In mid-December 1776, the young United States of America, who recently declared independence from Great Britain in July, was a hair’s breadth away from losing the war. Since August, Major General George Washington has lost every major battle he had fought and had been chased out both New York and New Jersey. The Continental Army’s strength was a mere fraction of what it was during the heady days after the capture of Boston, nine months before. 80% of the Continental Army was killed, wounded, captured, or had deserted since the loss at Long Island in August. Even worse, morale for the remainder was rock bottom, and their enlistments ended in 11 days. The Continental Army had just finished fleeing across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, abandoning the vital of state of New Jersey, with its prosperous farms and fertile recruiting grounds, destroying most of the boats on the river to delay the pursuing Hessians.
On 19 December 1776. Thomas Paine published the pamphlet, “The American Crisis” in response to the continued disasters. It begins,
“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 their country; but he that stands by 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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value…”
On Christmas Night, 1776, the Marblehead fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s 14th Continentals “The Amphibious Regiment” ferried the remnants of the Continental Army, whose enlistments would expire on New Year’s Day, across the Delaware River back into New Jersey. The process took all night and into Christmas morning. Washington wanted to attack the Hessian garrison at dawn, but there simply wasn’t enough boats and what few there were, were used inefficiently by the young Continental Army, inexperienced in the ways of logistics. Luckily, a blinding snowstorm covered the move from prying eyes. This was little comfort to the men in the columns who eventually had to make a nine mile forced march through it. Nonetheless , they surprised the Hessian regiment at Trenton who were hung over from Christmas celebrations the night before.
At a drunken card game during the Christmas celebration, Hessian Col Johann Raul was slipped a note by a loyalist informer of Washington’s maneuver, but he never read it. At 8 am Christmas morning, the Continental Army attacked, with Washington in the van. Edward Hand’s Pennsylvania Riflemen and John Sullivan’s Continentals prevented any Hessian escape blocking the road to Princeton and bridge over Assunpink Creek respectively. Though most of the Hessian command was still drunk or hungover from the celebrations the night before, the American attack was spotted in enough time for the Hessians to react. Their duty company fought a house to house battle, slowly falling back through the town, delaying the Continental Army long enough for Raul to form most of his men in a field outside of town. After Knox’s cannon came into action, Raul knew he had to break out. His mercenary professionals moved quickly into a flank attack on Washington’s disorganized main body in order to escape, but Washington deftly parried the thrust, but only because he was in position to do so. Though chaotic, the Battle of Trenton lasted only 19 minutes before the Hessians surrendered and promptly began losing their boots to the ragged but jubilant soldiers of the Continental army.
The entire Continental Army reenlisted the next day. George Washington gave America its first Christmas present.