Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by German -American artist Emanuel Gottleib Leutze in 1851, is one of the most iconic images of the American War of Independence and of American history. It depicts the colonial general in chief and a flotilla of Patriots in boats midstream across the Delaware River on the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, the first move in a surprise attack against enemy forces in Trenton, New Jersey. The event was dramatic and worthy of commemoration.
As 1776 drew to a close, the war and the Americans’ armed bid for independence was not going well for Washington and his forces. He had been outgeneralled, outfought, and soundly drubbed. Most notably in New York City, where it took a nearly miraculous escape for the Patriots to avoid annihilation. Morale was low, so Washington planned a daring raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence to the Revolutionary cause. From his base in Pennsylvania, he would cross the nearly frozen Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian forces on the opposite bank.
Washington’s cold, hungry, and demoralized troops clambered into boats on an exceptionally frigid winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at Henry Knox, his overweight artillery chief, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!” All things considered, it was not exactly a comedic gem. But any levity from George Washington in public, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual.
A Hazardous River Crossing, a Hazardous March, and a Hazardous Attack
At first, the Patriots gathered on the Pennsylvania bank of the Delaware River were stunned at George Washington stab at comedy, and stood around looking at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the assembled force, as the comment about Henry Knox’s fat ass was spread and repeated. Washington’s unexpected humor lifted the Americans’ spirits, but they still had a rough crossing ahead of them. Once that was done, they then had to march for miles in terrible weather to reach their objective. Throughout, they had to hope that no alarm was raised, and that they would manage to achieve the surprise necessary to accomplish their mission: the destruction of a garrison of Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, New Jersey.
Detractors have often derided Washington as a mediocre and unimaginative general. Indeed, compared to the likes of other dashing military commanders from his lifetime such as James Wolfe, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, or Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, Washington might not shine as brilliantly. However, few generals would have had the self-confidence to dare execute a plan as intricate as Washington’s attack on Trenton. The failure of any one of a number of moving parts could have doomed the entire enterprise – and with it, probably the entirety of the colonial bid for independence.
To Even Find Enough Men to Cross the Delaware Was Like Pulling Teeth
George Washington’s plan to attack Trenton was beset by problems from the start. He first had to find enough men to mount an attack. Beaten in New York, he had retreated across New Jersey and across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania. In the process, he lost precious supplies, and many men due to straggling or desertion. He also lost contact with two of his army’s divisions, one commanded by General Horatio Gates in New York, the other by General Charles Lee in New Jersey. He ordered both to join him, but Gates was delayed by heavy snow, while Lee, who had a low opinion of Washington, dawdled and stayed put.
Eventually, 2000 of Lee’s men arrived on December 20th without their commander – he had been captured by the British when he ventured beyond American lines for an assignation. Gates arrived later that day with 600 men. Another 1000 colonial militiamen from Philadelphia joined not long after. With those reinforcements, Washington finally had about 6000 men fit for duty. However, most of them had to be assigned to protect supplies and vital positions, and Washington was left with only 2400 available to carry out the attack.
An Enemy Commander’s Mistake That Saved the American Revolution
On December 23rd, 1776, George Washington informed his staff of his decision to cross the Delaware River and attack Trenton on the 26th. It was to be a three-pronged operation, in which Washington would personally lead the largest contingent to attack the town’s Hessian garrison, while two smaller contingents crossed the river as a diversion, and to close off an escape route. Despite inclement weather and icy river conditions, the crossing was accomplished, and Washington was among the first to reach the New Jersey side. He and his men then had to march nine miles to Trenton, in the midst of sleet and driving snow. Fortunately for the colonial cause, the Patriots completed the march without alerting the enemy.
Early in the morning of December 26th, 1776, the Americans surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, Washington’s men killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand foes, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. The Hessian’s commander, Johann Rall, was mortally wounded. In Rall’s pocket was discovered a note from a Loyalist farmer, who had spotted the Americans and sent a warning. Fortunately for the colonial cause, Rall had not read the warning, and the note was still unopened when it was recovered. Trenton was a small battle, but one with great consequences. It inspired the Patriots when they desperately needed a morale boost, saved the colonial army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many veterans to stick around.
American Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801) is the most infamous traitor in the history of the United States. Indeed, his name has become an epithet, synonymous with treason and betrayal. That was quite a turn from his early war career, when he had been a major hero for Patriots in their fight for independence. Arnold had been a highly regarded Patriot in the fight against the British, and was perhaps the colonial side’s most capable combat leader.
That all changed when a combination of resentments over slights, coupled with financial distress, led him to sell out to the enemy. Before he turned traitor, Arnold had provided valuable service to the Americans, and played a key role early in the war in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He then led an expedition through extremely rough terrain in an attempt to capture Quebec. The expedition ultimately failed, but to even get his men to the outskirts of Quebec was a great exhibition of leadership on Arnold’s part.
For a Time, This Traitor Was the Patriots’ Best Fighting General
In 1776, Benedict Arnold demonstrated his enterprise when he constructed a fleet from scratch at Lake Champlain. With it, the colonial forces defeated a vastly superior British fleet. While lionized as a hero by the public, Arnold’s successes, rash courage, and driving style aroused the jealousy and resentment of other officers, who backbit and schemed against him. When Congress created five new major generals in 1777, Arnold was stung when he was bypassed in favor of some of his juniors, and only George Washington’s personal entreaties prevented his resignation.
Soon thereafter, Arnold successfully beat back a British attack in Connecticut, and was finally promoted to major general. However, his seniority was not restored – another slight that gnawed at him. He again sought to resign but was prevailed upon to remain. He performed brilliantly in the fight to halt the British advance into upstate New York in 1777, and played a key role in its defeat. It culminated in the British surrender at Saratoga, where Arnold fought courageously and suffered a serious leg injury.
Crippled by his wounds at Saratoga, Benedict Arnold was put in charge of Philadelphia. There, he began to socialize with families loyal to the British. He also took to an extravagant life with lavish expenditures, which he financed with questionable methods that led to scandal. Arnold also married a much younger woman of loyalist sympathies and spendthrift habits, that soon drove him into deep indebtedness. Between resentments and financial difficulties, he secretly approached the British to offer his services. Arnold was well positioned to deal the Patriots a fatal blow, because he was placed in charge of colonial fortifications at West Point on the Hudson River, that lay upstream from British-occupied New York City and barred them from sailing upriver.
Arnold plotted to sell plans of the fortifications to the enemy, and contrived to deliver them into British hands for Â£20,000. However, his British contact was captured, along with documents that incriminated Arnold. He fled just in time to evade arrest. He was made a brigadier general in the British Army, and led soldiers against the Patriots for the rest of the war. The British never fully warmed to him however, and he was unable to secure a regular commission after the war. He pursued a variety of ventures, including privateering and land speculation in Canada, before he finally settled down in London, where he died in 1801.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading