I consider North Carolina the arena of storms. It's where the 6,000 foot high Black Mountains constrain the invading cold dry Canadian air, so that it clashes with the moist tropical on-shore winds born from the Gulf Stream, just off Cape Hatteras. The spinning earth puts a twist on the collision of these conflicting air currents, and the jet stream rushes each cyclonic eddy away, drawing in even more warm air, dropping the barometric pressure at the ever tightening center of each newborn tempest. The leading edge of these storms is first felt by the farmers and seamen of New Jersey, New York and New England coming from the northeast, which is why the storms came to be called Nor'easters
Christmas morning of 1776 in the Delaware River Valley was overcast, with temperatures well below freezing in a soft northeast wind. After a meager breakfast, the foot soldiers of the Continental army were told there would be no drilling, but were issued fresh flints for their muskets, and told to pack three days rations. After almost a year of service they knew what this meant. They were soon going into action. The few who had paper, composed letters to loved ones at home. Most spent the morning struggling to repair their clothing, tying rags about their disintegrating shoes, fashioning their new blankets into repairs for overcoats and pants and gloves. In those hours, even the most fanatical must have wondered what the hell they were doing, suffering for a commander who had so far had brought them nothing but defeat, retreat and misery.
After noon, as the thermometer struggled to climb under lowering clouds, the men were were told to leave their personal effects in their huts and tent dugouts, and form into companies. The roll was called, and then the companies formed into battalions. The men were now issued 60 musket balls and powder, and about three in the afternoon, with the winter solstice sun fading, 2,400 marched eight abreast in tight formations, three miles south to the ferry operated by Samuel McConkey. Major John Wilkinson, following on horseback, tracked his unit's progress through the hard packed week old snow “tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.” Near the ferry the troops formed up again, hidden from the river by high ground, to wait for darkness in a spitting rain. And to pass the time, the officers read to them a new pamphlet from the quill pen of Thomas Paine.
Ben Franklin had recruited Thomas Paine (above) to the American cause two years earlier, just as the ruling English conservatives were about to have the author of “Common Sense” arrested. Paine served on Washington's staff, and suffered the grinding retreat across New Jersey, inspired by the experience to scribble out a new monograph. Once safely across the Delaware, Paine had hurried ahead to Philadelphia, but found the government gone, and the town filled with “fears and falsehoods”. It had taken him ten days to find a printer who could have “The American Crises” produced as a pamphlet, but it's inspiring cadence would prove as effective for the American cause as a broadside from a 44 gun man-of-war.
“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 it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet... 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...”to bind us in all cases whatsoever,”....Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God...There is a natural firmness in some minds which cannot be unlocked by trifles, but which, when unlocked, discovers a cabinet of fortitude; and I reckon it among those kind of public blessings...that God hath blessed (General Washington) with...a mind that can even flourish upon care....”
The 44 year old George Washington had personally planned the entire crossing, having the Durham boats brought down river over several nights and hidden behind Taylor Island near the ferry point. The Congress had not provided funding for a dedicated staff, so Washington surrounded himself with fellow FFVs, members of the First Families of Virginia, a social class he understood and could trust. But his new responsibilities also brought him into a new world. A year ago, when he first arrived in Boston he had been accompanied by a “body slave”, dressed in an exotic oriental costume. But he had noticed the reaction of men like Hancock and Adams, and he was beginning to doubt slavery was economically viable or morally defensible for a man leading a war for freedom. In a year, he would be writing to the manager of his Virginia plantation that he intended to free all his slaves in his will. The password he gave to his command this night was "Victory". And the answer was to be, "Or Death."
The first to be polled across the Delaware River in the gathering winter gloom were 40 mounted dragoons under Captain William Washington (second cousin to the General), and including future President Lieutenant. James Monroe, another FFV'er. Their assignment was to ride three miles north of Trenton and block the road to Princeton for six hours, then rejoin the army either at Trenton, or back on the Pennsylvania shore.
About six, as the sun set and the wind increased, the light rain began to come down harder, and to turn into sleet. Washington sent a note to Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader, preparing to cross over at Bordentown, “I am determined, as the night is favorable, to cross the River.” . But the night was not favorable. One soldier described conditions as a “violent storm of rain, hail, and snow [the nor’easter] coupled with the ice flows and high winds, (which) slowed operations.” Said another, "It blew a hurricane."
In direct command of the crossing was 26 year old barrel chested 280 pound Henry Knox (above) . Henry helped throw tea into Boston Harbor, had witnessed the Boston Massacre, and it was Henry who had manhandled captured cannon 100 miles across snowbound Massachusetts to Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate Boston.
Henry had barely escaped British capture after the disaster at Manhattan, and now Washington was relying on Henry's booming voice to keep the 2,400 infantry, 18 cannon and 100 draft horses ferried safely and efficiently across the 300 yard water. Noted John Greenwood, “no sooner had the sun set than it began to drizzle, and when we came to the river, it rained.”
Washington went across with the second wave, landing on the New Jersey shore about 7:00 pm. He stood on the bank, “...wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet and cuts like a knife.” Said Greenwood, “...it commenced to snow about eleven, and the river ran strong with ice. “ Henry Knox said , “It hailed with great violence.”
With each minute, the crossing fell farther behind schedule. Washington considered canceling the attack, but as there was no alternative, he sat on a box and kept his concerns to himself. By midnight, all the infantry were over, and Knox started to load the 18 cannon, their draft horses and ammunition. It was Knox who took the cannon out of order, in case Washington decided to attack with only infantry. By the time the big Durham boats could be adjusted to carry their new load, it was snowing heavily. Wrote Greenwood later, "The noise of the soldiers coming over and clearing away the ice, the rattling of the cannon wheels on the frozen ground, and the cheerfulness of my fellow-comrades... I felt great pleasure..."
At the same time, and some 20 miles to the south, near Bristol, Pennsylvania, Colonel Cadewalder ferried his 1,500 infantry across the river, to begin his diversionary attack against Bordentown. But river ice kept his artillery on the Pennsylvania shore. Not wanting to move without artillery support, after midnight Cadewalder pulled his infantry back to Pennsylvania. Thus, Washington's diversion did not bring von Dunop rushing back to Bordentown, just 9 miles or half day's march south of Trenton. As Napoleon would say a generation later, “I do not want a good general, I want a lucky one.”
The last gun and dray horse landed on the Jersey shore, about 3 in the morning of Thursday, 26 December, 1776 - Boxing Day. At about 4 am, as the army set off on the nine mile march to Trenton, the snow, which had slowed, whirled down the Delaware Valley with renewed force. Private Greenwood captured the night decades later. "During the whole night it alternately hailed, rained, snowed, and blew tremendously...when we halted on the road, I sat down on the stump of a tree and was so benumbed with cold that I wanted to go to sleep; had I been passed unnoticed....(but) Sergeant Madden came and rousing me up, made me walk about. We then began to march again...until the dawn of day, about half-past seven in the morning." By eight in the morning, Washington's small army was in position to attack. The men could not know, the hardest part of the operation was already over.
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