Links to the 150th Anniversary

Monday, November 21, 2022


Before I went to Appomattox for the final week of this journey, this was posted in the Drexel newsletter

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ten Crucial Days: Washington's Crossing, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton

Washington's Crossing, Dec 25, Battle of Germantown 1st Saturday in October. These were the only Revolutionary War events that had captured any interest for me until I saw the musical Hamilton. Yes, the musical brought to life  the intrigues and intelligence needed to create a new nation. 

 I had heard about an event called Patriots Week but had never followed through with any plans. In this week of reenactments, lectures, and music, Trenton and Princeton commemorate the days after Washington's army crossed the Delaware to recapture 'the Jerseys'. and to answer the question: Why did Washington risk such a perilous ride on Christmas night in ice and cold and snow?  It certainly wasn't for a pleasure cruise.  It was to fight what would be called Ten Crucial Days. 

This year I did some research, found a friend to join me and decided to go for 2 days out of the 10. I had already seen the Crossing reenactment, so signed up for a one day tour with Larry Kidder who wrote a book called Crucial Ten Days and Roger Williams who maintains the website. Located a nice AirBnB   so that I could stay to see the reenactments. I was on my way to two fascinating days of activities surrounding the Two Battles of Trenton and Princeton.

I admit that I was not emotionally 'attracted' to this war. Even as I write this, it sounds preposterous. Attracted to a war? I had poured myself into the Civil War. But The Revolution seemed too steeped in a kind of patriotism and history that has been skewered, distorted to mean an unquestioned loyalty to the United States and the mythology that is taught in schools. We learn about the Founding Fathers, yet not much is taught about how much they fought and argued. Washington is lionized, but what happened to the stories of him losing battles, the politics around his decisions, the scheming to replace him. We  learned the myths of equality and liberty and fraternity, but rarely were given chances to talk about their deeper meanings.

This was a chance to experience these fateful days in American history just the way I like to learn.

Why were they Crossing on Christmas night

We start at Washington's Crossing (McConskey's Ferry) on the west side of the Delaware in Pennsylvania. The year is 1776, Christmas night just 6 months after the Declaration of Independence. Washington has lost 5 battles, the weather is brutal cold, and most of his men are about to end their one year enlistment on Dec 31. Everyone expects the war to be over and for the Americans to go down in defeat, or at least to take a hiatus for the winter. The Continental Congress has not provided enough funds to outfit the army-many men have rifles, but no bayonets, some only have muskets. Few have decent clothing and the food if there is any. So Washington must come up with a daring plan that will keep the congress and the citizens supporting this war.

In in one of the most famous entreaties of the era to encourage the soldiers to re enlist,  Thomas Paine writes in his pamphlet The Crisis:

“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 by 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 a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated”

If words are not enough, Washington offers his men 10$ if they will stay an extra month ( the usual pay for one month is $5). 

On the other side of the river, New Jersey is occupied by British outposts and their Hessian troops, battle hardened fighters who had been hired out by their German princes to fight in this faraway war.They are not mercenaries per se as they have no choice of whether or where to fight. Outposts are strung north and south from Bordentown on up through Trenton Lawrenceville (Madienhead) and Princeton.

Washington not only needs to win a battle, but he must  push the British out of the Jerseys if he is to have any hope of not losing the entire war.

His plan is to put 2400 men into 45-60 feet long Durham boats and to enlist the ferrymen to ferry the, horses, artillery and guns across the river at midnight at three different locations along the river. However, because ice blocks the water that night, only Washington is able to cross successfully in time.

Getting across is not even the hardest part of the journey. From there, the men have to march 10 miles in snow to the outpost at Trenton.   The story that has been told is that the 1200 Hessians (natives of Hesse) have been up all night drinking and are unprepared to fight or that they were warned about an attack and ignored it. What is truer is that these professional soldiers were always on guard and ready to fight. The general in charge Gen. Johann Rall has been warned about an possible attack which he assumes will be similar to the small scale attacks that were done by Jersey Militiamen throughout the war. And indeed, there is such an attack, so he is satisfied that the warning was true and has been dealt with.

Lining up at the Old Barracks Museum
What he doesn't anticipate is an actual army coming his way in the early morning from the north down Pennington Road/Kings Highway. Ragged yes, but ready and willing to fight with  artillery which could shoot cannon up to a mile.

The British and Hessians are trained to fight in the open and so many rush to the orchard to the east of town expecting this to be the meeting place. But General Rall has not made plans for where to congregate with his men, so there is confusion in the ranks. Trenton is an outpost of small farms, enabling the soldiers to hide between houses. .  By this time, the other two Continental divisions that had been held up are now available and attack from the south trapping the Hessians from both ends of town. All are overwhelmed by the attack.

