This Day in History: December 25

On this day in 1776, during the American Revolution, General George Washington crosses the Delaware River with over 5,000 troops in hopes of surprising a Hessian force celebrating Christmas at their winter quarters in Trenton, New Jersey. The unorthodox attack followed several months of decisive defeats for Washington’s army that had resulted in the loss of New York City and other strategic points in the region.

At about 11 p.m. on Christmas, Washington’s army began its crossing of the half-frozen river at three locations. The 2,400 soldiers led by Washington successfully braved the icy and freezing river and reached the New Jersey side of the Delaware right before dawn. The other two divisions, comprised of approximately 3,000 men and crucial artillery, was unable to reach the meeting point at the designated time.

At approximately 8 a.m. on the morning of December 26, Washington’s remaining force, separated into two columns, reached the outskirts of Trenton and descended upon the unsuspecting Hessians. Trenton’s 1,400 Hessian defenders were groggy from the previous evening’s festivities and underestimated the Patriot threat after months of consistent British victories throughout New York.

Washington’s men quickly trounced the Germans’ defenses, and by 9:30 a.m. the town was surrounded. Although several hundred Hessians escaped, nearly 1,000 were captured, and only four American lives were lost. However, because most of Washington’s army had failed to cross the Delaware, he lacked adequate artillery and men and had no choice but to withdraw from the town.

The victory was not critical from a strategic point of view, but news of Washington’s initiative raised the morale of the American colonists, who previously feared that the Continental Army had no chance of winning the war.

I always wonder what would have happened if Washington and his men hadn't opted to cross the Delaware, which is commemorated in a 1851 oil-canvas painting by the German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. Perhaps things would have turned out differently without the much-needed pick-me-up the strategy provided.

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