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by William H. Benson

December 20, 2012

     By mid-December of 1776, George Washington was despondent. The American War for Independence was not going well. His troops were undisciplined, often bootless, lacked firearms and ammunition, had little access to food and clothing, and faced two well-equipped substantial European armies: the British red-coats, plus their mercenaries from Germany, the hated Hessians.

     William Howe, the British general, had chased Washington out of New York, had pursued him hotly across the state of New Jersey in the fall of 1776, and then forced the Virginian to hole up that winter on the west side of the Delaware River just inside Pennsylvania. Convinced that he had crushed this silly American rebellion, Howe departed the battlefield for the comforts of New York City, intending to return next spring to finish off George Washington and his pitiful army.

     It was accepted in Europe that during the winter season, generals and armies would retire. George Washington though had not received his military training in Europe.

     One soldier in Washington’s rag-tag army then was Thomas Paine, the famed writer of Common Sense. He had joined the American army in New York, at Fort Lee on the Hudson River, and had watched in dismay as Howe chased Washington across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. At night “on a drum-head by campfire” he would write down his thoughts, and in early December he left the army and returned to Philadelphia where he published his first American Crisis.

     “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine wrote. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their 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.”

     Of all of Paine’s literary works, those words from his first American Crisis are his most quoted. Their imagery is enlightening: some soldiers will fight only in the summer, when the sun shines, but the fight is upon them now in the gloom of a December cold.

     Washington read Paine’s words and decided. He would not wait all winter and allow Howe to bully him next spring. He would seize the initiative now. He understood that a number of his troops were set to leave his army on December 31, their term of enlistment expiring. Tradition has it that on the afternoon of December 25, Christmas Day, Washington had his men assemble and listen as their officers read to them Paine’s powerful words.

     Feeling energized, the troops gathered up their muskets, what little ammunition they had, and followed Washington as he crossed the Delaware River, back into New Jersey, that night. The rain, sleet, and snow chilled them. A strong northeast wind cut through their coats. Some had no boots or shoes. Ice sheets and chunks of ice formed in the water. Conditions were most inhospitable.

     After a brief rest on the New Jersey shore, Washington marched his troops a dozen miles south towards Trenton where at eight o’clock in the morning, in a raging snowstorm, the Americans surrounded the Hessians. In two hours, it was all over when the surprised Hessians surrendered.

     On January 4, Washington attacked a British garrison at Princeton, New Jersey and claimed a second victory there. These two battles—at Trenton and Princeton—gave Americans the hope that they could defeat the Europeans. Washington though would need another six years before the British signed a peace treaty that recognized American independence.

     Americans recollect Washington’s daring raid on Trenton because of the impressive painting Washington Crossing the Delaware that Emanuel Leutze painted in 1850. Leutze has Washington standing up, facing the New Jersey shore. Seamen are rowing their small craft across a river filled with chunks of ice, and Lieutenant James Monroe stands behind Washington holding the American flag.

     The painting represents a historical fact that symbolizes what the historian David Hackett Fischer calls a “discovery about the human condition—that people could organize a society on the basis of liberty and freedom and actually make it work.”

     Early in the war Washington struggled to find his own leadership style, so different from that of the British or Germans. He said, “Men accustomed to unbounded freedom, and no control, cannot brook the Restraint which is indispensably necessary to the good Order and Government of an Army.” Because his troops were volunteers, he knew he could not bully them. He said, “A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove.” So he stood in the boat with his troops and led them.

     Christmas is not the usual time to think of war and battling an enemy, and yet Washington, pinned down on the Delaware’s west bank, decided that he would raid Trenton on December 26. Fortunately for him and his American soldiers, his gamble succeeded.