Christmas Edition: Christmases Past

Christmas Day 1776

The waning months of 1776 were not pretty ones for the Continental Army. Things began to go seriously downhill in November.

Fort Washington, situated on a bluff high above the Hudson River on the northwestern end of Manhattan Island and its sister Fort Lee across the river on the New Jersey palisades were supposed to secure the lower Hudson. And they probably would have had their defenses not been compromised by a deserter named William Demont who gave the plans for Fort Washington to the British. With this critical information to hand the British seized Fort Washington on November 16, 1776. Four days later, the British arrived at Fort Lee to find it abandoned. Major General Nathaniel Greene had ordered its evacuation and pushed the remainder of his troops towards Hackensack, New Jersey where he intended to join Washington’s forces. Once in the empty fort, the British helped themselves to the valuable stores of food, artillery, and ammunition that had to be left behind.

Washington watching the capture of Fort Washington from Fort Lee

The loss of these forts was a disaster for the patriot cause and for Washington personally. There were many in the Continental Congress who routinely questioned the wisdom of putting him in charge of the Continental Army and these events only served to further erode what support he had left. After his defeat at White Plains, Washington seriously considered abandoning Fort Washington, Greene convinced him the post was essential and that he could hold it securely.

But by December George Washington was in a frantic retreat into New Jersey. Prospects were bleak. The Continental Army was poorly supplied, ill fed, and scarcely clothed. More than 2000 militia men from Maryland and New Jersey were at the end of their term of enlistment and they left for home. Morale was at an all time low. Washington’s plea to General Charles Lee for reinforcement fell on deaf ears. Lee wanted Washington’s job, and the sooner Washington imploded, the better.

On December 11, the rag-tag army scrambled onto any boat they could find, and destroyed those they couldn’t use, to cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Allegedly, as the British forces got to Trenton, they saw the last of the Continental forces rowing away. In an ironic twist, General Lee belatedly arrived in New Jersey, to help Washington on December 13, but was captured at Basking Ridge. John Sullivan assumed command of Lee’s troops and took them to Pennsylvania to meet with Washington.

By now, everyone in the general vicinity was in retreat, including the Continental Congress, which was in session in Philadelphia. They packed their bags and reconvened in Baltimore for a few weeks. The British forces, thinking the possibility of further rebellion or uprising was unlikely in the harsh winter months decided to hunker down for the season. They would secure the areas they already occupied and believed Washington and the Continental Army to be sufficiently crippled as to be of little consequence for the time being. Washington was unaware of these plans until late December.

But new things came to light by late December.  Two of Washington’s scouts captured a person of interest, probably a British spy, on the outskirts of Trenton. This person, John Honeyman, was definitely a spy, but he was one of Washington’s spies. Honeyman was a Scots-Irish weaver who had been conscripted into the British forces during the French and Indian War. When the hostilities ended he remained in America, married, and settled in Griggstown,New Jersey. As tensions escalated between the American colonists and the British government, his sentiments fell decidedly on the American side. He used his accent and his lowly, unobtrusive social position to the advantage of the patriot cause. He roamed quietly through Trenton gathering intelligence that he presented to Washington on December 22, the day of his capture. Washington insisted on a private meeting with Honeyman, who informed him Cornwallis had called off the British advance, that British forces were settling into their winter encampments, and New Jersey was occupied by Hessians under the command of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall.

Rall was comfortably ensconced in Trenton and gearing up for lush Christmas festivities. Rall disdained the Continental Army as an “army of farmers” and did not bother to build fortifications around Trenton as he thought they were hardly necessary. Washington had not only been routed but forced to retreat, what was left of his army was shattered and starving. The last thing he was worried about was an attack from the rebel forces.

Honeyman’s information corresponded to other intelligence Washington had gathered. Knowing the British and the Hessians were off their guard, he decided to attack Trenton. Although the circumstances were, at best, awful, Washington needed a victory to raise morale and his sagging prestige. At the rate he was loosing soldiers, he also knew if he didn’t attack in December, he probably wouldn’t have a chance to try again at a later date.

On Christmas night 1776, the American forces re-crossed the Delaware River for what was supposed to be a 3 pronged attack on the forces in New Jersey. The weather was, of course, bad. The river was littered with chunks of ice. The boats were overloaded. We can say navigation was difficult, between the driving sleet and snow, the heavy boats, and ice floes, but that would be an understatement.

One segment never arrived at the destination. Another group arrived, but their supplies did not arrive with them, so they returned to camp. Only one contingent of three arrived ready to do business. Washington intended to strike before dawn but he wasn’t in place until 8:00 AM on December 26.

Loyalist observers had seen Washington’s advance and sent a note to Colonel Rall to warn him, but Rall was busy with Christmas dinner and put the note in his pocket where it remained unread. Rall was also placated by news from John Honeyman, who had “escaped” from Washington’s clutches. Honeyman told Rall the rebel forces were in such shambles that they were on the verge of mutiny.

By the time the Continental Army opened fire, Rall and most of the rest of the Hessian garrison were sleeping. The troops led by Nathaniel Greene and John Sullivan were able to get the upper hand before the Hessians could react.

Rall was mortally wounded and died shortly after the attack started. The crumpled unread note of warning was found in his pocket. The Hessian forces were left with no alternative but surrender.

Washington’s stunning victory at Trenton on December 26, 1776 was the first instance his troops defeated a regular army in the field. The Continental troops only lost two men, both of them from exposure. The Hessians suffered approximately 100 casualties and 900 others were taken as prisoners, and others are thought to have disappeared into the landscape. The Continental Army refurbished itself with six cannon, forty horses, and sundry other useful supplies the Hessians had on hand.

Thanks to this victory, Washington’s command was now secure and legitimate. The army had regained prestige and recruitment dramatically increased following the Battle of Trenton.

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