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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Silent Night...Not

Victorian era St. Nick
Christmas celebrations in colonial America were much more staid affairs than the celebration we know today. December 25th in colonial America was just another day, unless it fell on a Sunday in which case it was just another Sunday. America's celebration of Christmas as a very special holiday began with the large wave of German immigrants in the early 1800s.  Germans always held Christmas as the most special of days.  Christmas' role  in the English speaking world peaked during the Victorian era.  Victoria's consort Albert brought many Christmas traditions with him and later Charles Dickens and then other novelists popularized the season.  Of course Santa Claus is derived from Sant Niklaus - a Dutch character derived from the original Saint Nicholas who was a Roman Bishop in what is today Turkey.  Full disclosure: the original Saint Nicholas is buried in my grandparents' home city of Bari, Italy.

Hessian Grenadier of
 Regiment von Rall
As Christmas approached in December 1776, the fortunes of the American rebellion had plummeted. The British juggernaut extended into the Jerseys (back then New Jersey was sometimes referred to as East and West Jersey). Lord Charles Cornwallis led the invading vanguard of some 5,000 British and Hessian troops in pursuit of Washington's dwindling army. Washington abandoned Fort Lee and maneuvered his way to Hackensack, where he checked the British only briefly before retreating with little pause through Newark, New Brunswick, Princeton and Trenton. On the 8th of December, Cornwallis and his scouts made it to the east bank of the Delaware just  in time to watch Washington and his personal escort depart on the last boat.

The patriot cause was at its nadir. Panic had set in, especially in Philadelphia.  Lord Howe had issued a proclamation accepting back any rebels willing to swear an oath to the King. Some had begun to accept it. Worse still, many of Washington's best troops had enlistments expiring with little likelihood that replacements would arrive.  Fearful of a British assault on the capital, the Continental Congress fled and turned governance over to the military. To stall the British, Washington had all the serviceable boats along a 70 mile stretch of the Delaware confiscated. The British advance had to await their engineers to plan a crossing.  Fortunately, Lord Howe had decided he had all but whipped the rebels and ordered his army into winter quarters with brigade-sized garrisons at Brunswick, Trenton, Princeton, Bordentown, and Cherry Hill. The remainder took quarters in Staten Island or Manhattan.


But still, throughout the colonies morale was dismal. The end seemed in sight, just as Howe assumed. But the  December 23rd edition of the pamphlet "The Crisis," by Thomas Paine, inspired many Americans. A desperate Washington decided to gamble on a winter strike against the rebels before many of his best regiments dissolved. He had the pamphlet read to his troops and conceived a plan for a Christmas thrust in three divisions to take the enemy garrisons at Trenton and Bordentown. At first demoralized by the rapid British advance, New Jersey militia units now began to probe and harass the British garrisons, isolating them in their posts. Then, General John Sullivan arrived with a division from the Hudson Highlands.  These reinforcements provided Washington the strength he needed to complete his plan.




Dramatic portrait - Washington crossed over in the dark of a December night

On the night of the 25th of December Washington made his famous crossing at McKonkey's Ferry and marched the nine miles along the Delaware to Trenton.  Divisions under Generals Cadwallader and Ewing (mostly Pennsylvania and New Jersey units) were to cross near Bordentown and link up with Washington but worsening weather and the rapid ice floes prevented them from crossing.  Nevertheless, Washington struck with just over 2,000 men just after dawn even as a rain and snow mix descended on them.

Overrunning the Hessian guns at Trenton

So what's the Christmas connection?  The German garrison, a brigade under the command of the renowned Hessian Colonel Johann Gottleib von Rall, was caught unprepared.  Germans celebrate two days of Christmas and Washington struck between the two.  Indeed, the Germans  themselves had been worn out by the rigors of the campaign and the Jersey militia had played apart in tiring them and causing a "hunker down" factor.  But  Rall never expected the onslaught that caught them in the weary hours of their holiest of days.   Rall fell mortally wounded rallying his battalions and soon after the garrison surrendered over one thousand men.  The battle did not last an hour. The stunning victory  saved the American cause that was all but finished.



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