Victory or Death
The Continental Army under George Washington's command drove the redcoats from Boston in early 1776. The British launched an invasion on New York City in August of that year. Washington and his army met them and the Americans suffered devastating defeats, and survived by retreating.
After escaping across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Washington had only 3000 of his original 20,000 troops. Congress, seeing the army in retreat only twelve miles from where they sat, gave Washington dictatorial powers and escaped to Baltimore, 110 miles to the south.
Washington set up headquarters on the west side of the Delaware. The British commander, William Howe planned to winter in New York, and he had his men spread over numerous outposts in New Jersey, ready to march at a moment notice. Cornwallis, Howe's field commander made the decision to garrison the outposts with the Hessian mercenaries and send the British troops back to New York. He left the command of the outposts to General James Grant
In Trenton, 1600 Hessians were under the command of Colonel Rall, whose troops had a reputation for plunder and rape. Once encamped, they proved their reputation preceded them and their brutality swung many New Jersey neutrals to the Revolutionary cause.
Washington, using spies, led the British to believe his condition was completely hopeless. When Rall complained to General Grant that his position was too exposed, Grant thought his claims were ludicrous since Washington's army was in rags and starving. And on top of that, he knew that after December 31, most of those men's term of service would expire and Washington wouldn't even have an army.
Washington knew they desperately needed a victory and the attack of Trenton was a last ditch attempt to save the revolution from extinction. He said to one of his aides, ".necessity, dire necessity.must justify and attempt." He made the decision to attack the Hessians at Trenton on the day after Christmas in a surprise attack. Congressman Benjamin Rush had a private meeting on Christmas Day with General Washington and he recalled years later that Washington kept writing something on little slips of paper. One of the papers fell to the floor and he saw Washington had been writing, "Victory or Death". They were the passwords for that night.
Earlier that month, Washington had ordered a new essay be read to the troops, that Tom Paine had written called The Crisis, and the opening words were, "These are the times that try men's souls."
It took fourteen hours to transport men, horses and artillery across the Delaware. At 4:00 AM the Americans began their ten mile march to Trenton. There were many who had no shoes and wrapped their feet in rags, leaving a bloody trail in the snow. Washington urged his men to keep moving and stay with their officers. Two men stopped to rest and froze to death.
They arrived at Trenton and the attack began at 8:00 AM, December 26th . Washington ordered the men to storm the town. Many of them were heard to shout, "These are the times that try men's souls!" Their gunpowder was soaked so they resorted to their bayonets. The Hessians were caught unawares and as they tried to run out of their houses and form ranks in the streets they were cut down by six-pound canons firing from the ends of Trenton's two main streets. Rall escaped on his horse and tried to organize a charge only to be cut down and was carried into a church and later died; soon after the Hessians surrendered.
The Americans suffered four casualties. The enemy had two hundred killed or wounded. It took the Continental Army twelve hours to re-cross the Delaware with their captured supplies and weapons and 948 prisoners. The weather throughout the entire expedition had been freezing rain which turned to snow.
The battle at Trenton was one of the victories that helped rekindle the flame of liberty that was in danger of being extinguished but it was by no means the end of a long and grueling war. Washington's army remained at Valley Forge and suffered through a brutal winter there and it was six more years until the war was ended.
The following is an excerpt from the essay by Thomas Paine that was read to the soldiers:
A work written while with the Army of the Revolution with a view of stimulating the Patriotic Band to Persevere in Their Glorious Struggle for the Rights of Man ~by Thomas Paine
"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 his 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: 'tis deamess only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a 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 is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God".
Recently, Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich talked about the kind of men who stood with Washington during these desperate times and fought with him, enduring hardship like few today have ever experienced. He talked about finding these kind of people again, to stand up for this nation. We know God is raising up a people and it's the body of Christ.
Note: This account is a condensed version of Wikipedia's account of the battle at Trenton.
Sources: Wikipedia; The Crisis (1839), Google Books
Contributed by Kathryn Currier
Posted February 5, 2010