Great battles have often been fought during the Christmas season. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 comes to mind, as well as the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
There was another battle 168 years earlier when, instead of the British being our allies, they were our archenemy. To add insult to injury, our former countrymen, these Englishmen, had hired Hessians to inflict grievous harm upon us as well. So one could say we have fought the Germans not once or twice in our history, but three times.
By the winter of 1776, our war for independence was in deep trouble. General George Washington, the commander of a fast dwindling Continental Army, had lost every military engagement against the British since the Continental Congress declared independence five months earlier. Though the British had to evacuate Boston earlier in the year due to the pressures of the Colonial militias and the fledgling Continental Army, every battle since was a nightmare for Washington and those he commanded. The Continental Army had managed to lose Brooklyn, New York City, Manhattan Island, and now all of New Jersey. Many who had once supported the cause of Independence were now declaring their allegiance to King George III and British rule, from London.
Washington knew that either his army did something bold in order to continue their fight before many of the enlistments expired, or their cause would cease as well as the means to bring it about. General William Howe, commanding the British Army, having chased the Americans out of New Jersey and frightened the Continental Congress to abandon Philadelphia for Baltimore, could now retire to winter quarters and allow the hired help to keep peace in the reclaimed territory. To accomplish this, he ordered the establishment of military posts along the Delaware River to keep the Americans out and the people of New Jersey at bay.
Washington realized now the bold move would be to hit the British when they least expected it, and in this case to strike a blow at the hired help in the process. He enlisted the help of a former British soldier, John Honeyman, who now believed in the American cause and had made a home in Griggstown, N.J.
On orders from Washington, Honeyman was advised to “rediscover” his loyalties to the British crown and to sell cattle to several of the British garrisons. Honeyman then managed to regain the confidence of Colonel Johann Rall, who commanded the three German regiments at Trenton, N.J., and in subsequent conversations encouraged Rall to believe the Americans were hopelessly defeated and lacking in military abilities. On the pretext of searching for some of his cattle, he allowed himself to be captured by the Americans, who now denounced him as a traitor and demanded retribution. Washington ordered that he be allowed to interrogate the prisoner alone and then had him thrown into the guardhouse. Later that night, Honeyman escaped the camp, with the help of a key given to him by Washington.
With Rall believing the Americans to be a total joke and Washington now having a very clear reconnaissance of the Trenton garrison, the trap was set for Christmas morning. But as had been the story for Washington and the Continental Army, everything at first seemed to go wrong.
The weather was miserable and the Delaware River was running high with obscene amounts of ice smashing against the small Durham boats being used to haul canon and soldiers across the water. The hope was the crossing would take only half the night and the rest would be spent marching the five miles to Trenton and by the time the sun rose the attack would be ready to launch. Instead, the crossing did not finish until 4 a.m. and the army was forced to march double quick. Even so, the exhausted army was still not totally in place when Christmas morning broke, but the surprise had been complete.
Most Germans celebrate Christmas on the eve, and for these soldiers it was no different. Most were nursing pretty intense hangovers and were certainly not expecting an attack from an enemy they saw as inferior. But a full-fledge attack is what they awakened to, as some of the German pickets fell back following the first volleys from the Continental Army. The battle lasted little more than an hour and Colonel Rall, who was also nursing a pretty stiff hangover, never really issued any clear orders and ended up getting himself mortally wounded by grapeshot. He was taken into a church, where he later died.
The Continental Army now had a victory and much-needed supplies. Encouraged to continue the attack on the other outposts along the Delaware, Washington declined, and ordered the prisoners and his army back across the river before reinforcements could change this new status quo. By the end of the day, Washington’s army had been standing, marching and fighting for more than 36 hours. Though the battle itself was minor compared to other military engagements, it had the same kind of effect on the British as Colonel James Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo had on the Japanese 166 years later; neither party was invincible.
It seems appropriate to remind Americans during another Christmas season 232 years later how close we came to not being a nation. Even with all our warts, we are still a very generous and innovating society. And frankly, it is because of the sacrifice of those very few soldiers of the Continental Army during Christmas 1776 that we can refer to our selves as Americans.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!