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George Washington's Crossings of the Delaware River
Washington Crossing the Delaware 1856-71 George Caleb Bingham.jpg
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by George Caleb Bingham, 1856–1871
Date Night of December 25–26, 1776
Location Present-day Washington's Crossing National Historic Landmark, Pennsylvania and New Jersey
Participants George Washington, Continental Army
Outcome Battle of Trenton

George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River, which occurred on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War, was the first move in a surprise attack organized by George Washington against Hessian forces (German auxiliaries in the service of the British) in Trenton, New Jersey, on the morning of December 26. Planned in partial secrecy, Washington led Continental Army troops across the icy Delaware River in a difficult and dangerous operation.

Other planned crossings in support of the operation were either called off or unsuccessful, but this did not prevent Washington from surprising and defeating the troops of Johann Rall, who were housed in Trenton. After the attack, Washington's army crossed the river back to Pennsylvania, bringing prisoners and military stores that were taken as a result of the battle.

Washington's army then crossed the river a third time at the end of the year under conditions made more difficult by the uncertain thickness of the ice on the river. They defeated British reinforcements under Lord Cornwallis at Trenton on January 2, 1777, and defeated his rear guard at Princeton on January 3, before retreating to their winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey.

The unincorporated communities of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, and Washington Crossing, New Jersey, are named in honor of this event.

Background

While 1776 had begun well for the American cause with the removal of British troops from Boston in March, the defense of New York City had gone poorly. British General William Howe had landed troops on Long Island in August and had pushed George Washington's Continental Army completely out of New York by mid-November when he captured the remaining troops on Manhattan.

The main British troops returned to New York for the winter season. They left the Hessian troops in New Jersey. These troops, who were under the command of Colonel Rall and Colonel Von Donop, were ordered to be stationed at small outposts in and around Trenton. General Howe then sent troops under the command of Charles Cornwallis across the Hudson River into New Jersey and chased Washington across New Jersey.

Washington's army was shrinking and they suffered from poor morale (confidence during hard times) because of the defeats in the New York area. Cornwallis (under Howe's command), rather than immediately trying to chase Washington further, established a chain of outposts from New Brunswick to Burlington, including one at Bordentown and one at Trenton. He then ordered his troops into winter quarters. The British were happy to end the campaign (battle) season when they were ordered to winter quarters. This was a time for the generals to regroup, re-supply, and strategize for the future campaign season the following spring.

Washington's Army

Washington's crossing Delaware River map
Map of Delaware River area depicting route George Washington and his Army made during the crossing
by William Faden

Washington camped the army near McConkey's Ferry, not far from the crossing site. While Washington first took quarters across the river from Trenton, he moved his headquarters on December 15 to the home of William Keith so he could remain closer to his forces. When Washington's army first arrived at McConkey's Ferry, he had four to six thousand men, although 1,700 soldiers were unfit for duty and needed hospital care. In the retreat across New Jersey, Washington had lost precious supplies and also lost contact with two important divisions of his army.

The Continental Army's General Horatio Gates was in the Hudson River Valley, and General Charles Lee was in western New Jersey with 2,000 men. Washington had ordered both generals to join him, but Gates was delayed by heavy snows on the way, and Lee, who did not have a high opinion of Washington, preferred to remain on the British flank near Morristown, New Jersey. He delayed in following repeated orders from Washington.

Many of Washington's men's enlistments were due to expire at the end of the year, and many soldiers wanted to leave the army when their commission ended. Several deserted before their enlistments were completed. The continuing loss of forces, the series of lost battles, the loss of New York, the flight of the Army along with many New Yorkers, and the Second Continental Congress's move to Philadelphia made it hard to believe that the Patriots could win the war and gain independence. However, Washington persisted. He successfully gained supplies and sent men to recruit new members of the militia.

Publication of The American Crisis

PaineAmericanCrisis
First page of Paine's The American Crisis

The morale of the Patriot forces was boosted on December 19 when a new pamphlet titled The American Crisis written by Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, was published.

"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."

Within a day of its publication in Philadelphia, General Washington ordered it to be read to all of his troops. It encouraged the soldiers and improved the tolerance of their difficult conditions.

Reinforcements Arrive

On December 20, General Lee's division of 2,000 troops arrived in Washington's camp under the command of General John Sullivan. General Lee had been captured by the British on December 12, when he ventured too far outside the protection of his troops in search of more comfortable lodgings (or, according to rumors, a possible assignation). Later that same day, General Gates' division arrived in camp, Soon afterward, another 1,000 militiamen from Philadelphia under Colonel John Cadwalader joined Washington.

