Ten Days that Saved the Country
This is the first of a three-part series that will run each Wednesday for the next three weeks. The series will explore the influence that George Washington had in forming the longest-surviving democracy in the world and the importance of religious freedom in its creation.
We start with the dire events that existed on the country’s first Christmas in 1776. Washington had lost all the battles with the British Empire up to this point. The Continental Army had been embarrassed and forced out of New York City. The army had retreated to Valley Forge just miles from Philadelphia, the then capital of the emerging nation, and were followed closely by the British and their paid helpers—the Hessians of Germany.. The British seemed poised to end the revolt and restore the thirteen states as colonies.
Washington knew something bold had to happen to reverse the trend. His army, which had once numbered over twenty thousand was down to seven thousand. Having lost many on the retreat to Valley Forge, the army was made up mostly of the destitute and a few remaining Patriots.
Washington’s plan was to cross the Delaware River and attack the Hessians who were holed up in Trenton. It was Christmas night, 1776. The weather was very poor, and the Delaware was laden with floating ice. The crossing would be dangerous. On top of that, the Continental Army was in poor shape, lacking supplies. Many had no shoes or blankets. Into the icy water, this band of winter patriots went to save the nation.
When they got to the other side of the Delaware, they were three hours late. It was 3:00 a.m., and any chance of surprising the Hessians had passed. Washington, after some thought, decided to press on. His army walked for another five hours to get to the outskirts of town.
They Were Ready
At 8:00 a.m., Washington sent two columns down two different roads to attack. It is commonly thought that the Hessians were drunk from celebrating Christmas, which is not true. In point of fact, the Hessians had sensed an attack and were on full alert. The previous evening, they had gone to bed fully clothed with guns loaded. They were ready.
When the first column arrived, it opened fire and put the Hessians in disarray. They began to retreat, only to meet up with the second column. Trapped, many surrendered while others fled.
The Continental Army captured nine hundred Hessians and a bounty of supplies. This was their first real victory in many months. Two critical factors helped them achieve this victory. First, American marksmen were better shots than the Hessians from years of hunting and practice with their long guns. Secondly (and ironically), a German general had helped train Washington’s men while they rested at Valley Forge. His knowledge of Hessian strategies and discipline had significantly helped the Americans.
While this victory in itself was a confidence builder, Washington knew it would only be a temporary time of joy. Many of his men had enlisted on the previous New Year’s Eve, and in just a few days, their time of service would be up. Few new recruits were coming, and this brave band of men that had created the victory in Trenton would be going home.
Washington wanted to continue pressing the attack but would have no army to do so. He gathered all the men together and gave a passionate speech, asking for one more month. For this, they would each receive ten dollars in coins. Moved by the speech and the money, most accepted.
On New Year’s Eve, the ragtag army once again set off into the cold Delaware River to attack a small garrison of British regulars in the town now called Burlington. Once again, the crossing was difficult and laborious. Though they did not win the battle, they held off the British army three times.
Preparing for the Attack
When the British staying in Princeton heard about the attack, they sent reinforcements. Washington and his advisors sensed danger for the next day. During the early evening, they sized up their situation and decided to abandon their position. They knew if they stayed with British reinforcements coming, they would be trapped with the Delaware River at their backs and would be facing a much stronger army than the previous day.
Instead of fleeing in the night across the Delaware, they decided to attack what would be the largely abandoned town of Princeton. They left in the middle of the night, leaving their campfires burning to disguise their move north. They marched eleven miles to Princeton to engage in what would be their third battle in ten days.
As they were approaching Princeton, a band of British reinforcements headed south to Burlington spotted the back end of their army. Not realizing a larger force existed, they attacked the Continental Army’s rear. They quickly realized their mistake and fled, with Washington leading his band in pursuit.
The remaining British retreated and gave up Princeton. In those ten days, Washington and his army had strategically and bravely confused the world’s best-trained soldiers. When the famed German general Frederick the Great heard about the events of those ten days, he declared them the most masterful stroke of strategic genius in the history of war.
Washington made one more strategic decision. Even with his army low on sleep and weary from the previous ten days, he headed north to the safety of Morristown, New Jersey. There they would spend the rest of the winter. You can still visit the site, called Jockey Hollow, in Morristown. There you’ll find replicas of the soldier’s quarters and fencing from that winter respite.
Ten Days that Saved the Country
While the war wouldn’t end until 1783, these ten days saved the nation. The war would finally end with the British army worn down by the constant hit-and-runs from the Continental Army and militias throughout the country. Also, aided by France who entered the war as American allies. Low on funds and public support, the British ultimately gave up on September 3, 1783.
These historic ten days set the stage for the creation of a new country built on the principle of government for the people by the people—a government that wouldn’t have a state religion like its European counterparts. America would be built, in part, on the freedom of religious beliefs which would help forge the morality of our burgeoning nation.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman