It’s the most important Christmas story in American history. The Battle of Trenton, fought in the early morning hours of December 26, 1776, saved the American revolutionary cause.
After a series of devastating defeats in New York through the summer and fall of 1776, General George Washington’s Continental Army slogged in a long retreat across New Jersey, across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. the Continental Congress fled to Baltimore, fearing a thrust from the British from Jersey into Philadelphia. By any sane measure, it looked like the jig was up. With enlistments set to run out on December 31, the army was on the verge of disintegration And Washington was on the verge of despair.
George Washington may not have been the most brilliant of tacticians, but he had an aggressive, attacking spirit, and he figured to go down swinging. He and his Council of War conceived a bold plan to recross the Delaware on Christmas night to strike the town of Trenton, New Jersey, garrisoned by German Hessian mercenaries. Washington himself scrawled out the watchword for the operation: Victory or Death.
The following short documentary nicely captures the bold, brilliant 10-day campaign that rejuvenated the American cause in the darkest days of winter, the very Times that try men’s souls described by Thomas Paine in his pamphlet The American Crisis.
Washington got his ragtag force across the ice choked Delaware in the midst of a nasty storm, and surprised the Hessian garrison in Trenton. Contrary to conventional accounts, the garrison and its commander were not drunk from over-celebrating Christmas. That was a calumny heaped upon the commander Johann Rall — who died in the fighting — after the fact, abetted by an embarrassed British high command.
December 26. Behind schedule because of the storm, the Americans arrive on the outskirts of Trenton around daybreak. Washington splits his force into two columns. One, commanded by Major General Nathanael Greene, attacks from the north, while a second, under Major General John Sullivan, attacks from the west to cut the line of retreat to the south.
The Hessian garrison, under the command of Colonel Johann Rall, had been harassed by American militia for several weeks and the men are exhausted. Although Washington engages the pickets on the outskirts of town, Rall is taken completely by surprise. A running fight through Trenton is a decidedly one-sided affair. Some Hessians manage to escape, but most are captured. While leading his troops, Rall is mortally wounded. Before he dies, he formally surrenders to Washington.