28th Dec, 2010

THE MEMORY AND MEANING OF AMERICA’S HARD BEGINNINGS

PART I

CHRISTMAS 1776

Christmas 1776 was a very unlikely turning point in America’s quest for Independence. It came on the heels of a humiliating retreat from New York through New Jersey. Today, few people recall that bleak moment in December, 1776 when a most severe crisis threatened the very existence of the American cause of liberty. The Declaration of Independence was then only six months old. Thomas Paine then wrote his immortal words describing this critical period as the “American Crisis”. He said: “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 this country but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” The magnificent courage exhibited by Washington and his men that bleak Christmas of 1776 must never be forgotten.

The significance of that Christmas night along the Delaware River in 1776 was perhaps best evaluated and most vividly expressed almost five years later in a Virginia town near the Chesapeake Bay. The occasion was a victory dinner after America’s conclusive victory at Yorktown. As was the custom in those days, the victorious General Washington had just proposed a toast to the defeated British General Lord Cornwallis (the same man who had five years before driven Washington and his rapidly diminishing troops from New York and through New Jersey and across the Delaware to the safety of the Pennsylvania shore). The British General looked squarely in the eyes of the man who had been his skilled and determined opponent for more than half a decade. Who, better than Cornwallis, could accurately appraise the strategies and abilities of America’s commander in chief? All awaited Cornwallis’ answer to the toast from General Washington. Surely, it would refer to Washington’s ? victory in the concluding battle of Yorktown, which at long last brought an end to the war. However, instead, Cornwallis said: “When the illustrious part which your Excellency has born and the long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels from the banks of the Delaware rather than those of the Chesapeake.” To what was Cornwallis referring when he described the “banks of the Delaware?” Many in the audience that night likely did not understand the reference but it was not lost on General Washington. His thoughts turned back to that Christmas night in 1776 when he crossed the icy Delaware and with his men were poised to achieve the unthinkable. The crossing took much longer than what he had anticipated. He began the march with his thinly clad men (many of whom walked barefoot on the frozen ground or wrapped their feet in rags). It was near 3 AM and it soon became evident that the Americans could not reach Trenton before daybreak. Would it still be possible to surprise Colonel Rall and his Hessian mercenaries who were considered to be some of the best trained soldiers in all of Europe? The watchword for the American troops was, “Victory or death”. Oh how real that battle cry was indeed.

Because of the bravery of these men and their heroic leader Christmas 1776 will be forever remembered as the pivotal moment when independence and liberty firmly took root in America.

To fully understand the whole story behind the miraculous victory at Trenton, we must understand the events that preceded it. We must go back to July 4, 1776, a most stirring day for the American cause of liberty. General Washington gathered his officers and troops and shared with them the momentous Declaration of Independence that had just been issued by the assembled delegates of the Thirteen Colonies in Philadelphia. Said Washington, “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Free men, or Slaves, whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses and Farms, are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they can sign to a State of Wretchedness, for which no human effort will probably deliver them. The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission; that is all we can expect. We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die; our Own Country’s Honor all call upon us for vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions. The eyes of all our countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other and shew us the whole world that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth. . .”.

At that most hopeful moment, tens of thousands of hired German Hessian soldiers were arriving in America. On August 27th, the disastrous battle of Long Island took place. 600 Americans were killed and over 1,000 were taken prisoners. Setbacks continued throughout the Fall. By mid-November, the American troops were in a pitiful condition. In addition to the loss of troops, Washington lost substantial quantities of invaluable equipment and supplies. He was forced to flee across New Jersey. He had lost over 5,000 men during the past three months. He prepared to retreat across New Jersey with less than 4,000 men and somehow managed to escape being trapped by the British. On November 19, he wrote to his brother, John Augustus, “It is impossible to give you any idea of our situation. My difficulties and the constant perplexities . . . I meet with derive from the unhappy policy of short enlistments . . . I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things and I solemnly protest that a pecuniary reward of 20,000 pounds would not induce me to undergo what I do.” Daily desertions were a common reality. Washington could not help but feel discouraged in his efforts to get reinforcements both from the State of New Jersey and the slow and often indecisive Congress.

Washington and his men were forced to abandon their post at Newark New Jersey just as the British, 12,000 strong, were entering the City. The Americans were hard pressed to keep going and conceal their weakness. Washington was forced to rely on local militia from place to place rather than a true standing American army. The terms of enlistments of the Maryland and New Jersey militia were set to expire on December 1st. They demanded their discharges and left for home. This encouraged many more desertions. Many of the American soldiers, insufficiently clothed and fed, were bribed and persuaded to join forces with the well fed and well outfitted British. Enthusiasm for the American cause of Independence was as low as the spirits for the hungry American troops. Nevertheless, General Washington refused to succumb to a growing spirit of general gloom. He was always planning and looking ahead. To preserve such options, he was forced to literally burn bridges behind him as he retreated to safety and sought to block the British in their pursuits and attempts to capture them.

