There are supposedly 1,400 of them there.4
I am excited only because we’re finally on the offensive instead of retreating, but we’re still going to face the musket, the cannon and the bayonet. I just am too cold, tired and hurt too much to be afraid. Please God, keep us safe and secure the outcome in our favor. Please let me see my home again.
We trudge the nine miles and two of our soldiers die of exposure to the weather. Our troops are split up — some go with Gen. Sullivan, some with Gen. Washington — and we are told to make sure our muskets are ready to fire. That is almost impossible because even the least amount of moisture makes them not function, and the temperature is 29 degrees and we are now in the midst of a howling Nor’easter.5
But we dry them, load them and tuck them under our arms to keep the snow off them best we can. Col. Knox, knowing this, makes sure that 18 cannons were brought over on the boats to go with us. During our miserable march we come to a Hessian outpost. We advance rapidly. We fire two volleys as the Hessians retreated, firing, in an orderly manner back into the town. As we advance the last mile on Trenton, I feel a surge in my body moving me forward rapidly; we all do. We attack Trenton while the Hessians are trying to get out of their barracks and into formation. We later find out that Johann Rall had been warned by a Tory in writing while he was playing cards that we were coming, but he placed the note in his pocket, unopened.6 It was a total surprise to the Hessians. Our cannon and our troops did the job on this day. Col. Rall of the Hessians was wounded and he died on this night. We captured 918 prisoners, some brass cannons and supplies. Five Americans were wounded, while the Hessians lost 22 and had 83 wounded.7 The rest surrendered.
The Americans would follow up almost immediately with another attack. Details to follow …
This Dec. 25 and 26 night, take a few minutes, walk outside from all of the festivities and good cheer and think about those 2,400 plus men who made this crossing on this night with ragged clothes, bleeding feet and frostbite, crossing a big river in a nor’easter to march nine miles to make the attack and win — a win that really did have repercussions around the world. Think hard on the sacrifices made to secure the blessings of liberty this country affords us. Say a prayer to thank those intrepid souls and those of today, but also make yourself a promise that you will help to keep this country that the colonists truly gave up their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to secure.
Merry Christmas and may God continue to bless the United States of America.
1. Maloy, Mark, Victory or Death, Savas Beatie, California, 2018, p 19.
2 Ibid. p. 14
3 Paine, Thomas, Common Sense, The American Crisis, Barnes and Noble, Inc., New York, p.1
4 Maloy, Mark, Victory or Death, Savas Beatie, California, 2018, p. 14
5 Ibid. p. 41
6 Ibid. p. 38
7 Ibid. p.69
Mark DeVecchis is an independent historian of early American history. He is a member of the Company of Military Historians, Brigade of the American Revolution, 5th Battalion Cumberland County Militia, Virginia Historical Society and the Mifflin County Historical Society. He and his wife, Valarie, live near Lewistown.