America’s first Christmas was a white one — very, very white.
David McCullough, in his book “1776,” describes the weather as “driving rain, sleet, snow, and violent hail,” as George Washington and 2,400 American troops marched from McKonkey’s Ferry, crossed the icy Delaware River to meet the Hessian garrison in Trenton, N.J.
As Washington himself said in his letter to Congress describing that Christmas and the following day’s battle, “The Evening of the 25th I ordered the Troops intended for this Service to parade back of McKonkey’s Ferry, that they might begin to pass as soon as it grew dark, imagining we should be able to throw them all over, with the necessary Artillery, by 12 O’Clock, and that we might easily arrive at Trenton by five in the Morning, the distance being about nine Miles. But the Quantity of Ice, made that Night, impeded the passage of the Boats so much, that it was three O’Clock before the Artillery could all get over, and near four, before the Troops took up their line of march.
“This made me despair of surprising the Town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke, but as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events. I form’d my detachments into two divisions one to March by the lower or River Road, the other by the upper or Pennington Road. As the Divisions had nearly the same distance to March, I ordered each of them, immediately upon forcing the out Guards, to push directly into the Town, that they might charge the Enemy before they had time to form. The upper Division arrived at the Enemys advanced post, exactly at Eight O’Clock, and in three Minutes after, I found, from the fire on the lower Road that, that Division had also got up. The out Guards made but small Opposition, tho’ for their Numbers, they behaved very well, keeping up a constant retreating fire from behind Houses. We presently saw
their main Body formed, but from their Motions, they seemed undetermined how to act. …”
McCullough describes how two columns converged on the town as Washington moved to high ground to observe and prepare to give orders. Though on their feet all night — wet, cold and weapons soaked — the soldiers charged. As the Hessians formed to counterattack, Washington’s artillery fired with deadly effect.
Though some claimed the Hessains were surprised because they were hungover from Christmas festivites, McCollough says no evidence of this exists in the historic record.
When the Hessians retreated into side streets they were meet by charging Americans with fixed bayonets. The Hessains rolled out a cannon only to have the Americans capture it and turn it on them.
The German mercenaries retreated into an orchard.
Washington describes what then happened, ““Finding from our disposition that they were surrounded, and that they must inevitably be cut to pieces if they made any further Resistance, they agreed to lay down their Arms. The Number, that submitted in this manner, was 23 Officers and 886 Men. Col Rall. the commanding Officer with seven others were found wounded in the Town. I dont exactly know how many they had killed, but I fancy not above twenty or thirty, as they never made any regular Stand. Our loss is very trifling indeed, only two Officers and one or two privates wounded.”
The battle lasted 45 minutes. According to McCullough, the only American soldiers who died in the assault were two who died in the Christmas night crossing, frozen to death.
Washington said of his soldiers, “In justice to the Officers and Men, I must add, that their Behaviour upon this Occasion, reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the River in a very severe Night, and their march thro’ a violent Storm of Snow and Hail, did not in the least abate their Ardour. But when they came to the Charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward, and were I to give a preference to any particular Corps, I should do great injustice to the others.”
McCullough says when the battle was over a number of soldiers reportedly broke into the Hessian rum supply and “got roaring drunk.” Rum — the original antifreeze.
John Hancock later said of the Battle of Trenton, which may have been the turning point in the Revolution, in a letter Washington, “Considering the unfavorable temper of the men, broken by fatigue and ill fortune, the happy event of the expedition appears the more extraordinary. But troops properly inspired, and animated by a just confidence in their leader, will often exceed expectation, or the limits of probability.”
Here are excepts from a letter Barack Obama sent on Christmas Eve:
This time of year, Americans around the country are taking the time to exchange heartfelt messages with friends and loved ones, reflecting on the past year. …
The reforms that we fought long and hard for are not talking points.
And their effects don’t change based on the whims of politicians in Washington. They are achievements that have a real and meaningful impact on the lives of Americans around the country. They are achievements that would not have been possible without you. …
In the coming days, as we gather with our loved ones at dinner tables around the nation, let’s pass them on. Let’s celebrate the spirit of service and responsibility that brought them to fruition. And let’s steady ourselves with the resolve to continue pressing forward.
Because the coming year will hold new challenges — battles that have yet to be fought, and stories of progress that have yet to be written. …
Happy holidays, and God bless,