Alexander Hamilton, although not yet twenty years of age, became an experienced fighter and a loyal assistant to the General he loved and revered above all men. Washington’s army now numbered barely 3,000. Many of his men were without shoes, stockings and even shirts. Blankets and supplies had to be abandoned because there were no wagons to carry such equipment. Remaining tents were ordered burned to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. The men could only think longingly of such abandoned tents and blankets as they lay close together on the bare ground. Most of the soldiers wore linen hunting shirts. They were filthy, ragged and infected. Fevers, pneumonia and dysentery were rampant. General Greene referred to their conditions as “beyond description and shocking to humanity.” There were no bandages or medical supplies. General Washington, himself, faired little better than his men. He too as well as his secretary and aides, often slept on the bare ground. As Thomas Paine had so movingly written, these truly were “the times that try men’s souls.” These Americans were no “summer soldiers”. Their greatest desire was that their fellow countrymen would turn out and help them drive the enemy back. They were united in a common cause and that was the cause of freedom. This was “the American Crisis.”

Washington reached Princeton New Jersey by December 2nd. From there, he led his barefoot and almost naked army to the edge of the Delaware River. He made sure that not a single boat remained in which the enemy could pursue them across the River. He personally supervised the destruction of all bridges and the filling of trees across the road to block the British in their pursuit. American forces crossed the river on December 8th. General Howe and the British troops were then marching into Trenton. The British could not find a single boat in which to pursue the Americans. Cornwallis led some of his troops up the river but they could find no boats to pursue the Americans. General Howe sent his men down the river but the answer was the same – “No boats to be found anywhere.” Among General Washington’s troops was a young James Monroe, age 18. He later became President of the United States. He was then a serious young officer with great promise. Colonel Henry Knox, 26 year old bookseller from Boston, had fought at the battle of Bunker Hill and would later serve in Washington’s first cabinet once the Constitution was adopted and the new government established. A Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginia Regiment was Chief Justice Thomas Marshall, father of the future United States Supreme Court.

In a letter to Congress on December 16, Washington wrote, “The clothing of the troops is a matter of infinite importance. Their distresses are extremely great, many being naked, and most so thinly clad as to be unfit for service.”

It was believed that the British had settled into winter quarters and, if so, that meant temporary safety for the Americans. One American soldier later wrote, “The privation and suffering we endure is beyond description. No tent to cover us at night; exposed to rains night and day; no food of any kind but a little raw flour”. He reported that when they managed to enter a Pennsylvania tavern and found attractive food items, which tempted them, the store keeper refused to sell them to them because their paper money from the American colonies was deemed worthless. These conditions explained why volunteers were so scarce. One reporter wrote that the spirits of the people seem much depressed and that unless something turned up more favorable, “I dread the consequences.” New England Governor Turnbull asked, “Is America to be lost? Is she to fall a victim to the rage of a lawless tyrant? Is New England to be subjected to . . . slavery? God Almighty forbid. . . . Our army to the westward is naked and barefoot, fleeing before the enemy . . . . May God give us the spirit of wisdom, forwarded to a resolution in this evil day!” Cornwallis was so sure of a quick and easy victory that he planned a trip home to England over the winter months. He would be back in the Spring, “If there is another campaign, which we doubt.” In England, it was believed that the war was over. Benjamin Franklin, in Paris, couldn’t overcome the French unwillingness to help a failing cause.

Washington was forced to fight essentially a defensive war. He knew that affirmative action must be taken but he did not have the resources to mount an offensive campaign or so it seemed. He had previously written that they must “on all occasions avoid a general action, or put anything to the risk, unless compelled by a necessity, under which we ought never to be drawn.” General Washington kept his numerable problems mostly to himself. On December 18th, disclosed to his brother, “No man I believe ever had a greater choice of difficulties or less means to extricate himself from them.” The game is almost up.” Still, he had an unshakable confidence in the justice of the cause and the fighting ability of his men and in an overriding Divine Providence.

The King of England hired some 30,000 German mercenaries (“Hessians”). They were told that they could find private fortunes in America and that they were free to loot and steal at will. They did so. They looted the homes and barns of the American colonists and they had no respect for private or public property.

On December 23, Washington wrote to his Generals, “Christmas day at night, one hour before day, and the time is the time fixed for our attempt on Trenton. For heaven sake, keep this to yourself as discovery may prove fatal to us. Dire necessity will, nay, must, justify attempt.” The watchword for the attempt was “Victory or Death” and victory or death it surely would be. Not only death to the American troops but also to the very cause of liberty itself. General Washington was keenly aware that his men, hungry as they may have been for food, needed spiritual nourishment as well. He had copies of Thomas Paine’s stirring words rushed to his camp. They were written just a few days before. He ordered it read to all the men and there were none who were not made braver by them.

