The Battle of Trenton

George Washington’s surprise attack turned the tide for the stars and stripes.

It is hard to conceive just how close to defeat the American cause was on Christmas Day, 1776. As historians David McCullough (1776) and David Hackett Fischer (Washington’s Crossing) have recently reminded us, the Continental Army was days away from disbanding and one defeat away from disintegration as it camped on the west bank of the Delaware River in late 1776.

George Washington was a careful and deliberate officer, but the miracle of the Battle of Trenton came about because the commander in chief realized that only a gamble could save the cause—not to mention the very lives of the Revolution’s leaders, including his own.

So, as every American knows (or surely ought to know), Washington gathered his men on an awful, frigid Christmas Day in 1776, got them across the ice-choked Delaware River, marched them along the banks of the river south to Trenton, and surprised a force of Hessian mercenaries who did not expect the Americans to do much more than wave a white flag.

The two Battles of Trenton (in the second, the Yanks whipped Cornwallis’s army in early January) are considered among the most decisive battles of all time, because they rescued a cause from utter disaster. Without Washington’s audacity —or desperation— the soldiers of the Continental Army might well have melted into the Pennsylvania woods as their enlistments expired on New Year’s Eve. Victory, and Washington’s leadership, persuaded them to remain, and so the cause survived.

Not many cities, not many states, can claim to be the place where a revolution was reborn. But Trenton can, making it the site of the greatest event in New Jersey’s history.

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