George Washington Crossing the Delaware: A Brazen Christmas Attack

During the fall of 1776, the Continental Army experienced a serious morale problem. The Revolutionary War was not going in their favor, and spirits were down. Colonists were defeated by the British in several battles over the past several months, New York City was defeated by the British, and supplies were running low. Christmas was approaching, and many soldiers wanted to stay at home with their families. Faced with sluggish morale, General George Washington planned an audacious and daring attack on a garrison of Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey. Let us look at this revolutionary war event which was remembered in a famous painting and so strong the spirits of the Continental Army that they came back and won the war.

Washington's men were counting down the days

The people of Washington were somewhat subdued after a series of defeats by the British. The commissions of many enlisted men were soon to expire, and they were counting down the days until they were freed from the army and could rejoin their families. Washington feared the imminent loss of many of his troops and the very real possibility that the colonists were losing the war, so he decided to make a final military statement while he had the manpower to do so. He also hoped that a victory would re-enlist some of the men and encourage other colonists to join the cause. Washington set his sights on a Hessian outpost in the winter at Trenton.

Who were the Hessians?

Hessians were originally ringers hired by the British to help them win the Revolutionary War. They were German soldiers from the Hesse-Kassel region, who had a reputation for being well-trained, disciplined soldiers. In total, the British Army hired about 30,000 Hessians to help them fight the Revolutionary War. About 1,400 of these Hessian soldiers were wintering in Trenton, New Jersey on the banks of the Delaware River in 1776.

Washington's men thought he was crazy

When General Washington revealed his plans for an attack on the Hessians and the necessary river crossing, most of his commanders thought the idea was insane. First, it was December, and the river was partially frozen. Even under ideal conditions, the crossing would require tremendous planning and effort. They would need to arrange enough boats to carry the more than 2,400 soldiers and all their artillery 300 yards to the far shore, all under cover of darkness and as quietly as possible so as not to alert the Hessians. Just to have some extra drama, Washington wanted the attack to happen on Christmas night.

It was a bold plan, but Washington was a courageous general. In the end, his men believed his command.


To get all his men and their equipment across the Delaware River, General Washington needed boats---the big ones, and lots of them. To that end, Washington gave word to the New Jersey militia, which brought every available ship from the Trenton area to the meeting point across the river. By using boats from around Trenton, Washington achieved two things: he secured passage for his men across the river, and he ensured that the Hessians had no way of escape from the water once the fighting began. Will happen.

Most of the boats used in the crossing were Durham boats, a style of cargo boat designed to carry iron ore down the river. Durham's boats were shallow and flat-bottomed, 40 to 60 feet long, with high walls---ideal for moving men, horses, and cannons.

Washington hired an elite team to guide the boats

Fortunately for General Washington, the Marblehead Regiment, a team of elite sailors commanded by Colonel John Glover, joined his army. Washington and Glover tapped them to steer cargo boats across the dark and icy river, and despite the threats, they successfully drove the men and their equipment into Delaware.

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