On this night in 1776, future President General George Washington leads his small and bedraggled army in a daring raid on British and Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey, during the American Revolution.
Just prior to launching boats from McKonkey’s Ferry across the Delaware River, Washington had an excerpt from Thomas Paine’s inspirational pamphlet The Crisis–published two days earlier–read aloud to the army. The pamphlet began: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Although Americans often think of President George Washington as stately and composed, in actuality the revolutionary hero could be quite down-to-earth, even coarse, a trait that endeared him to his troops. One historian’s account, supported by the memoirs of troops in attendance at the famous crossing of the Delaware, suggests that as Washington was stepping into a boat in which the portly General Henry Knox was already seated, he poked Knox with his boot and said “shift that fat [a..], Harry…but slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat.” The freezing, wet and frightened soldiers broke into hysterical laughter as word of Washington’s wisecrack drifted down the line of boats poised to cross the icy river.
Early on the morning of December 26, 2,500 American soldiers led by Washington surprised the mainly Hessian soldiers at Trenton (allegedly hung-over over after a night of Christmas cheer) and after a short battle took control of the town. The scrappy Washington ordered his soldiers to take whatever ammunition and supplies they could carry and scurried back across the Delaware. Washington’s daring attack, after a string of demoralizing retreats, gave a desperately needed boost to the flagging spirits of the Continental Army.