Saturday, December 21, 2013

Gambling through Defeat and Victory - The Winter Gamble

Darkness Descends

The month of December 1776 was indeed a month that tried men's souls. The British had the Continental Army on the run since they invaded Long Island in the summer. The "victory" at Harlem was the closest the hapless Americans came to checking Lord Howe's onslaught.  The only thing between Washington and an early British victory to end the rebellion was, well, Lord Howe. Smart strategic move after move, well executed naval landings, precision tactics, highly professional sieges were the hallmark of Howe's offensive. But he moved all too slowly and time after time Washington escaped the noose.

Cornwallis crossed with five thousand crack troops to begin
the route through the Jerseys

Winter Quarters

Lord Cornwallis
 By late December Washington's army was safely across the Delaware River and expecting to defend the nation's capital, Philadelphia. He he had less than 2500 "effectives," and that number would soon drop with many enlistments ending in January and the desperately needed replacements not arriving until early the next year (if at all). The Continental Army lacked supplies of all kinds, especially clothing.  Not just winter clothing - clothing!  But Washington had help from Howe, who halted General Cornwallis 5,000 crack troops at the Delaware. Washington's men had confiscated every civilian boat for miles along the river and Cornwallis had to wait for the British pontoon trains before crossing.  Instead, Howe, thinking Washington beaten, ordered his army into "winter quarters" and himself scurried back to New York and his mistress. Cornwallis' wife meanwhile was reported ill and he headed to New York to catch a ship to England before the winter made crossing impossible. To guard his New Jersey holdings, Howe left brigade sized garrisons at Princeton, Brunswick, Bordentown and Trenton.

An Army at rest, and an Army formed

General John Sullivan
As soon as he escaped Cornwallis' onslaught, Washington began to think about his next move.  Congress abandoned the capital and fled to Baltimore. Congress also offered him near dictatorial powers, which he eschewed. Then, the help he had counted on, then dismissed, suddenly arrived.  General John Sullivan, returned from British captivity, led the division of General Charles Lee across the Delaware and joined Washington near Yardley, New Jersey. Washington then decided to act on his plan,  he would gamble on a surprise attack against the British garrisons closest to the Delaware:  Bordentown and Trenton.  Washington's bold gamble required meticulous planning, daring, and luck. His first bit of luck was Sullivan's arrival.  His second, his ability to convince the troops to extend their enlistments long enough to enable his plan. Washington personally met with the men and his sincerity and obvious dedication to them and the cause turned the hearts of just enough. The third would be the weather, and lastly, maintaining the element of surprise during a time when not just Loyalists but even despondent patriots might give him over to the British.  Spies were everywhere.

The Crossing

Washington hid his movements from Loyalist spies and got his army to McGonkey's Ferry the evening of the 25th of December.  The weather was cold with snow flurries, but ice had not yet formed on the river.  The crossing commenced after dark but delay after delay put Washington's timetable off.  He hoped to march the some nine miles down river and surprise the Hessian garrison under Colonel Johan Rall at dawn.  The key were the guns.  Henry Knox assured him he'd be able to get the 18 cannon across.  But the snow picked up in intensity and ice floes began to form.  With each wave of boats that crossed in the darkness the danger grew. But Colonel John Glover's Marblehead sailors, the famed Gloucester Regiment, exceeded the heroics of Long Island.  A crossing delayed would not be a crossing denied... at least at McGonkey's.  Further down river two other divisions of Pennsylvanians under Generals Ewing and Cadwallader were supposed  to cross and seize Bordentown and assist at Trenton. But the ice floes had thickened to where neither could cross that night.  That part of Washington's gamble had failed.

Washington observes the guns at the crossing

The Miracle

Surprise attack at Trenton
Washington's forces did not fully cross until well into the wee hours.  Then began the night
march in two columns, one along the river road and another, which Washington joined, moved further inland. The men, cold, wet and tired, struggled over rugged, rocky and wooded land. Limbs frozen and half blind by the elements, the soldiers wore patches of white paper to guide them  in the dark.  All the time, Washington kept hoping the other columns could cross and that the Hessians were not alerted and waiting. His worst fears were realized in the former but his greatest expectations realized in the latter.  Arriving well into the early morning light, the Americans were amazed to find the little town still sleeping and the weather clearing. The sound of a cannon signaled the two-pronged attack. Surprised, the Hessian professionals formed up best they could to meet the invaders but within an hour the battle was over. Rall, the enemy commander, fell mortally wounded and his men soon grounded arms.  Not one American had died and only a few were wounded. Washington's gamble succeeded... but his winter gambling had only just begun.

Continentals rush a Hessian gun to open the battle

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