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This Week in History:
December 19 - 25, 1776
Crossing the Delaware River
on the Night after Christmas

December 2010

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851 .

This week we focus our attention on Commander-in-Chief George Washington's bold move to cross the Delaware River, on the night after Christmas Day 1776, a move which reversed the sagging spirits of the American forces and population after a long string of defeats in the Revolutionary War. This action reflects the quality of leadership which characterized Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and which is being demonstrated only by Lyndon LaRouche, in the crucial crisis we face today.

The situation of the American colonists was desperate, as we indicated in our last week's column on the Crisis paper of Tom Paine. On top of the string of defeats, and the retreat down New Jersey, were the threat that a large portion of the Army, which was made up of colonial militiamen who had enlisted for short periods of time, was about to go home; the enticement of an amnesty which had been offered by the British Commander Cornwallis; and the miserable condition, in terms of supplies, of the Continental Army itself.

Washington, then 43, was faced with the need both to defend Philadelphia, the seat of Congress, and to remoralize his forces. Having retreated across the Delaware River, the border between Delaware and Pennsylvania on one side, and New Jersey on the other, he decided to launch a counterattack back across the Delaware River into New Jersey, to ambush the British troops which were settling in for the winter. Washington's plan called for attacking all the British posts on the Delaware, but it ended up that several divisions didn't make it, leaving the major engagement to occur at Trenton.

One reason Washington was able to do this, was that he had commandeered all the boats along the Pennsylvania side of the river, denying them to the British who had wanted to cross over into Pennsylvania, and making them available for his bold plan. In addition, he had received reinforcements from the North.

It was a daring plan, which hardly could have been popular with Washington's ill-clad Army. It called for one column to cross the river above Trenton, on the night of Dec. 25, march south, and storm the British troops' winter quarters in Trenton. These troops, 2,400 in all, were to be led by General Washington himself.

According to the testimony of John Marshall, in his biography of General Washington, "The cold on the night of the 25th was very severe. Snow, mingled with hail and rain, fell in great quantities, and so much ice was made in the river" that it was impossible to keep the original schedule Washington had devised. Thus, while the General's contingent was supposed to cross the river starting at 12 midnight, and meet the body of Pennsylvania militia coming up from the South at 5:00 a.m., Washington's troops couldn't get across the Delaware until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m..

When Washington's troops arrived at the Trenton garrison at 8:00 a.m. December 26th, they immediately attacked. When the British troops, largely Hessian (German) mercenaries who were commanded by a Colonel Rahl, recovered from their surprise sufficiently to muster a defense, Colonel Rahl was mortally wounded, and his troops thrown into confusion. The British were surrounded, and about 1,000 were taken prisoners of war.

General Washington took his prisoners, and some military stores, and went back across the Delaware, where he reconnoitered until deciding, at a later date, to launch a new offensive up into New Jersey, ultimately establishing a winter headquarters in western New Jersey.

Washington's aggressive and unexpected action had effectively flanked the British enemy, in large part because they believed that no such action was possible. He had restored morale with a minimal loss (two to four men), and signalled his intention to be satisfied with nothing less than victory.

Biographer Marshall, later the Supreme Court Chief Justice, describes the turning point this way:

"Nothing could surpass the astonishment of the British commander at this unexpected display of vigour on the part of the American General. His condition, and that of his country, had been thought desperate. He had been deserted by all the troops having a legal right to leave him; and, to render his situation completely ruinous, nearly two-thirds of the continental soldiers still remaining with him, would be entitled to their discharge on the first day of January. There appeared to be no probability of prevailing on them to continue longer in the service, and the recruiting business was absolutely at an end. The spirits of a large proportion of the people were sunk to the lowest point of depression. New Jersey appeared to be completely subdued; and some of the best judges of the public sentiment were of opinion that immense numbers in Pennsylvania, also, were determined not to permit the sixty days allowed in the proclamation of Lord and Sir William Howe, to elapse, without availing themselves of the pardon it proffered. Instead of offensive operations, the total dispersion of the small remnant of the American army was to be expected, since it would be rendered too feeble by the discharge of those engaged only until the last day of December, to attempt, any longer, the defence of the Delaware, which would by that time, in all probability, be passable on the ice. While every appearance supported these opinions, and the British General, without being sanguine, might well consider the war as approaching its termination, this bold and fortunate enterprise announced to him, that he was contending with an adversary who could never cease to be formidable while [there existed] the possibility of resistance."

Later, after being forced to surrender at Yorktown, General Cornwallis apparently told the victorious General Washington that he considered the successful Trenton attack to have been the "brightest garlands for your Excellency."

Indeed, Washington's Crossing of the Delaware, and subsequent victory, remain a shining example today, to those serious about winning the battle for the New American Revolution, and restoring the republican values of the first.


Thomas Paine's The American Crisis

It was late December 1776, when, in the midst of the dismal full retreat from New York forced upon the Continental Army, a clarion call was raised in the form of a small pamphlet called The American Crisis. The author, who had travelled with General Washington's army, was young Thomas Paine, the author of the widely circulated, and wildly popular, pamphlet Common Sense. Paine, who had been sent to Philadelphia through the mediation of the American Revolution's key recruiter, Benjamin Franklin, in 1774, was already famous for his pro-independence pamphlet, which had begun circulating in January 1776.

Now, however, with the cause of the Americans seemingly in trouble, Paine undertook to write a series of Crisis papers, as a means of rallying the army and population as well. Ultimately there were 16 papers, spanning the period through 1783.

While the paper is too long to be reproduced here in full, we quote some substantial sections, to remind Americans, and others, of Paine's overarching polemic: that it would take the dedication and action of all, in order to prevent tyranny from achieving victory, and that those who fight when the situation seems most desperate, deserve the accolades of future generations. The threat which the abandonment of the American intellectual tradition has now brought to the very existence of the United States and humanity, is no less great today, and the challenge to personal commitment, a matter of equal urgency.

"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 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. Heaven knows how to put the proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right, not only to tax, but 'to bind us in all cases whatsoever', and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then there is not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God....

"...I turn with the warm ardour of a friend to those who have nobly stood, and are yet determined to stand the matter out: I call not upon a few, but upon all: not on this state or that state, 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, came forth to meet and to repulse it. Say not that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the burden of the day upon Providence, but 'show your faith by your work,' 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, will suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now is dead; the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when the 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....

"...Once more we are again collected and collecting; our new army at both ends of the continent is recruiting fast, and we shall be able to open the next campaign with sixty thousands men, well armed and clothed. This is our situation, and who will may know it. By perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue; by cowardice and submission, the sad choice of a variety of evils—a ravaged country—a depopulated city—habitations without safety, and slavery without hope—our homes turned into barracks and bawdy-houses for Hessians, and a future race to provide for, whose fathers we shall doubt of. Look on this picture and weep over it! and if there yet remains one thoughtless wretch who believes it not, let him suffer it unlamented."


 The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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