Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.



By Judy Leithe

British General William Howe, a seasoned military officer, already had General George Washington’s army in retreat. He had taken control of New York City and Fort Washington, with its command of the Hudson River, and even Fort Lee, in New Jersey. Now all he needed was to seize Philadelphia to put an end to this pesky colonial rebellion. He was so confident of victory that, in early December of 1776, he decided to postpone this final step until better weather conditions in the spring.

Washington distrusted this withdrawal, reflecting on the stealthy tactics used by the British to outmaneuver the Americans on Long Island. He was also aware of the fifteen hundred Hessian troops stationed in Trenton, on the other side of the Delaware River. Washington knew, with an order from Howe, this disciplined and hardened mercenary army could easily take over Philadelphia, which would be the final blow to the dream of freedom for the Americans.

By mid-December, the temperatures in New Jersey were steadily dropping. Washington saw his troop numbers shrinking as hundreds of recruits were deserting because of the prospects of spending another harsh winter in a makeshift camp, only to be overpowered by the British or the Hessians.

Much of New Jersey had accepted the British offer of leniency and turned against the Patriots’ cause. Washington’s spy network, fearing arrest, had difficulty collecting needed information about enemy movement. While awaiting the arrival of General Charles Lee’s two-thousand Colonial troops, which were a mere fifty miles away, Washington received devastating word that General Lee had been taken prisoner by the British. After some delay, Washington was relieved to see that most of Lee’s army has begun to straggle into camp. He now had an army of sufficient size with which to carry out a plan that was nothing short of audacious.

At the top of Washington’s oppressive list of burdens was the fast-approaching fulfillment of the Continental Army Enlistment Contract. By January 1, 1777, every soldier, having been released from duty, was free to return to their homes. In just two weeks, Washington could be faced with no army at all. Not willing to give up his army or his country, Washington had devised what he called, “a brilliant stroke to rouse the spirits of our people, which are quite sunk by our misfortunes.”

On Christmas Eve, most of his countrymen and their families were aglow with the joy of the Holiday Season. However, just past midnight, Washington began his bold plan for a surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton. Phase one was to ferry his army across the Delaware and execute a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison before the light of dawn. Amid gale-force winds, which brought sheets of snow and rain, the ill-clad soldiers stood crowded together in Durham boats as they made their way through the icy waters of the river. More boats were needed to transport officers’ horses and work horses required to pull wagons full of cannon and munitions for the attack.

The discovery of the names of these heroic Patriot soldiers of the Revolutionary War era are usually left up to historians and genealogists. It is notable, however, that aside from George Washington, there were two other future U.S. Presidents crossing the Delaware on December 25th in 1776: James Madison and James Monroe. Other recognizable names included: John Marshall, future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, two rivals who later met in a duel.

The famous painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was painted in 1851 in Dusseldorf, Germany by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. The artist so admired Washington that he made several trips to Mt. Vernon in order to learn about the famous crossing, as well as to study Washington’s uniform so he could precisely depict him in this famous painting. He eventually emigrated and became a U.S. citizen.

Next week: Hessian Colonel Johann Gottleib Rall’s fatal miscalculation.