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This Day in History: George Washington crosses the Delaware

On this day in 1776, General George Washington makes a harrowing trip across the Delaware River, in the dead of night. The tremendous feat came just when it was needed most.

Washington’s army was reeling from a series of crushing defeats: The British had won important battles in New York and had chased Americans across New Jersey. Early in December, a defeated American army had narrowly escaped across the Delaware River.

That river provided a barrier from further British attacks, at least for the moment, because Washington had ensured the destruction of every boat for miles around.

It was then that British General William Howe made a decision with serious ramifications for the British war effort. The weather had become much worse, and Howe decided to retire to winter quarters in New York City. He left behind a series of outposts in New Jersey to protect the ground he’d won.

Washington did not realize that Howe was gone (or he may have thought that it was simply a trick). He had roughly 6,000 men fit for duty, but many of those enlistments would end on New Year’s Day. He needed to recruit new soldiers or inspire the old ones to stay. The year had gone badly, and he needed to end it on a high note. On Christmas Eve, he met with his officers, and they finalized the details of a surprise attack. The army would go back across the Delaware in three different locations. The men would march to Trenton during the early morning hours, and they would attack before sunrise.

Washington’s army began its crossing on Christmas night. One of the American officers, Henry Knox, later described the “almost infinite difficulty” created by the icy conditions in the Delaware River. Making matters worse, a northeaster sprang up during the night. The bad news was that it made the crossing more difficult; the good news was that it covered up any noise created by the Americans.

Amazingly, the army managed to cross—even getting horses and cannon across the river. Yet conditions were so difficult that the army completed its crossing 3 hours later than planned. Washington knew the element of surprise might be difficult to achieve if his troops arrived after sunrise, but he determined to push on anyway. They had come too far to turn back now.

Washington could not know that the officers in charge of the other two crossings along the Delaware had called off their own troops, deeming the crossing too difficult. Washington’s planned three-pronged attack was down to only one.

The army pushed on relentlessly, through snow and ice. Knox would later write that the march was made “with the most profound silence.” Another lieutenant later wrote that Washington rode among the men, repeatedly telling them: “For God’s sake keep with your officers.” The weather was so severe that two men literally froze to death during the course of the night.

The army reached its destination, outside Trenton, at about 8 a.m. on December 26, three hours later than planned and one full hour after sunrise. Could the element of surprise be maintained?

Tomorrow’s post will tell you what happened next.

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