Constitutional Commentary With Attorney David Shestokas/ The Battle Of Trenton
A Constitutional series shared by former Trump election Attorney David Shestokas
The First American Christmas: The Battle of Trenton
In December, 1776 the British had driven Gen. George Washington and his men out of New York and across New Jersey. Things looked bleak for the Americans.
In their escape from the British the Americans commandeered every boat they could find to cross the Delaware River from New Jersey into Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They were starving, sick and cold.
A Desperate American
By the time Washington’s Continental Army crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, only 3,000 of the Army’s original 20,000 troops remained. A mere twelve miles away in Philadelphia, the six month old American government, then called the Second Continental Congress, was headquartered.
With their army in retreat the members of Congress panicked and fled Philadelphia. Before fleeing, Congress granted Washington wide ranging authority and then left for Baltimore, 110 miles to the south. The American cause appeared lost.
On the other side of the river from the Continental Army encampment was Trenton, then a town of 100 homes. The British had occupied Trenton, but not with British regulars. 1,600 brutal German Hessian mercenaries made up the occupation force. The citizens of Trenton had formed militia bands opposing the Hessian occupation.
As Christmas neared the circumstances for Washington were desperate. Congress had left, the winter was wicked and what little army he had left was soon to disband. This was because the terms of enlistment ended December 31, 1776 for most of Washington's troops. That was only a week away.
Washington’s Stunning Decision
On December 23, 1776, General Washington met with Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor, signer of the Declaration of Independence and among the few congressmen remaining in Philadelphia. He advised Rush of a stunning and momentous decision: to launch a surprise attack on the Hessians.
Rush wrote of this meeting: “While I was talking to him, 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. It was ‘Victory or Death.’”
On Christmas Day, Washington gave his officers their orders. The officers were given words of inspiration for the soldiers from Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis. As the troops climbed aboard the boats to cross the Delaware, with a winter storm kicking up, they were inspired by Paine's opening words:
"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 his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
They would not forget Paine’s words.
Crossing the Delaware
On Christmas night, three separate units set out to execute General Washington’s plan. The unit led by Washington consisted of 2,400 men, many with their feet wrapped in rags as they had no shoes. They traveled to a Delaware River crossing nine miles upriver from Trenton. The freezing rain became sleet and snow as the Americans began to cross the river. While the group led by Washington would successfully cross, the two other contingents with 600 Continental soldiers and 2,000 Philadelphia and Pennsylvania militia would fail to cross due to the weather.
The unit with Washington broke up ice along the shore to free up their boats. As the Commander in Chief stepped into a boat in which the portly Col. Henry Knox was already seated, Washington prodded Knox with his boot and said “shift that fat ass Henry … but slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat.” The freezing soldiers laughed as word of Washington’s quip drifted down the line of boats poised to make the Christmas night crossing.
Crossing the water with 18 cannon (some weighing a ton), 200 horses and 2400 soldiers was harrowing as they battled ice floes in the water along with howling winds and snow. Washington and his men persevered and finally, fourteen hours after they started, at 4 AM the troops assembled in New Jersey to make the ten mile march to Trenton.
A Glorious Day for the United States
At 8 AM the battle began. As the Americans fell upon the enemy, they shouted Paine’s words: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Their gunpowder was soaked and useless. They fought with bayonets, rousting the Hessians from their houses.
The surprise worked, and in two hours, with few losses of their own, they captured over 900 of the enemy, their weapons and supplies. "This is a glorious day for our country," Washington declared.
This turned the tide of the war for the Americans, who were to defeat the British in another battle on January 2, 1777. The ten days begun on Christmas day sent a message through the colonies that the great British military was not invincible, and that the six month old Declaration of Independence was more than hollow words on paper.
Braving the weather and the danger along with Washington that Christmas night were other notable Founding Fathers. There were two other future presidents James Madison and James Monroe, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, future Vice-President Aaron Burr, future Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first Secretary of War, Henry Knox. Thomas Paine took part in the battle, not only with his pen, but with his musket.
While 21st Century politicians speak in metaphors of war, the Founders were real warriors for freedoms hard won on a battlefield. It is all the more amazing that those who sought the “blessings of liberty” in actual battle so freely invited others to join in the exercise of the inalienable rights protected by the government they created.
Celebrate the Freedom of Religion
The Battle for Trenton is a Christmas gift that keeps on giving. When Americans celebrate the holiday season with the gift of freedom, they would do well to remember that among the freedoms won in the Revolutionary War was freedom of religion. Battles to protect our liberty from usurpations by those who would diminish our Constitution continue today. We owe it to the Americans in Trenton on the first American Christmas to fight the daily battles needed to preserve the liberty that was so hard won in the war from 1775 to 1783.
The Battle of Trenton and the Christmas of 1776 began a ten day period that has been described as follows:
“It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.” -British Historian George Otto Trevelyan.
It is proper to set the stage for essays about the Constitution with the Battle of Trenton. It is highly likely that without the Battle of Trenton, the Constitution would never have come into existence.
For further reading on the Delaware Crossing:
Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. Oxford and New York, 2004.
General George Washington: A Military Life by Edward Lengel. Random House, 2005.
Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling. Oxford, 2007.
Washington Crossing Historic Park, Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Stackpole Books, 2004.
Washington Crossing the Delaware: Restoring an American Masterpiece. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011.
From time to time, as a service to our readers, the Illinois Republican will feature articles on US History and the Constitution by attorney/author, Dave Shestokas.
Dave graduated from Bradley University and the John Marshall Law School. He is licensed to practice law in Illinois and Florida.
He has served as a Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney and is currently a Chicago Bd. Of Elections Hearing Officer and a Will County Arbitrator.