In Conservative Company
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Background On The Battle Of Trenton
The year 1776 was coming to a close. General George Washington and his Continental Army had suffered another defeat at the hands of the British and the Hessians. Fort Washington (the General's namesake), The Hudson River and the state of New York itself, were now under British control. Half of Washington's army had been captured or killed.
General Washington and the bulk of his remaining forces began a southerly retreat across the state of New Jersey. General Charles Lee, one of Washington's subordinates, was at the time positioned to the north of his commander. He too, with his contingent of men, began a retreat toward New Jersey. However, Lee was not the most loyal of subordinates. He felt that his training and experience were such that he, instead of Washington, should be Commander of the Continental Army. And because of Washington's loss of New York, many (including Lee) began to question his leadership ability. Lee saw this as his opportunity to supplant Washington.
By December of 1776, the British were gaining control of New Jersey. But they needed food and supplies to fuel their large Army. In an attempt to stifle thoughts of revolution, they offered leniency to those willing to swear allegiance to the King. Those who rejected the King would be considered traitors. Colonists had to choose where to place their loyalties. Many did indeed reject the King and eventually, the British began to take by force, items they desired. The Hessians were present with the British on these “raids” and engaged in acts of brutality. This further galvanized the colonists against their oppressors and strengthened the cause of the Revolution.
General Washington now planned to make a stand at Philadelphia. He would defend the city - also the seat of Congress. Washington is aware that Lee has designs on his job as Commander of the Continental Army, but he also knows that he needs Lee's additional forces if he is to successfully defend Philadelphia. Washington writes several letters to Lee beseeching him to unite their forces in Philadelphia as soon as possible. Not only does Lee ignore his Commander's urgent calls for assistance, but he also foolishly allows himself to be captured by the British at Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Upon hearing of this, Washington does not give up hope. Instead, he views the situation as the elimination of a rival and the opportunity to finally unite his remaining forces.
By this time, the British occupied large portions of New Jersey, and morale among Washington's men had deteriorated because of previous failures in battle, sickness, disease and frigid winter conditions. And many men left for home, as their enlistments were up. Congress and citizens of Philadelphia evacuated fearing a British attack was imminent. Confidence in the revolution was now waning. Washington sees freedom slipping away. During this time, Thomas Paine wrote his pamphlet, The American Crisis.
Ever wary of the presence of the Continental Army, the British deploy a force of Hessian soldiers, commanded by Colonel Rall, to defend the city of Trenton. With freezing temperatures in the air and snow on the ground, the Hessians settle in for winter expecting no attack from the Continentals. Washington's scouts report to him on the relaxed posture of the Hessians. With his army, as well as the support of the people in decline, Washington sees this as his best chance to rally his men and reignite the fire of Freedom. He must attack!
On Christmas day, Washington divulges his plan to his men. They will cross the Delaware River back into New Jersey under cover of darkness, and attack the Hessians by surprise before daylight. Prior to their departure, Washington has his officers read The American Crisis to the troops, as a source of inspiration. On this day, Washington himself will lead his men into battle as he knows a defeat will likely prevent any further opportunity at independence. It will be Victory or Death!
At 11 pm on Christmas night, Washington, his men, their horses and artillery managed to cross the ice clogged Delaware River in the most inclement of weather conditions. Delay after delay slowed the army's progress. By the time Washington and his men were finally in position, daylight had already broken. Never the less, the Hessians were still caught off guard by the attack. Colonel Rall was killed in the battle and the demoralized Hessians were defeated. There were approximately 1500 Hessians present at Trenton. Of that number, nearly 1000 were killed or captured. This was a major victory for the Continentals and established George Washington as their unrivaled leader. Many more battles and hardships awaited Washington and his men, but on this day, they had earned a very hard fought victory!