By Dr. Robert “Smitty” Smith, faculty member at American Military University
During the Christmas season, it is easy for us to forget the horrors and hardships endured by the first American army that terrible winter of 1776. Many current textbooks gloss over the agony of these American patriots. The American Revolution was about to die a natural death, perhaps unmourned. The army had suffered defeat after defeat, its commander-in-chief couldn’t win, and his own commanders plotted against him. The army was in tatters, unpaid, unsupplied, and unclothed.
Retreating with his army through New Jersey, Washington found little comfort—the colony’s militia ignored his calls for help and many of the locals were loyal to the Crown. Others, seeing the British success in the recent invasion of Long Island and the New York City environs, were quick to sign oaths of loyalty to the King and turn their backs on the rebellion.
The British Army could trace the American retreat from the bloodstained roads as the rebel soldiers—if they were lucky—had rags on their feet. Can you imagine marching in snow and cold slush and mud in bare feet, hungry, and in rags?
Washington Readies for one Final Push
How does one recover the fortunes of a dying revolution? One needs, of course, to re-stoke those dying embers and to cast a last clichéd throw of the dice. Washington might have suffered loss after loss in the New York campaign and in the army’s retreat across New Jersey, but he was learning. He was taking measure of his British and Hessian foes and he understood this was also a war of the people.
In evacuating the Army across the Delaware River, Washington removed all boats up and down the river for miles upon miles. There was a sawmill and lumber yard in Trenton that General Howe could have used to build boats—but winter for the British Army was for winter quarters and festivities—not a season for building boats and campaigning.
The British knew the game was up and all they had to do was wait until spring to scoop up the remnants of the rebel force. Washington instead decided to attack to save the revolution. He chose the Hessian garrison at Trenton as his target because it was an isolated outpost and could not be quickly reinforced. As well, one had to think Washington wanted to hit the troops who had butchered American soldiers in the New York campaign and inspired such terror.
Defeating the professionals of Europe would change the psychological balance of the war—if Washington could inspire the Army to move, fight, and win. Was it a blind gamble? I would say it was audacious, a moment worthy of a Caesar or a Napoleon.
How does one inspire an Army to summon up and muster courage for one last go? Leadership—it can be the only answer combined with men willing to die for an idea.
The cast of other American leaders on the scene bears mentioning. These included John Glover, an irascible hard-bitten New England fisherman whose Marblehead fishermen had saved the Army several times by water-borne evacuations and by their steely determination on the field of battle. Together with Nathanael Greene, Hugh Mercer, John Sullivan, and Henry Knox, the former bookseller—all these men were amateurs who had just learned their bloody business. There was perhaps never a better group of small unit leaders at one time in our history than here.
How Weather Helped Washington Win
Washington and his commanders designed a daring plan to strike Trenton. Their battle plan relied heavily on artillery as the “bad-weather arm of the Revolution” for the weather and these weapons were to play a large role in the coming engagement. The weather, according to Washington’s dispatches, was a “violent storm of snow and hail;” the sort of conditions that would render muskets useless.
These conditions in mind, Washington’s plans included field artillery in a much greater proportion than customary. Knox, Washington’s artillery commander, and his men had some of the highest morale in the army and their steadfast nature, together with their impressive weaponry, would provide backbone to the infantry.
Washington’s plans included having three groups cross the Delaware River; Washington and the men under his personal command planned to cross at McConkey’s and Johnson’s ferries, while a smaller force led by General James Ewing was to cross at Trenton Ferry. Washington expected Colonel John Cadwalader and his men to cross from Bristol, Penn. to Burlington, N. J. As difficult as Washington’s crossing was, the conditions faced by Ewing and Cadwalader were worse, and they were unable to gain their objectives.
The raging storm provided a benefit to the Americans, however, as its ferocity caused Colonel Johann Rall, the Hessian garrison commander at Trenton, to relax his guard a bit. Rall believed it was preposterous to think that the rebels would attack his men during the violent storm and he cancelled a planned early morning patrol.
Knowing and Understanding the Enemy
Intelligence played a key role. The question of what John Honeyman, a cattle merchant, did in this time is a matter of conjecture. Allegedly, Honeyman told Rall that during a recent period of captivity in the American camp Honeyman saw a paralyzed, demoralized army. Honeyman’s information fed into the Hessians own preconceived notions. Instead of pondering that Washington in the New York campaign time and time again had offered to fight, the Hessians believed that their enemy was beaten. Modern historians downplay the role of Honeyman but after the war, Washington paid a formal visit to Honeyman and his family. Recent scholarship and popular books acknowledge Washington’s use and understanding of intelligence.
The importance of the victory over the Hessians on Christmas Day 1776 and later the British at Princeton cannot be overestimated. These were not merely tactical victories but a coup of the highest strategic import.
In ten days, Washington undid the entire British Campaign of 1776. His leadership rallied and saved the Army—and the revolution—and forced the British to evacuate New Jersey. It caused the European powers to start sharpening their knives and considering their options.
So on this Christmas Day raise a toast to those patriots and General Washington who never broke faith that they could win.
About the Author: LTC Robert G. Smith has served as an armor officer, logistician, military intelligence and engineer officer. He is a graduate of the Armor Basic Course, the Armor Advanced Course, Command and General Staff College and Army Combined Arms Staff College and the Advanced Joint Professional Military Course in Joint Warfare.
After 9/11 he was recalled to active duty, serving as the lead Army military historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History for the attack on the Pentagon. He has subsequently served as the V Corps historian for the initial invasion of Iraq and in the Deputy Directorate of Special Operation (DDSO) on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While on the DDSO he wrote a highly classified study on SOF in the Global War on Terror. Among his awards are the Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal and Combat Action Badge. He is currently a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in intelligence, national security and military science studies. He received the university’s 2014 Faculty Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award.
 Jac Weller, “Guns of Destiny: Field Artillery in the Trenton-Princeton Campaign 25 December 1776 to 3 January 1777,” Military Affairs 20, no. 1 (Spring 1956), 1. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1982625 (accessed May 29, 2013).
 David M. Ludlum, “The Weather of Independence.” Weatherwise 51, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 1998): 38-44. http://search.proquest.com/docview/200738576?accountid=8289 (accessed May 29, 2013).