Thursday, November 1, 2012

Revisiting Washington's Crossing

Washington Rallying Troops at Princeton, William T. Ranny
In the years following iconic turning points in history, legends often develop that are meant to make a great story “better,” but sometimes obscure the significance of what those involved really accomplished. Today I want to revisit the singular events that breathed new life into the faltering Revolution during the winter of 1776-1777 and subsequently suffered that kind of historical revision.

Two excellent resources I relied on heavily for my portrayal of the battles of Trenton and Princeton are David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing and Richard M. Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton. The picture they present differs from the traditional account, which maintains that the Americans caught the Hessians completely off guard, that because of the storm or simple laxity they had no patrols in place, and that they were still suffering from the effects of drunken Christmas parties when the Americans attacked the morning after Christmas. I’ve heard that often over the years and likely wouldn’t have questioned it if I hadn’t read Fischer and Ketchum, who justly laid it to rest.

Fischer particularly draws a vivid, extensively documented account of the rising of the Jersey militias against the Hessians, who had plundered and abused the inhabitants beyond endurance. By the end of December 1776 the militias’ harassment of the occupying force had become unrelenting. Colonel Rall, who commanded the Hessian garrison at Trenton, repeatedly demanded reinforcements, to the point that Major General James Grant, the British commander in New Jersey, considered him a crybaby. Not only that, but British spies posted at Washington’s headquarters relayed the news that a move was afoot almost as quickly as Washington made the decision to act. The Trenton garrison had every reason to be on high alert, and they were.

These were disciplined, highly professional soldiers, and on the night in question, Fischer states, “Colonel Rall had been thorough in his precautions. German outguards covered every major approach by land into Trenton, and other men were in place along the Delaware River. Behind the outposts were duty companies that could offer support. In the center of town, one Hessian regiment was always on alert in ‘alarm houses,’ and the others were ready to muster quickly” (Washington’s Crossing, p. 235). In fact, many of the soldiers had taken to retiring in their uniforms at night with weapons in hand because they were awakened so often by alarms.

Another oft-cited myth is that the Hessian soldiers were drunk after an excess of Christmas partying. Washington and his officers hoped that would be the case, but the reality was far different. Fischer states that “The German responses to the American attack were not those of intoxicated revelers.” He cites Boston fifer John Greenwood, who later wrote in his memoir: “I am willing to go upon oath, that I did not see even a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy” (pp. 239-240).

General George Washington at Trenton, John Trumbull
It’s true that Rall had to be roused from his bed when the attack began because he had been up late at a party the night before, but that made little difference in the course of the battle. The Hessian commander knew that his seasoned troops would respond instantly to any attack, and they justified his confidence. The confusion that led to their ultimate defeat arose from the fact that they didn’t expect an attack by Washington’s full army through a storm that was by all accounts stupendous (who would?). At first the outposts assumed that the enemy force they dimly made out through waves of sleet, snow, rain, and hail was a small militia force like those that had been making their lives miserable for days. The delay in realizing what they were really up against and the violence of the storm caused their disarray. However, it was the brilliance of Washington’s battle strategy and tactics and the astounding fortitude of his men in the face of incredible obstacles and hardship that carried the day.

In spite of their initial confusion, the Hessians rallied to put up stout resistance, and Fischer gives a very affecting account of the true number of American casualties that resulted directly from the battle. The regiments Rall personally commanded fought their way to an apple orchard on the outskirts of town, only to be driven back into the town, where Rall was mortally wounded. Deprived of their commander and with the Americans rapidly gaining the upper hand, the remnants of Rall’s shattered regiments muscled their way back to the apple orchard in another effort to break through to the British garrison at Princeton, before they were finally surrounded and forced to surrender. On the other end of town, a Hessian detachment held the stone bridge over Assunpink Creek for most of the battle. It was via that route that between 400 and 500 Hessian soldiers and a few civilians escaped before the Americans finally captured the bridge.

What Washington’s ragged, poorly equipped, and ill-trained army accomplished in defeating an alert and formidable enemy by attacking through a raging nor’easter is a testimony to their tenacity and commitment to the Glorious Cause of liberty. The accurate account of what really happened makes it all that much more heroic. That they followed it up by returning over the frozen Delaware only to recross it a few days later to fight a second battle at Trenton against a formidable British force before attacking Princeton is truly astounding.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.