Commentary

California Rambling: Washington’s crossing

By From page A5 | August 09, 2017

Gen. George Washington had been retreating and losing men since a British force of 35,000 landed on Staten Island, New York in August 1776. The general’s young nation was not quite 2 months old and its revolution for independence from the British crown was never more at risk of collapsing.

As he withdrew south toward Pennsylvania, the Continental Army was dwindling due to wounds, injury and disease. And, at the end of the year, most of his soldiers’ enlistments would expire, releasing them to return home.

Washington knew that his smaller army of 3,000 had no chance of withstanding a full battle with British Gen. Richard and his highly trained and disciplined British regulars, Scottish highlanders and Hessians, then the world’s best army.

For the American Revolution to survive, the Continental Army must live to fight another day. If it did not stop the British they would continue south, take Philadelphia and crush the revolution.

So, on reaching the Delaware River, Washington ordered that all boats, particularly the sturdy Durham boats used to ferry freight along the river, be rowed to the Pennsylvania side where his exhausted army would bivouac.

That prevented the British from crossing the river until it froze. Though once it did, Washington would be powerless to stop them from taking Philadelphia. If they succeeded, there would be no United States of America.

So what did Washington do? He attacked.

What Gen. Washington accomplished on Christmas Day in 1776 involved turning around his beaten, retreating, ragtag force, inspiring them to fight the best army on Earth once more, transporting men, cannon, horses and arms across an ice-strewn river during a winter storm on a night so cold that you’d freeze to death if you stopped moving (two sentries did), organizing a four-pronged attack (one from the north, one from the west, one from the south and one from the east – two of which failed to cross the river) and force-marching his shoeless soldiers through miles of frozen terrain to surprise his enemy the following morning.

Washington’s crossing of the Delaware is the singular icon of the American Revolutionary War. It’s an image we all have seen in Emmanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting of Washington standing in a rowboat surrounded by ice as a long line of boats moves inexorably across the river.

Much in the painting is inaccurate. The flag is wrong (the Betsy Ross flag hadn’t yet been created), soldiers are seen rowing while seated (they would have been standing in high-sided Durham boats), the ice is too jagged (it would have been sheet ice) and no one knows exactly who accompanied Washington when he crossed the Delaware. Yet its symbolism is spot on.

Washington’s Crossing was so famous that folklore has, in many ways, drowned truth. Contrary to popular myth, Trenton’s Hessian commander, Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall, was not surprised by Washington’s attack, nor were his Hessian soldiers recuperating from a night of revelry.

Col. Rall had received intelligence from British loyalists that Washington was moving his forces and that an attack was imminent. His men had been properly posted and were on full alert. In response to the first sounds of gunfire, they formed rapidly and fought well. Col. Rall and his crack regiment of Hessian mercenaries were the tip of the spear for the British army that day.

Rall was not inattentive to Washington’s approach.  Rather, he was indifferent to it and contemptuous of the fighting ability of the American soldier. On several occasions he had indicated, “Let them come.”

However, it was not overconfidence that defeated Col. Rall. It was his decision to counter attack against more numerous and better positioned troops than retreat through Trenton across Assunpink Creek to more defensible ground and safety.

What Col. Rall did not anticipate was that his soldiers were facing the veteran remnants of the American army, one that had fought for the past year. They were aware of Hessian atrocities against surrendering rebels. They thirsted for revenge and sought the opportunity to prove themselves.

At the end of the day, the Hessians lost 918 men, with 896 captured and 22 dead, including Col. Rall whose dying concerns were for his men. He was a good officer, who had been beaten by a better one.

British Gen. Charles Cornwallis was so impressed by Washington’s stand on the Delaware, that he described it as being more important to the war than his stand on the Chesapeake, where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. Joe Capone, executive director of Friends of Washington Crossing Park, said it “changed the course of history and the rest of the war. Suddenly, the French, Dutch and Spanish were saying, ‘Maybe this absurdly tall guy does have the chops to do this.’”

Considering how important Washington’s Crossing and the battles of Trenton and Princeton are to the United States of America, it is bewildering that a National Historic Park wasn’t established there years ago to commemorate, preserve and interpret what happened. Instead the sites are inadequately preserved and interpreted.

The American Revolution was about independence, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been obstinately independent about sharing any management of the historical sites related to Washington’s Crossing and the battles of Trenton and Princeton.

Little cooperation or coordination has occurred; though an ad hoc group, the Ten Crucial Days Associators, is trying to get its members to work more closely together and a substantial capital project is being proposed at Washington’s Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania.

Though what is truly needed is for the National Park Service to seek designation of Washington’s Crossing and battle sites in Trenton and Princeton as a National Historic Area.

Washington’s Crossing is located 10 miles west of Trenton on PA SR 32. The park is open daily. Tours are $6. More about the park and a way to donate to its improvement are found at washingtoncrossingpark.org.

John Poimiroo is an award-winning travel and outdoor writer whose specialty is California.

John Poimiroo

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