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Crossing the Delaware: No day more decisive

By Jack Stevenson. December 3, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Thirteen American colonies, assembled as a congress, issued a Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.  By the end of the year George Washington’s troops were in dire condition: hungry, ill, mauled in battle and poorly clothed, some with rags wrapped around their feet because they lacked shoes.

When night fell on that Christmas day in 1776, General Washington moved his troops across the Delaware River to conduct a surprise attack on the British and their Hessian (German) allies at Trenton, New Jersey.  The weather was miserable.  There was rain, sleet, and snow.  There was an icy wind out of the northeast.

No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776.

Washington had to select several crossing points to have a reasonable probability of getting his troops and their cannons and horses across the river.  The crossing was a difficult endeavor.  They had to contend with limited visibility, ice floes on the river, and wind.  Some of the crossing points were so severely jammed with ice floes that crossing was impossible.  Other places only the infantry could cross but not the cannons and the horses that pulled the cannons. The cannons weighed nearly a ton.  But those who crossed successfully arrived at Trenton, New Jersey, at dawn where the British were encamped.

The British had sentries and a ready reaction force that slept fully dressed and with their weapons, but Washington’s audacity and the winter storm allowed the Americans to achieve surprise.  By the end of the day, the flag of hope had been raised in America.  Another five years of struggle were required to induce a British exit, but “Washington’s Crossing” sent a signal to the American Colonists.

Maybe that is a lesson to be learned: we are all in the same boat.

Prior to Christmas 1776, some colonists were loyal to the King of England, perhaps as many as a third of the population.  Another contingent of colonists just wanted to avoid involvement.

But the victory delivered by those suffering American troops changed attitudes.  David Hackett Fischer writes in his book Washington’s Crossing that “No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776.”  A painting of the crossing measuring 12 feet by 20 feet is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Washington is a prominent figure in the painting but the artist also portrayed soldiers from widely varied backgrounds and origins but all in the same boat.

Maybe that is a lesson to be learned: we are all in the same boat.

General George Washington’s magnanimity and leadership after the battle represents the ideal that allows us to believe that America is special.  Washington ordered his troops to treat the prisoners humanely.  He personally praised one wounded British soldier for his bravery and assured the soldier that the Americans would provide the best medical care that they could.  General Washington posted guards to protect prisoners.  Washington reminded his troops that they were fighting for high ideals and that their behavior must reflect those ideals.

Perhaps this Christmas or any Christmas we should pause to reflect what we might be if those cold, dedicated souls and their humane leader had not endured and succeeded.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jack Stevenson is retired.  He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee.  He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).  Currently residing in Pensacola, FL, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and occasionally writes non-exclusive commentary for Blowing Rock News.

All opinions expressed by Mr. Stevenson are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Blowing Rock News or its managers and employees.


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