Remembering a Christmas miracle in New Jersey

Additional troops to Afghanistan, part of the president’s surge, should be arriving this week or early next. An assignment to Afghanistan obviously isn’t much of a Christmas present.

The American military often doesn’t have the luxury of a quiet Christmas at home. Marines spent Christmas 1943 fighting for the Solomon Islands, and a year later elements of the 101st Airborne Division held the Belgian town of Bastogne against a German siege during the Battle of the Bulge. But these aren’t the only examples of our military doing its work while others are celebrating.

In 1776, the Continental Army under George Washington had been in existence for only 18 months. In that time, it had been defeated at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston, had been forced to evacuate New York and then had been ingloriously shooed across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. With enlistments running out, supplies low and morale falling badly, the long-term prospects for the survival of the Continental Army and the revolutionary cause didn’t look good.

Washington feared that his Army was on the verge of collapse. What he needed was nothing short of a miracle.

Continuing his retreat and defending Philadelphia was an option, but it wasn’t an attractive one. However, sometime in mid- to late December, without much counsel, he hatched the idea of a stealthy crossing of the Delaware River. Just before dawn he would surprise the Hessian troops, mercenaries hired by the British, at Trenton, N. J.

Washington chose Christmas Day to launch the attack. He hoped the Hessians, known for their Christmas feasts, would be sound asleep following a massive meal with lots to drink.

Coordination and logistics for the attack had to be done as quietly as possible. Secrecy was vital. The plan: Troops, in three formations, would begin embarkation late Christmas Day and would cross the river well before dawn.

Amazingly, Washington’s troops were able to procure enough boats without letting the British catch on. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in military planning, that’s where things started to go wrong.

Two of the columns never made it across the Delaware. Ice, delays and confusion caused them to turn back, but Washington’s column — which included the one-time bookbinder and now head of artillery, Henry Knox, and Washington’s aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, a future secretary of the Treasury — made the crossing.

However, rather than completing their landing on the New Jersey side of the river in darkness, they arrived in daylight. Maintaining the element of surprise would be difficult, and Washington could have turned back, but he pushed on.

Even though he was behind schedule he had, rather miraculously, managed to transport 3,000 men, plus light artillery, across an ice-choked river. And most notably, the enemy hadn’t caught wind of the action.

Washington’s column marched the distance to the Hessian camp at a near running pace. Along the way they successfully subdued all the Hessian sentries and lookouts. And when they arrived, they quite literally caught the Hessians napping. Guards weren’t posted and most of the men were still asleep.

The fight was surprisingly short with relatively few casualties on either side. But Washington had won a battle, capturing 896 men, along with desperately needed muskets, ammunition and artillery.

It was, for many of the Republic’s early proponents, nothing short of a miracle. The Continental Army had executed a difficult operation — something the British didn’t think was possible for such an ill-trained Army — and carried the day. It was hardly a war-winning victory, but it shocked the British, bolstered morale and prompted a renewal in Army enlistments. The Continental Army, thanks to this Christmas miracle, would live to fight another day.

David S. Kerr is a military historian who lives in Alexandria, Va.

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