Posted: 12/24/2002 8:10:38 PM EDT
1776: A CHRISTMAS BATTLE
(The following was mostly paraphrased from "To the Last Cartridge" by Robert Barr Smith)
It was a rough campaign. As early as August, 1776, George Washington's army was defeated in battle when British General Howe landed on Long Island, New York. In this battle Washington's army was outflanked and came close to being entirely captured.
After retreating, Washington took a stand on Harlem Heights, intending to defeat the British somewhere in the New York area. But Howe's army threatened to envelop Washington's in October, forcing his retreat. Howe forced a landing at Kip's Bay, Manhattan, panicking militia who ran while dropping their muskets. General Washington arrived attempting to rally the troops:
According to one American officer who witnessed the scene, Washington became so angry that he flew into an uncontrollable rage and began striking the militiamen with his riding crop. "The General was so exasperated that he struck several officers in their flight, three times dashed his hat on the ground, and at last exclaimed, 'Good God, have I got such troops as those!' ("The Long Retreat" by Arthur S. Lefkowitz)
Two American forts, Fort Washington and Fort Lee, were built on Manhattan island. The British fought through a daring landing up the Hudson River, forcing Washington to fall back and defeating him at White Plains in October. Meanwhile, 3000 American troops were killed or captured when Hessian troops attacked Fort Washington. These were men the Continental Army could ill afford to lose. Fort Lee was abandoned hastily, leaving behind stores of supplies that again the American Army could not easily replace.
Washington led his dwindling and under-supplied army into New Jersey, burning bridges behind them to slow the British pursuit. Most of their picks and shovels to dig fortifications were captured on Manhattan island, along with most of their food, tents, blankets, and other sorely needed equipment.
American General Charles Lee, jealous of Washington's status and position, did not move his army from New Castle, New Jersey to aid Washington. Meanwhile, "sunshine patriots" changed colors and openly supported the seemingly invincible British Army. Defeatism was rampant. Washington's army of 3000 dwindled daily as soldiers walked away from what seemed certain disaster. From a summer time total of over 12,000 the American Army in the New York area had been severely reduced. In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress packed up and moved to Baltimore to avoid capture.
While Washington retreated through New Jersey, 3 events served to aid the Americans, though none realized their importance at the time.
-General Howe's forces moved incredibly slowly in pursuing Washington's army, overconfident that the winter season would effectively destroy his force.
-American General Lee was captured by a surprise British cavalry raid
-General Lee's army marched to join Washington's, making a total force of about 6,000
In December, Washington's army fled across the Delaware River in every boat they could get their hands on into Pennsylvania. Trouble did not end, however. Most Continental soldier enlistments would expire in a few weeks, and very little was convincing anyone to re-up.
On December 23, Washington's army in formation was read Thomas Paine's "The Crisis I" (see appendix) making a strong impression on the weary soldiers. Then came orders. Three days of rations were to be prepared, and each soldier was issued 40 rounds of ammunition. Officers were briefed on an audacious attack that Washington planned. The army would march on Christmas Eve to attack the Hessians camped in the Trenton area. Washington split his force into 3 groups to cut off and attack the Hessians. Interesting note: the Hessians, German mercenary regiments raised for British Army service, were notorious for pillaging and cruel destruction of property. We can only wonder how much this behavior created resentment and made several New Jersey Tories change colors back to rebel patriots.
Meanwhile, Colonel Johann Rall, commander of 3 Hessian regiments camped at Trenton, suffered from extreme overconfidence. Among his faults that Christmas Eve:
-He did not order his men to dig defensive earthworks,
-He cared more about his hearty dinner and wine and card game afterward than a warning message delivered by a Bucks County, Pennsylvania farmer of the pending attack. (history says he stuffed the note in his pocket unread and the farmer was turned away into the freezing rain/sleet filled night)
-Of all days that campaign, this was the ONLY day he did not order regular patrols sent out to warn of enemy attacks.
-He was certain that any American attack would easily be defeated by his troops
In the dark night filled with snow and freezing rain, the American Army crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. They were mostly in large Durham boats, designed to carry up to 15 tons of iron ore each. (unlike the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, which shows a very tiny boat). Washington hoped to have the army formed up by midnight, but difficulties delayed the start of their march until after 0300. As they marched through the cold night, soldiers left bloody footprints from boots and shoes falling apart, or feet only wrapped in rags. After 2 soldiers fell asleep during a rest stop and quickly died of exposure to the cold, Washington kept the army moving without stop.
General Sullivan, commanding one of Washington's columns, sent word that every musket was soaked, and shooting would be almost impossible when the battle started. Washington sent word back to fix bayonets. The words this night for battle were "Victory or Death", though from the viewpoint of the junior officers and enlisted, it sure looked like death, with all the FUBAR incidents so far.
In Trenton, a Hessian outpost in a cooper's shop spotted the advancing Americans, and raised the alarm. American troops fired a scattered volley and drove the Hessians out of the near houses with clubbed muskets. Across town, General Sullivan's column could be heard opening fire with muskets and cannons. Against all hope, the 2 American columns had attacked exactly as planned, on opposite sides of town trapping the Hessians between them!
Hung over Hessians stumbled out of buildings into the streets, to be met by blasts of American cannon fire and charging Continentals. Even the one Hessian regiment detailed to sleep in their uniforms with guns at hand was disorganized under the attack. Hessian Colonel Rall didn't respond well to the first summons to battle. A lieutenant had to reenter his house and explain they were under attack. Meanwhile, American troops stormed through the streets, capturing Hessian cannons. Some soldiers ducked inside houses to dry off and reload their muskets.
Eventually, the surviving Hessians were trapped in an apple orchard where their Colonel Rall on horseback tried to rally an effective defense. Rall was mortally wounded, and over 900 Hessian troops surrendered. There were about 100 Hessian casualties, while over 1000 sorely needed muskets and 6 cannons were captured. To make the stinging defeat worse, 4 Hessian unit colors were captured. The Hessian prisoners were marched through Philadelphia, and their band played to entertain the locals there for several weeks.
Amazingly, only 4 Americans were wounded in the battle, with none killed in action! 3 soldiers froze to death on the river crossing back into Pennsylvania, making the total American death count 5 including the 2 who froze on the march towards Trenton. An incredible victory for destroying 3 veteran enemy regiments.
The battle had an electrifying effect on the American colonies as the news of the victory spread. The British were forced to accept the fact that the American Revolution was not over, and Washington was a skillful enemy.
I know that military history is far from most people's minds on Christmas, but I hope that some of us can take some time to remember the struggles of a few thousand desperate men in 1776 that led to our country's birth.
As a sidenote, Washington retreated after his victory and left Col. Edward Hand's riflemen as his rearguard. They were to skirmish against the German Jaegers in the first real test of the American rifleman against an equally armed opponent. They had clashed earlier at Throg's Neck where the riflemen fought from behind a makeshift woodpile barricade. However, this was the first "open" skirmish in which the two were to meet. Happily, the American rifleman demonstrated superiority at skirmishing and inflicted greater csualties than received.
Lest we NEVER forget,those that gave so much for so many