December 1776: The Month That Saved America

washingtoncrossingdelaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware is an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.  It is located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Many Americans don’t realize how close their country came to never being founded.  From August 1776 until the end of December 1776 and the Battle of Trenton, George Washington’s rag-tag army was constantly on the verge of total defeat.  Poor strategic decisions, illness, hunger and desertion plagued the Continental Army.  The well trained British Army, the greatest in the world at the time, was constantly on the heals of the Americans.  But fate and Washington’s ability to keep his army intact would ultimately save America.

Starting in August 1776, the Continental Army suffered a string of defeats.  The two armies met in the Battles of Long Island and Brooklyn in New York.  The Americans were not able to withstand the British and nearly met complete defeat.  But Washington was able to retreat in secret during the night and move his army into New Jersey.  The Continental Army continued to loss battles, men and morale.

By the time December came, the Continental Army was in dire straits.  Washington moved his army across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania away from the British.  He ordered all boats not used by his army destroyed so they could not be used by the British.  But the army was not safe.  It seemed only a matter of time before the British would attack and destroy the Continental Army, and with it, the American Revolution.

Several factors added to Washington’s problems.  His second in command, General Charles Lee, had been captured by the British.  The enlistments of most of his men were due to expire at the end of December.  Many men had simply gone home.  The winter weather was harsh and supplies were short.  His men were sick and hungry and the British were waiting to attack with a superior force.  Of the 7,500 men under Washington’s command, only about 6,000 were fit for duty.

But then fate intervened.  Rather than attack, British General William Howe made one of the biggest decisions of the war.  He decided to suspend any military action until the weather got better and retreated to “winter quarters” in New York.  He left the town of Trenton, New Jersey guarded by 1,500 German mercenary soldiers called Hessians.  Without knowing this, Washington decided to attack Trenton.  He could not sit and wait to be attacked and knew he needed a victory to keep the American cause going.

On Christmas night, 1776, the Continental Army moved across the frigid and icy Delaware River to attack Trenton.  The Battle lasted about 45 minutes and ended up as a complete American victory.  The surprise attack kept the Hessians disorganized as they awoke from their barracks and the Americans were able to overwhelm them.  In the end, the only Americans killed were two men who froze to death on the way over.  21 Hessians were killed and 900 were captured.  About 500 escaped.

The Battle of Trenton revitalized the American effort.  Washington’s soldiers who only days early were all but guaranteed to leave after their enlistments were over, decided to stay.  News of the battle spread quickly and a new spirit rose throughout the colonies.  A few days later on January 3, 1777, the Americans would have another victory at the Battle of Princeton in New Jersey.  Although the war ended in 1783, it very well could have ended in December 1776.  But it did not.  Washington and the Continental Army fought on.

Historian David McCullough in his book 1776 summarizes the outcome of the American Revolutionary War this way.  “But in the last analysis it was Washington and the army that won the war for American independence.  The fate of the war and the revolution rested on the army.  The Continental Army – not the Hudson River or possession of New York or Philadelphia – was the key to victory.  And it was Washington who held the army together and gave it “spirit” through the most desperate of times.”  McCullough goes on to say, “the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.”

America almost never made it out of its infancy.  But thanks to a tired, hungry and cold army of patriots and their leader it did.  History would be changed forever.

 

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