I gott'a admit, there was one lesson in military science that General George Washington never learned – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Consider George's plan for his greatest victory: First, 3,000 men under Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader would slip across the icy Delaware river near Bristol, Pennsylvania, and threaten the redcoats and their hired mercenaries (the Hessians) billeted around Bordentown, New Jersey. Once the British were distracted, Washington himself would lead 2, 500 men across McKonkey's Ferry, 15 miles to the north, and march 7 miles south to attack the 1,500 Hessian troops camped at Trenton, while 700 militiamen under General James Ewing would cross just south of Trenton, and block the Hessian's retreat. If all these moving parts managed to work, Washington plan would be judge brilliant. Luckily for Washington, it did not work.
There was no reason why it should. The Continental Army had numbered 20,000 men outside New York in August. But by Friday, 20 December, 1776, it was reduced to less than 6,000 exhausted, starving, freezing, dispirited and nearly naked men, huddled on the south bank of the Delaware River, Washington admitted most of his men were “so thinly clad as to be unfit for service.” Desertions were melting the army into slush, and half of the enlistments were up on New Year's Day, “I rather think the design of General Howe is to possess himself of Philadelphia this winter,” Washington warned Congress, “and in truth I do not see what is to hinder him...”. In February the Delaware River would likely freeze over, and Howe's 30,000 men could march across the ice into the American capital. Knowing this, the bickering Continental Congress had already retreated to Baltimore. It all made Washington's grandiose plan seem a pipe dream. But Washington did have a few advantages.
First, there was the Delaware River (above) , named after Thomas West, the Third Baron De la Ware. Iron ore and grains were carried by 40 foot long flat bottom Durham boats on the upper river as it cut a gap southeastwards through the last ridges of the Appalachian mountains to the 8 foot falls at Trenton. The river turned southward 20 miles later at Bordentown, before the last 30 mile reach to the Philadelphia docks. When Washington retreated across the mile wide river he had gathered every Durham boat capable of carrying artillery or cavalry withing 70 miles upstream, onto the south bank. And with American defenses dug in at every ford, it left General Howe the choice of either building a new fleet of boats, or waiting for the freeze.
The second item in Washington's favor was the well known and well hated Tory, John Honeyman, a butcher and weaver from Griggstown, New Jersey. In mid-December Honeyman was captured and dragged before General Washington for a personal interrogation. The truth was, Honeyman was a spy for Washington. In private the butcher informed his spymaster that General Howe was not waiting for the river to freeze. On Saturday, 14 December Howe had ordered his 20,000 regulars to disperse into winter quarters in northern New Jersey, where the accommodations and accommodating companionship were plentiful. That left 10,000 Hessian's in a string of outposts within mutually supporting distance across southern New Jersey.
Then on Saturday, 21 December 1776, the amazing John Honeyman somehow managed to escape Washington's clutches and cross the Delaware, where he sought refuge with Colonel Johann Gottlieb
Rall, commanding the three regiments of Hessians at Trenton. While being congratulated for his escape, Honeyman assured Rall the Americans could not possibly mount any operations until spring. This confirmed Rall's personal appraisal of the undisciplined Americans, and convinced him he needed no trenches to defend Trenton. “Let them come!”, he boasted, “We'll at them with the bayonet!”
But also on that Saturday, 400 Philadelphia militia surprised a Scottish redcoat picket company at the tiny Petticoat Bridge, north of Mount Holly, New Jersey. The Scotsmen fell back on their regiment, billeted a mile north in a village called Blackhorse, and they alerted the man Howe had left in charge of most of southern New Jersey, the Hessian General Count Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop (above). The Count was a competent soldier, and ambitious enough to despise Colonel Rall, who had been left out of his chain-of-command. Disturbed by the rebels growing boldness, von Donop roused his two Hessian regiments at Bordentown and put them onto the road, south to Blackhorse. Normally, faced with such an active response, the American militia would have scattered, but their commander, a Virginian Colonel named Samuel Griffin, got a visit from General Washington's aid, Joseph Reed, who urged the militia to hang on for a little while. But, Reed did not tell Griffin why he was asking his men to make the effort, ",..as the discovery of it may prove fatal to us".
Although ill, Griffin was willing. So on 22 December, when von Dunop's 2,000 men crossed over the Petticoat Bridge and pushed toward Mount Holly (above, center- right), the militia stayed in contact, taking causalities and even trading some long range artillery fire. But they avoided a full fight. The dilatory shooting continued into the short day of 23 December. The Hessian planned a full assault for the morning of 24 December, but Griffin sensed the blow and retreated during the night. Frustrated, von Donop would decide to tempt the Americans and remain in Mount Holly another day. He was also, charged one of his disgruntled subordinates, enjoying the company of an attractive local widow - who might have been seamstress Betsy Ross. Whatever the truth, the skirmish had drawn von Dunop a full day's march south of Bordentown, even farther away from Trenton then Washington's diversion had intended to draw him.
That same Monday, 23 December, General Washington (above) was at his modest headquarters in William Keith's Pennsylvania farm house, about 10 miles north of Trenton.. In the afternoon he was visited by the handsome, urban and catty Doctor Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and distinguished member of the Continental Congress. Dr. Rush found Washington moody. “While I was talking to him”, Rush wrote later, “I observed him to play with his pen and ink upon several small pieces of paper. One of them by accident fell upon the floor near my feet. I was struck with the inscription upon it. “Victory or Death.” Rush decided the general was depressed, and probably would have prescribed his favorite treatment - a bleeding. Luckily for the United States, Washington could not spare the time to open a vein.
The spirits of Washington's men were improving. It had snowed, the cloud cover moderating the overnight temperatures, and a supply of long promised blankets from Virginia had finally reached the army. The colonists were getting a first painful lesson - that a nation of 50 independent sovereign states, is not a nation. A year earlier, the Continental Congress had established the soldier's daily ration as one pound each of meat and bread, a pint of milk and a quart of beer or cider per man. But the rations were almost never met. Without an internal system of roads, or a navy, the colonies occupied by the army, were really the only ones that could supply the army. And they would always short of resources. Washington's little army was in such terrible condition, that a few blankets could raise the spirits of the men. But change was on the wind.
Around noon, on Christmas Eve, 1776, Washington called his commanders to a meeting in his headquarters. It was only then that he informed them of his plan. The next evening the army would cross the river at McKonkey’s Ferry, at the mouth of Knowles' creek. The Delaware River was only 300 yards wide here, and Washington calculated it would take about six hours to carry 2,500 men to the New Jersey shore.
Once reformed, the army would march 7 miles south to Trenton, surprising Rall's Hessians before dawn and trapping them against General James Ewing's 700 man militia, which would cross after midnight at the Trenton ferry. The Hessians at Bordentown would be prevented from reinforcing by Colonel John Cadwalader's force. After Trenton was captured, and joined by General Ewing's militia, the victorious army would march the 13 miles north to Princeton, and attack the British force there under Major General James Grant.
It was a bold plan. It took account of Colonel Rall's unprepared position at Trenton and General Howe's dispersed forces. But it could not allow for the huge storm winding up off the Carolina coast, and about to slam into the American army.
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