George Washington and troops crossing the Delaware River
Based largely on a post originally published in January 2009
It always interests me when we fellow Americans talk about war. The conflicts discussed are largely determined by the generation engaged in the conversation. Centagenarians will talk of the days of their parents and grandparents fighting in the Civil War and WWI. Baby boomers will no doubt focus on WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Generation X, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and the like.
What can easily be argued as our country’s most important war, the Revolutionary War, is also the most easily forgotten. Had we not prevailed we very likely would be singing Hail to the Queen before football games.
So this Christmas I thought I would share a Christmas story that is rarely told. Its from Christmas 1776 - and from a time when our nation's future was in the balance.
In the Summer of 1775 George Washington assumed command of the American Army (Continental Army) at Cambridge, Massachusetts. The British were in the middle of an ongoing siege of Boston. Long story short, Washington eventually forced the British out of Boston and gained much credibility in the process. So much so that even the British newspapers back in London praised his military prowess.
The commander for the British during the Boston siege was General William Howe. His loss at Boston, combined with Washington’s rock star status, made him none too happy. The signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 only added salt to the wound. So in August of 1776 Howe launched a massive naval and land campaign designed to seize New York, the site where Washington had moved his army.
The Continental Army under Washington engaged the enemy for the first time as an army of the newly declared independent United States at the Battle of Long Island, the largest battle of the entire war. The United States army was defeated. This and several other British victories sent Washington scrambling out of New York and across New Jersey, leaving the future of the Continental Army in doubt.
And more importantly in doubt was the entire revolution. In 1775 the Brits viewed the upheaval in America in the same way we might view teenagers out one night toilet papering houses – a nuisance. After July 4th that all changed. As he fled away from the enemy, his army in tatters, Washington had grave concerns that the revolution was not going to succeed. He knew Great Britain was going to bring down the full weight of its army on his troops. Any soldier left alive would likely be killed as a traitor. If Washington was captured he would be Howe's most prized sugar plum. Washington could only hope for a quick death if that happened.
With this backdrop Washington found himself and his army sitting and freezing on the banks of the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776. They were hungry and exhausted. It is said that hunger and fatigue make cowards of us all. Add freezing temperatures to the mix and you get a picture of the scene. And of course the biggest problem of all was that Washington had tugged on Superman’s cape, and the most powerful country in the world was none too happy. What to do?
Well, as men of great resolve inevitably do, Washington took action. He decided first to speak to his troops – or more accurately, have something read to them. He chose the words carefully...and they were not his own. They were the words of one of this country’s greatest patriots, Thomas Paine, and they are from The American Crisis written earlier in December 1776.
I turn with the warm ardour of a friend to those who have nobly stood yet determined to stand the matter out; I call not upon a few, but upon all; not on THIS state or THAT truth but on EVERY state; up and help us; lay your shoulders to the wheel; better have too much force than too little, when so great an object is at stake. Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, come forth to meet and to repulse it. Say not, that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the bur hen of the day upon Providence, but "Shew your faith by your works," that God may bless you. It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, shall suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now, is dead: The blood of his children shall curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.
And with those words on December 25, 1776, in the dark frigid night, Washington staged one of the most famous counterattacks in history. He led the American forces across the icy Delaware River to capture nearly 1,000 Hessians (German troops loyal to the British) in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington followed up his victory at Trenton with another one at Princeton in early January. These winter victories quickly raised the morale of the army, secured Washington's position as Commander, and inspired young men to join the army.
And gave inspiration and resolve to a fledgling infant nation.
So here's to George and his lads on that cold distant night. All these years later we still remember you sir. And we thank you a thousand times for your service to our country.