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
An Army at rest, and an Army formed
|General John Sullivan|
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|
|Surprise attack at Trenton|
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|