With these reinforcements and the local volunteers who joined his forces, Washington's troops now totaled about 6,000 men fit for duty. This total was then reduced by a large portion because some forces were detailed to guard the ferries at Dunk's Ferry (currently bordered by Neshaminy State Park in Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania and New Hope, Pennsylvania). Another group was sent to protect supplies at Newtown, Pennsylvania and to guard the sick and wounded who had to remain behind when the army crossed the Delaware River. This left Washington with about 2,400 men able to battle against the Hessian and British troops in central New Jersey.

This improvement in morale was helped by the arrival of some provisions, including much-needed blankets, on December 24.

Planning the Attack

1819 Passage OfThe Delaware byThomasSully MFABoston
The Passage of the Delaware, by Thomas Sully, 1819

General Washington had been thinking about some sort of bold move since he had arrived in Pennsylvania. With the addition of Sullivan's and Gates' forces and the entrance of militia companies, he felt the time was finally right for some sort of action. He first considered an attack on the southernmost British positions near Mount Holly, where a militia force had gathered. He sent his adjutant, Joseph Reed, to meet with Samuel Griffin, the militia commander. Reed arrived in Mount Holly on December 22. He found Griffin to be ill and his men in poor condition, but they were willing to make some sort of diversion. (This they did with the Battle of Iron Works Hill the next day, drawing the Hessians at Bordentown far enough south that they would not be able to come to the aid of the Trenton garrison.) The intelligence (facts about an opposing army) gathered by Reed and others led Washington to abandon the idea of attacking at Mount Holly. Instead, he decided to attack the Trenton garrison. He announced this decision to his staff on December 23, saying the attack would take place just before daybreak on December 26.

Washington's final plan was for three crossings. His troops, the largest group, would lead the attack on Trenton. A second column under Cadwalader was to cross at Dunk's Ferry and create a diversion to the south. A third column under Brigadier General James Ewing was to cross at Trenton Ferry and hold the bridge across the Assunpink Creek, just south of Trenton, in order to prevent the enemy's escape by that route. Once Trenton was secure, the combined army would move against the British posts in Princeton and New Brunswick. There was a fourth crossing planned. Men provided by General Israel Putnam were supposed to assist Cadwalader, but Putnam said that he did not have enough men to help the operation be a success, so the idea was abandoned.

Preparations for the attack on Trenton began on December 23. On December 24, the boats used to bring the army across the Delaware River from New Jersey were brought down from Malta Island near New Hope. They were hidden behind Taylor Island at McConkey's Ferry, Washington's planned crossing site; security was increased at the crossing. A final planning meeting took place that day with all of the general officers. Washington gave orders for the operation on December 25.

Watercraft

WashingtonCrossingReenactment2005
Reenactors cross the river in Durham boats

Militiamen from the surrounding counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania were assisted by the Pennsylvania Navy in building boats for the crossing. Captain Daniel Bray, Captain Jacob Gearhart, and Captain Jacob Ten Eyck were chosen by Washington to take charge of the boats used in the crossing, supervising the transport of infantry, cavalry, and cannon.

Large ferry vessels were used to carry coaches and probably served for carrying horses and artillery during the crossing. A large number of Durham boats were used to carry soldiers across the river. These boats were designed to carry heavy loads from the Durham Iron Works. They had high sides and the keel (the center of the bottom part of the boat) stayed shallow. Poles, rather than oars, could be used to push them across the river.

The boats were operated by experienced watermen. Most famous among them were the men of John Glover's Marblehead Regiment, a company of experienced seamen from Marblehead, Massachusetts. These men were joined by seamen, dockworkers, and shipbuilders from Philadelphia, as well as local ferry operators and boatsmen who knew the river well.

Crossing

On the morning of December 25, Washington ordered his army to prepare three days' food and issued orders that every soldier should have fresh flints for their muskets. Washington was worried because he had received reports that the British were planning their own crossing once the Delaware River was frozen. At 4:00 pm Washington's army turned out for its evening parade, where the troops were given ammunition, and even the officers and musicians were ordered to carry muskets. They were told that they were departing on a secret mission. Marching in columns of eight men in close formations and ordered to be as quiet as possible, they left the camp for McConkey's Ferry. Washington's plan required the crossing to begin as soon as it was dark enough to conceal their movements on the river, but most of the troops did not reach the crossing point until about 6 pm, about ninety minutes after sunset. The weather got worse, turning from drizzle to rain and then from rain to sleet and snow. "It blew a hurricane," recalled one soldier.

