Christmas night – long ago
As we prepare to celebrate the holiday with friends and family this Saturday, say a prayer for our way of life, our great country and for Gen. George Washington and the brave men who helped save Christmas for our country on a dark, cold, and stormy night in 1776.
In December 1776 many feared that the American War of Independence was all but lost. However, the heroism of General Washington and a rag-tag, battered and demoralized army of 2,400 braved the elements and crossed the Delaware River at flood stage in blizzard conditions on Christmas night, in what many historians understand to be one of the poignant and pivotal moments in American history.
In March at the beginning of 1776, the war effort by the colonies-in-rebellion had showed some promise. General Washington’s army had forced the British to end the siege of Boston and had moved south to face British Gen. William Howe, who had laid siege to New York in July.
General Howe had joined the British Army at the age of 17 in 1746 and had fought in one conflict or another, in Europe and North America, almost continuously prior to landing in Boston on May 25, 1775.
On March 17, 1776, General Howe abandoned the British siege of Boston and regrouped in Nova Scotia.
In July 1776, General Howe laid siege to New York and was subsequently confronted by General Washington. Although military historians are conflicted over a subsequent series of decisions by General Howe, the results are not left in doubt as by November 30, General Washington and his forces were retreating across New Jersey to a position just across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.
At the time, historian Richard Ketchum has attributed General Washington as having written “I think the game is pretty near up.”
Many men in General Washington’s Continental Army had deserted. Many of those who had not deserted were ill and most of the soldiers – and the colonialists – despaired that the battle for independence had been lost.
Food and supplies were meager and in many cases the soldiers were left without shelter, adequate clothing and in the depths of winter – many were shoeless.
Understandably, morale among the soldiers was low and those who had not deserted were counting the days when their enlistment was up and looked forward to going home to an uncertain future – as subjects of the British crown.
On December 19, pamphleteer Thomas Paine released “The American Crisis.” It began with the words:
“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 his 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.”
According to many historical accounts, fate was on the side of the colonialists when an American spy, John Honeyman, told General Washington’s forces that General Howe had made yet another military blunder and had decided not to pursue Washington’s forces into Pennsylvania.
Instead, General Howe had decided to remain in the comfortable surroundings provided by New York and had stationed a small force of Hessian soldiers in Trenton to keep an eye on Washington’s forces across the river in Pennsylvania.
It was at this time, that General Washington developed a plan to return to New Jersey and strike a blow for the cause of independence against the garrison of 1,500 Hessian soldiers.
On Christmas night, under cover of darkness, General Washington managed to get 2,400 men across the icy, flooded Delaware River, in the middle of a snow and sleet storm and march nine miles to surprise the Hessians in the early morning hours of the day after Christmas.
Much of the military plan, in fact, failed. An additional 3,000 men in the expeditionary force either failed to cross the Delaware River or failed to arrive in Trenton in time for the attack. To make matters that much worse, the weather had rendered most of the soldiers’ muskets unable to fire.
Nevertheless, in spite of overwhelming odds, General Washington and his troops persevered and prevailed.
Also of note, a Lt. James Monroe was badly wounded in the battle. He was shot in the left shoulder. The musket ball severed an artery and he almost bled to death. He survived and later became president of the United States.
The resulting victory garnered much needed supplies; instilled confidence and hope with the American public, increased morale in the soldiers and quieted many of General Washington’s critics in Congress.
It was certainly not a militarily strategic victory for the Americans. General Washington’s army was forced to immediately withdraw from Trenton.
However, in the depths of despair, the Christmas Campaign of 1776 breathed life into a faltering War of Independence and gave the American Revolution a new meaning. It is to this day, instilled into our American psyche and part of the backbone that makes our country great.
More than two centuries later, we continue to owe a debt of gratitude to the heroism of General Washington and the men of his army, who tested fate and dared to do the impossible.
2010 has been a tough year. But this Christmas we celebrate the gift of Jesus Christ. Amid all the fellowship of friends and family, take a moment to say a prayer for all the brave men and women who have gone before us, and those who serve us today in foreign lands, so that we may also have the gift of our American way of life to celebrate the holidays.
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
…I’m just saying…