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This Day in History: George Washington’s escape across the Delaware

On this day in 1776, American forces complete an escape across the Delaware River. It was just the latest in a long string of retreats from the British army. Surely George Washington was beginning to get tired of it all?


If only he and his men could have known that the miraculous victory at Trenton was just around the corner.

Mere weeks before, a few thousand Americans had been trapped and forced to surrender at Ft. Washington, close to Manhattan. At the time, Washington was across the river with the rest of his army. Americans had already surrendered Long Island and New York City. Now Washington would have to leave, yet again. The American army was forced into a lengthy and demoralizing retreat across New Jersey.


The army’s trek was difficult, particularly because of the lack of supplies. One soldier later said: “The sufferings we endured are beyond description—no tent to cover us at night—exposed to cold and rains day and night.”


Interestingly, Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, was serving as a civilian aide in the army and was present during the retreat. He wrote of his impressions: “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.”


The British briefly caught up to the Americans at Brunswick, but the Americans again retreated. Washington and his men marched through the night and arrived in Trenton, on the banks of the Delaware on December 2. Washington ordered that any boat on the east side of the Delaware be destroyed, except for those to be used by the American army. Inexplicably, British General Cornwallis—still in Brunswick—had called his troops to a halt. For six days, the British troops remained where they were before beginning their pursuit, again, on December 7.


Washington soon received word that the British were headed toward Trenton. By the night of December 7, Washington and his army were retreating across the difficult waters of the Delaware River. By the next morning, they were standing safely on the Pennsylvanian shore, having used the only boats to be found for miles. (They had successfully destroyed all boats for 60 miles along the eastern side of the Delaware.)


Charles Wilson Peale saw the army after they’d landed on the morning of December 8. He saw one man “in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long, and his face so full of sores that he could not clean it.” Peale was looking at his own brother and did not know it.

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