Henry Knox, Washington's chief of artillery, was given command of the details of the crossing. He had to transport large numbers of troops (most of whom could not swim), horses, and eighteen pieces of artillery over the river. Knox wrote that the crossing was accomplished "with almost infinite difficulty," and that the largest danger was floating ice in the river. One observer noted that the whole operation might well have failed "but for the stentorian lungs of Colonel Knox."

Washington was among the first of the troops to cross, going with Virginia troops led by General Adam Stephen. These troops formed a sentry line (armed guards in a line) around the landing area in New Jersey, with strict instructions that no one was to pass through it. The password was "Victory or Death." The rest of the army crossed without much trouble.

The amount of ice on the river prevented the artillery from finishing the crossing until 3:00 am on December 26. The troops were ready to march around 4:00 am.

Battle-of-Trenton
Map showing Washington's movements leading up to the Battle of Trenton

The two other crossings did not go as well. The treacherous weather and ice jams on the river stopped General Ewing from even attempting a crossing below Trenton. Colonel Cadwalader crossed a large portion of his men to New Jersey, but when he found that he could not get his artillery across the river he called his men back from New Jersey. When he received word about Washington's victory, he crossed his men over again but retreated when he found out that Washington had not stayed in New Jersey.

Attack

On the morning of December 26, as soon as the army was ready, Washington ordered it split into two columns, one under the command of himself and General Greene and the second under General Sullivan. The Sullivan column would take River Road from Bear Tavern to Trenton while Washington's column would follow Pennington Road, a parallel route that lay a few miles inland from the river. Only 3 Americans were killed and 6 wounded, while 22 Hessians were killed with 83 wounded. The Americans captured almost 1,000 prisoners and seized muskets, powder, artillery, and the Hessians' food.

Return to Pennsylvania

Following the battle, Washington had to perform a second crossing that was in some ways more difficult than the first. After the battle, the Hessian supplies had been taken, and, in spite of Washington's explicit orders for its destruction, casks of captured rum were opened. Some of the celebrating troops got drunk and a larger number of troops had to be pulled from the icy waters on the return crossing. They also had to transport the prisoners across the river while keeping them under guard. One American guard on one of the crossings commented that the Hessians, who were standing in knee-deep ice water, were "so cold that their underjaws quivered like an aspen leaf."

The victory raised the troops' morale. As a result of the battle a Trenton, soldiers celebrated the victory, Washington proved his role as a leader, and Congress gained renewed enthusiasm for the war.

Third Crossing

Glover-statue
Statue of John Glover in Boston

In a war council (a meeting about the battles and the war) on December 27, Washington learned that all of the British and Hessian forces had retreated as far north as Princeton, something Cadwalader had learned when his militia company crossed the river that morning. In his letter, Cadwalader suggested that the British could be driven entirely out of the area, increasing the victory. After much discussion, the council decided to try to remove the British from the area and planned a third crossing for December 29.

Because so many soldiers were involved in this crossing, eight crossing points were used. It had become bitterly cold, so the ice had frozen 2 to 3 inches (4 to 7 cm) thick at some of the crossing points. These areas were able to support soldiers, who crossed the ice on foot. At other crossings, the conditions were so bad that the attempts were abandoned for the day. It was New Year's Eve before the army and all of its equipment was back in New Jersey.

Washington then used a strong position just south of the Assunpink Creek, across the creek from Trenton. In this position, he beat back one assault on January 2, 1777, which he followed up with a decisive victory at Princeton the next day. In the following days, the British withdrew to New Brunswick, and the Continental Army entered winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey.

Legacy

Washington Crossing State Park, NJ view of Delaware River
Landing area in Washington Crossing State Park, New Jersey

At the time of the crossing, Washington's army included people who played important roles in the formation and early days of the United States of America. These included future President James Monroe, future Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton (a future Secretary of the Treasury), and Arthur St. Clair, who later served as President of the Continental Congress and governor of the Northwest Territory.

Both sides of the Delaware River where the crossing took place have been preserved in an area named Washington's Crossing National Historic Landmark. Washington Crossing Historic Park in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, preserves the area in Pennsylvania, and Washington Crossing State Park in Washington Crossing, New Jersey preserves the area in New Jersey. The two areas are connected by the Washington Crossing Bridge.

In 1851, the artist Emmanuel Leutze created the painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, an inspirational visual description of the crossing. Fictional portrayals of the crossing have also been made into films, with the most famous recent one being The Crossing, a 2000 television movie starring Jeff Daniels as George Washington.

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