CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 35
VICTORY OR DEATH
By Judy Leithe
Just as General Washington was preparing the first phase of his audacious attack on the Hessian enemy army at Trenton, he hastily gave battle passwords to all of his officers; “Victory or Death.”
Three detachments, of approximately 2,400 soldiers apiece, were scheduled to cross the Delaware, land in different locations, and then meet up at strategic locations near Trenton. Unbeknownst to Washington, only his detachment successfully made the midnight crossing of the treacherous river. The other two detachment commanders refrained from crossing, believing their men wouldn’t survive the gale-force conditions.
Now, in phase two, as Washington’s men began the 9-mile march to Trenton, he rode up and down the line warning the freezing, sleep-deprived troops not to stop lest they die of exposure. Two men already had perished, after falling into snowbanks. He encouraged the men, “Soldiers, keep by your officers! For God’s sake, keep by your officers!”
General Knox, in charge of munitions, oversaw the transport of artillery throughout this campaign. When they reached a place called Jacob's Creek, they had to maneuver the cumbersome cannons over a deep chasm. As Washington helped direct this difficult and icy passage, his horse’s legs buckled, and horse and rider started to slide down the ravine. Soldiers and officers alike witnessed the greatest feat of strength and equestrian skill any had ever seen. Washington took hold of the horse’s mane, yanking its head upright, while shifting his own weight backward in his saddle until his horse regained its equilibrium.
The artillery and troop movement continued, but Washington was increasingly dismayed. Due to the rough river crossing, and marching in harsh weather conditions, his army had been delayed for three hours. It was approaching six in the morning, and they were only halfway to Trenton. Washington had hoped to lay siege on the unsuspecting Hessians while they slept, but there were already signs of light in the morning sky.
As Washington’s army neared Trenton, at around seven-thirty, he was shocked to meet fifty Virginia militiamen who were sent to scout the Hessian positions, prior to the Delaware crossing. They exchanged fire with Hessian guards, then fled, raising the appalling thought that the Hessians had been alerted to the coming attack. The scouting party was sent from Virginia by General Adam Stephen, a rival of Washington’s from the time they fought together in the French and Indian War. Washington had also come out ahead of Stephen in an earlier bid for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Like several other generals under Washington’s command, Stephen, bent on competing with Washington, let his blind ambitions cloud his duty.
Next week: Upon learning about the possible attack, the Hessian Colonel Gottlieb Rall said, “Let them come!”