The Crossing

Washington was set to cross the Delaware from McKonkey’s Ferry on the Pennsylvania side with a force of 2,400 men. Every officer was ordered to wear a piece of white paper in his hat to distinguish him in the darkness. As soon as darkness fell, the boats, which had been kept in hiding since their retreat, were brought down to the Ferry landing.

The diary of one of Washington’s officers captures the tension of the hour: “Six o’clock PM . . . . It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm is setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the men who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet, others are barefoot, but I have never heard a man complain. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty.”

The snow soon turned to sleet. Bloody tracks in the snow told the tragic story of poorly shod, frozen feet. In the darkness, Washington directed the preparations as the men set out to cross the ice jammed Delaware River. Other regiments were forced to turn back but General Washington had his men successfully crossed the river. One officer wrote, “I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, supervising the landing of his troops.” In the midst of it all, the question of the ages lingered. Would this venture mean victory or death to the Country’s struggle for Independence? This was the early American crisis. Yet few were aware of it. The preparations were so difficult that it was after 3 AM and not the anticipated midnight when change finally began. The snow changed to sleet and cut like a knife. As the men marched towards Trenton, General Greene who was leading one column of troops sent a message to Washington. He wrote, “Muskets wet and can’t be fired.” Washington’s reply was brief, “Tell your General to use the bayonet. The town must be taken.” General Greene looked on with compassion when he realized that many of his men were without bayonets.

While the Americans drew close, the British enjoyed the peace and comfort of warm and ample accommodations on the Jersey side of the Delaware. Their military leaders received several warnings and news of isolated skirmishes that should have and would have alerted them to the coming attack if they were not so overconfident and complacent. Additionally, they were feeling the effects of the night of drunkenness as part of their Christmas celebrations.

When the American troops successfully confronted their Hessian enemies and trapped them with no pain for retreat, their humanity was demonstrated to a remarkable degree. They fired over the heads of their enemies and took not their lives. The Hessians threw down their muskets and the Americans jubilantly tossed their hats in the air. Victory was theirs in less than two hours after the first shot was fired. And, miraculously, in this swift attack, not a single American was killed. Washington and his brave men had proven beyond measure that they were indeed no “summer soldiers” and they deserve the “thanks of men and woman.” With that victory came a new respect for the American cause of liberty for which they were fighting and a new faith in its future. “This is a glorious day for our country;” Washington exclaimed happily as he rode down King Street in Trenton. The effects of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and the American victory at Trenton was truly amazing. The self-confidence of British military leaders was shaken Confidence in the American Commander in Chief spread not only throughout the colonies but abroad. The Americans who had so long been on the defensive and expected a winter of constant alarm and attacks on Philadelphia but now it was the British who remained anxious wondering what move Washington would next make. The notion of British invincibility was shattered and the tide of public opinion turned. Recruiting was on the rise and belief in the cause of liberty soared. The momentum carried the colonists to success at Princeton and through the difficult winter at Valley Forge and onto ultimate victory at Yorktown. A renowned British historian later wrote regarding the “American Revolution” that “it may be doubted whether such a smaller number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting results upon the history of the world.”

Responses

Your piece is so well written, descriptive and on-point LaVar. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of this historical and pivotal time in the life of our country. It’s difficult to imagine the degree of commitment to and belief in the possibility of freedom that drove these patriots. You are right……….we each have a sacred responsibility to preserve the freedom that we enjoy, that was so valiantly and fiercely fought for by our early Americans. Thank you for doing your part to serve and to fight for the protection and preservation of those freedoms.

LaVar, You are an awesome man. I do so appreciate this above all of your letters. I am currently in England and have recently developed a new perspective about my country America. As always, George Washington remains my personal hero above all men. In fact of these personal heroes, Joseph Smith, Jesus Christ, and George Washington, I can most relate to George washington because of my military background. Thanks so much for reminding me of the great sacrifice , not only of General Washington, but of those brave men who against popular opinion at the time, stood with General Washington during the scarcest of times.
And may God bless you and your family LaVar Christensen for you patriotism, wisdom and dedication.

Outstanding recounting of the battle for independance. Thank you for reminding us of the sacrifices made by so few against an army of so many. Once again we are reminded that freedom is not free.

LaVar,

Thank you!

Thank you LaVar for a history lesson that should be read and understood by both current and future generations. This will be required reading for all of my grandchildren, as well as my own children if I think they need a refresher course. Also, thank you for the meetup and tour of the capital building. I had never heard the farewell speech given by President Reagan. Any chance you could post it on your website?

LaVar,

what an inspiring account of heroism, pereverance and love of freedom in one of the darkest hours of our fledging nation’s birth. Your recounting of these events are not only extremely well researched and written, but also serve as a stern reminder that we must never forget the great sacrifices made on the altar of freedom by our noble forefathers.

Thanks for your service as a friend and my representative,

Ted Phillips

Thanks LaVar for your continued faith in the American spirit and freedom. And thank you for your support of our cause.

Mont Crosland

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