Partisan politics reigned, inflation soared, and the country was deeply divided. You may think this is America in 2023, but this was the United States in December 1776. In one of the darkest periods in American history, the economy was in ruins, and Washington’s army had lost one battle after another.
The mood of the six-month-old country had deteriorated from optimism to defeat. But on Christmas Day, amid a raging Nor’easter, a small group of soldier-mariners from Marblehead, Massachusetts, conveyed Washington’s army across an impassable, ice-filled river, changing the course of history.
Making matters worse, the enlistments for the continental army expired in December and January 1, 1777. If he didn’t want his army to evaporate, Washington would have to act quickly. The cause of America would be lost forever. The United States would be just another group of people crushed by the British Empire, which had defeated every internal insurrection or challenge to their power.
Calling upon an intrepid regiment of men from Marblehead to save the continental army, Washington settled on a daring plan. The unflappable John Glover and his Marblehead Mariners would lead the assault river crossing the icy Delaware River on Christmas under the cover of darkness. Washington’s army would then march about some nine miles and attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton.
In August, Glover and the Marbleheaders had performed another miracle in conveying Washington’s army across the East River, rescuing it from annihilation in an "American Dunkirk" at the Battle of Brooklyn.
Asked if the crossing the Delaware was doable, he confidently reassured Washington "not to be troubled about that as his boys could manage it." It was all or nothing, and Washington personally selected the password for the operation: "Victory or Death."
Washington also ordered two additional groups of American troops to cross the river below Trenton to cut off the enemy’s retreat. These groups, not guided by the Marbleheaders, found the icy river impassable, and their efforts to cross the river failed. But the courage and the nautical talent of the diverse regiment from Marblehead, which included Blacks and Native Americans, enabled the battle that changed the course of the Revolutionary War.
I tell the Marbleheaders' previously untold story along with the story of America’s founding in my bestselling book, "The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware." The book is a Band-of-Brothers-style treatment of this unique group of Americans who changed the course of history.
The army was in pitiful condition. As one American officer remembered, "It would be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain."
By 11:00 p.m., a massive storm pelted the men with snow, sleet and biting wind. For the troops, many of whom could not swim, falling over the side would likely have meant death in the icy currents.
Despite the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, the indefatigable continental army pressed on. Washington led the operation, "I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined … the storm cuts like a knife."
Miraculously, the Americans didn’t lose a single soldier in the initial crossing. But, the storm put them behind. Washington wanted everyone over the river by midnight, but his army wasn’t reassembled on the far side of the Delaware until nearly four in the morning. Not knowing that the two other groups had not made it across, Washington ordered his exhausted, shivering men to proceed at once on the long march to Trenton.
Through snow and sleet driven nearly horizontal by the punishing winds, the men and horses trudged through drifts and slid across the icy roads. "Their route was easily traced, as there was a little snow on the ground, which was tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes."
Not wanting to lose any more of his troops, Washington shouted encouragement to the men. Adversity brought forth his best qualities. "Press on! Press on, boys!" he shouted as he rode up and down the line.
The Americans arrived on the outskirts of Trenton just before eight o’clock in the morning. Thanks to the reduced visibility from the storm, they approached within two hundred yards before the sentries sounded the cry, "Der feind! Heratus! Heratus!" (The enemy! Turn out! Turn out!).
The Hessians, disorganized, fell back from the onslaught that seemed to come from all around them. Small groups clashed throughout the city in the house-to-house fighting.
After entering Trenton, Washington’s army quickly captured several Hessian artillery pieces. With kettle drums beating, Hessian commander Col. Johann Rall shouted, "All who are my grenadiers forward!"
By this time, the Americans had infiltrated the entire city, and marksmen took up secure positions in houses and behind fences where they could pick off the enemy fighters. Another participant captured the macabre melee: "My blood chill’d to see such horror and distress, blood mingling together, the dying groans, and ‘Garments’ rolled in ‘blood’ the sight was too much to bear."
Rall tried but failed to rally his men. He ordered the Hessians to retreat through an orchard to the southeast. At that moment, two bullets struck the commander in the side. Mortally wounded, he "reeled in the saddle." His men attempted to evade the patriot forces, but the Americans pursued. On horseback, Washington led the attack, urging the Marylanders and his other troops forward, shouting, "March on, my brave fellows, after me!"
Further south of Trenton, Glover and his Marblehead troops, acting on Glover’s initiative, seized the critical bridge across the Assunpink Creek (a tributary of the Delaware River that flows through Trenton).
At the time of the battle, the bridge was the Hessians’ main route of escape, making it one of the most valuable positions in America. With the bridge in the Marbleheaders’ hands, the Hessians were doomed. Hit from three sides, the Hessians, now leaderless, lowered their guns and their flags around 9:00 a.m.
Word of the surrender soon spread to the continental forces throughout Trenton. A huge shout shook the town as the triumphant Americans threw their hats into the air and cheered the victory. In short order, they found forty hogsheads of rum and cracked them open. By the time Washington found out about the alcohol and ordered the casks destroyed, "the soldiers drank too freely to admit of Discipline or Defense."
Washington had intended to continue his push forward and to attack Princeton and New Brunswick after Trenton, but these plans for a further offensive had been scotched due to the state of the army. The victorious, drunken men rowed back across the icy Delaware.
Trenton had been a great victory, part of 10 crucial days and two more battlefield victories, led by a small group of Americans, including the Marbleheaders, who would change history.
America’s resolve is at its strongest in its darkest hours. Looming disaster spurred Americans into action; some even believed such a crisis was necessary to motivate people. "We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed," Doctor Benjamin Rush later wrote in a letter to John Adams. "Our republic cannot exist long in prosperity."