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Of Trenton and Providence by Brandon S Miller

Of Trenton and Providence by Brandon S Miller

Silence surrounded what was left of the Continental Army.  Bleak darkness hid equally bleakfaces in the dim shadows.  Despair replaced every vestige of morale and another unit slipped into the night, deserting its country, army, and honor.  The defeat ridden New York campaign was over, but its hopelessness still hung in the air.  Many of the troops’ enlistments expired and, instead of renewing, the distraught soldiers went home.  Members of Congress called for Washington’s resignation and the onset of winter threatened to extinguish the army before the British did.  Independence had slipped from the Americans’ grasp, only God could hand it back to them; only God could grant it in the first place.


Washington’s army, though depleted by desertions, expiring enlistments, and the loss of contact with two divisions, slowly began to grow again as the Redcoat’s harsh treatment of colonists compelled men to stand up for their new country.  Then, one of Washington’s missing divisions and 1,000 militia men from Philadelphia joined the army.  Confident in the previous campaign season’s victories, British General Howe ordered his army into winter quarters, splitting his units up across the various territories that the British now controlled.  Howe ordered his Mercenary Hessians to Trenton.  The Hessians were professional soldiers in every sense of the term, they were the best men that Howe could marshal for any type of fight.  Washington’s plan was to strike the Hessians while they remained separated from the rest of the army.


The first obstacle Washington faced was moving the entire army, in the dead of night, to the banks of the Delaware River without German Colonel Rall, commander of the Mercenary Hessians, hearing of the movement.  Washington ordered a strict silence as the army marched and any civilians who saw Washington’s army were escorted to the rear of the column where they were held until the ensuing battle was over.  The march went smoothly until a dog somewhere in the darkness began to bark.  Things got worse when the dog’s master came out of his house and began shouting at the troops.  Lieutenant James Monroe, broke from the ranks and met the man, suggesting that he quiet down.  The owner, a physician by the name of John Riker, thought that the column was another British raiding party and when Monroe told him that the army was American, Riker quickly joined as a volunteer for the night’s operations and marched alongside Lieutenant Monroe into battle.


The second complication to Washington’s plan was that it required taking his army across the Delaware River, in secret, during the harsh winter of 1776.  His plan actually consisted of three crossings.  The first, containing the main strike force, was the only crossing that succeeded.  Ice jams and dangerous weather prevented General Ewing from attempting to cross.  Colonel Cadwalader was ordered to create a diversion south of Trenton and crossed most of his men before deciding it wasn’t possible to cross his artillery and ordered his men back.  As it was, Washington’s column had a hard enough time with the crossing.  One soldier recalled, “It blew a hurricane.” and as one onlooker put it, they would not have made it “but for the stentorian lungs of Colonel Knox.”  Naturally, the operation was not simplified by the fact that it all took place in the miserable darkness of a cold Christmas night.  But God protected Washington and the crucial part of the attack force to allow the Americans to strike a victory that would revitalize the American war effort.


Colonel Rall, ordered his men to sleep in uniform and on loaded muskets, ready for battle at any moment due to small American raiding parties which had initiated a few small skirmishes on the previous nights.  The common idea that the Hessians were drunk, seeing how it was Christmas night, is a myth.  Washington’s men opened fire on the first outposts , then quickly maneuvered to split the Hessians into three groups and severed communication between them.

In the chaos of the battle, the Hessians lost an artillery battery to the Americans.  Unwilling to suffer the loss for long, the Hessians regrouped and assaulted the battery.  American Lieutenant Monroe led his men forward to again claim the battery and was shot in an artery.  Blood began spewing from his wound, but Doctor Riker who providentially stood at Monroe’s side through the battle was able to stop the flow in a matter of seconds, barely in time to save the life of a future president of the United States.  The Americans officially suffered 2 dead and 5 wounded, though it is likely that their casualties were  higher due to harsh weather and the cold.  Still, the blow dealt to the British army was much higher, with 22 killed, 83 wounded and 896 captured.  This unit of Hessian Mercenaries was successfully removed from Howe’s war chest.


After the battle, Washington received word that neither of his other columns had crossed the river and his army was forced to fall back across the Delaware rather than march on to Princeton, which was the original plan.  Though a small battle in duration and scope, the battle of Trenton had an amazing effect on the outcome of the war.  First, it allowed General Washington to secure a victory at the end of a losing campaign season, boosting troop morale.  Second, it proved the Continental Army could stand up to Europe’s best fighting force.  Third, it shook General Howe’s confidence in his position and left the British on edge at the end of a campaign season that had proven nearly flawless for them.  And in the midst of it all, God still planned for a barking dog and a grouchy doctor to save the life of a young lieutenant who would become the fifth president of the newly established United States of America.