The Americans continue to have the advantage. When Gen Rall is injured on horseback and then dies from his wounds, the First Battle of Trenton is over.

Washington has captured 900 Hessian prisoners, 300 have escaped north. Two Americans are wounded. The Continental Army has won their first battle, but still need to forge ahead to capture the other outposts controlled by the British.
Hessian soldiers
First, What to do with the prisoners? Washington marches his men back 10 miles back to the Delaware and crosses back to ferry the 900 Hessian prisoners to Pennsylvania. 
The prisoners  are sent to the Shanandoahs and the Potomac. When there is a prisoner exchange, many choose to stay, seeing a good life of freedom. Eventually many settle in Western Pennsylvania where there are German speaking farmers, wealthy and thriving. In the end some 3500 chose to stay in the continental US. 

The Americans regroup for several more days before returning across the river for the next crucial battle in Trenton.

The day of the reenactment Dec 28 2019

Today is a full day of reenactments and other activities related to  late 18th C.  I am one part excited, one part curious, one part skeptical as we go to downtown Trenton for the days events. We first go to the Old Barracks Museum where the 'troops' are lining up, readying themselves to march the mile up Kings Street (the old Kings Highway). There are men in the blue and red familiar uniforms, others in a woolen ivory pants and shirts with  a large fringed collar from Delaware, and many from the 9th PA. These are the Patriots. The Hessians wear long knee length coats and are recognizable by their tall arch shaped gold hats. There are Scots in
red kilts and the British as well.

Each regiment has a drummer and one has a fife player. Several flags that represent the regiments are on display. The men hug their rifles as the commanders give directions to march.

It is going to be a good day.

There are 100s of people ready to follow the troops up to the Battle Monument, a tall structure with a statue of a soldier up top that all would pass as they traveled north and south.

From this vantage point we look down the street to see the Hessians and the battle begins. The first rows shoot their rifles then move to the back to make room for the next rows. This is how they move down the street as we scurry to keep up with them.

I know from the previous day's tour that much of this battle was fought between the houses as urban warfare, even though many of the Hessians ran to the adjacent orchard, assuming that was where they would meet. But General  Rall had not made any plans, so the fighting was disorganized.

In this reenactment there was no General. Rall, but in the actual battle he was fatally injured as he tried to rally his troops atop his horse.

Patriots 1  British/Hessians 0

Afternoon Reenactment Second Battle of Trenton

The reenactment of the Second Battle of Trenton is staged in the afternoon on this sunny 45 degree day. On Jan 2 1777 Washington's army has returned from taking the captured Hessians across the river to Pennsylvania.  Gen. Cornwallis has now heard about the defeat on Dec 26 so leaves 1400 men in Princeton and marches 5000 including the 300 Hessians who had escaped to face another battle in Trenton.

Cornwallis is slowed in his march and his advance guard doesn't reach Trenton until twilight. This gives Washington the chance to move his men across the Assunpink Creek, which runs through Trenton. In 1777, there was a real hill on the other side, giving Washington the high ground for his artillery. Now this is a small rise where condos have been built, so it is hard to see that the Patriots had the real advantage. 

In the reenactment, Before the armies reach the creek they all stop at the Presbyterian Church  and cemetery where both American and Hessian soldiers are buried. All reenactors line up in front of the cemetery as the Hessian reenactors are given the opportunity to honor their dead. The commander even gives the orders in German. 
It is an odd scene. In this neighborhood, people of all races and nationalities are shopping, going about their business. Some stop to take pictures. And then the reenactors line up, shoot their muskets in unison, a well known ritual when honoring fallen soldiers.

 A block away, men on the corner laugh and remark about the sound of gunshots. I imagine that the sound of 2019 gunshots is often more deadly in their world.

The armies then march to the grassy area along the creek where they skirmish back and forth across the bridge. In 1777  it became too dark to continue. So, Washington's men  protected by the moat of the creek are saved from Cornwallis' army as he prepares for a continuation of the battle in the morning.

What happens next is what I was looking for. Proof that that Washington and his men are brilliant strategists. They devise a plan to leave a small cadre of men at Trenton with the fires burning as a decoy. Meanwhile, the NJ militiamen  alert Washington to a back route that they can take to up Princeton. So at night, these men who had only recently reenlisted, had marched 10 miles from the river, had fought off the British are now about to march another 12 miles.

Cornwallis is fooled and will only learn this until early the next morning

Patriots 2 British/Hessians 0