On Christmas Day, several thousand visitors usually stand in the cold for hours at the Delaware River, just north of Trenton. There they watch dozens of re-enactors dressed as soldiers of colonial militias and the Continental Army board large wooden boats and row from Bucks County, Pennsylvania to the Jersey side. This is done to remember what George Washington and his 2500 American volunteers did on that remarkable Christmas night of 1776.
High winds and low water levels prevented the re-enactment this year. However, it important to remember the original event, depicted in the iconic 1851 painting of German artist Emanuel Leutze. It began ten fateful days that created America and changed the world.
On July 4, 1776, Americans declared independence from the British Empire. We also inspired the worlds by declaring these truths to be “self-evident”: We are all created equal. We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. That governments are instituted to secure those rights, exercising their just powers with the consent of the governed.
Five months later, that Declaration and American independence and seemed dead. One week after the independence was declared in Philadelphia, the British navy arrived in New York. It brought 30,000 well paid, trained, and disciplined British and German soldiers who quickly landed in Staten Island New York.
During the next three months, the British overwhelmed George Washington’s 10,000 poorly trained volunteers defending Long Island and Manhattan, They killed or captured half of them. The Germans used bayonets to execute hundreds of Americans who surrendered.
In November, 1776, George Washington and his 5,000 remaining soldiers crossed the Hudson River. They expected to make a stand in Hackensack with support from New Jersey militias. However, Washington’s army quickly fled west, and crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania when that support never came.
That December, a disgusted George Washington wrote to his brother:
“The conduct of the Jerseys has been most infamous. Instead of turning out to defend their country. . . they are making their submissions as fast as they can. . . The few militias that were in arms disbanded themselves. . . and left the poor remains of our army to make the best we could of it”.
Patriot journalist Thomas Paine reacted with anger that the British occupied New York and New Jersey and left New England alone because “New England was not infested with Tories (British sympathizers), and we are!”
Thomas Paine was particularly angry at one “prosperous business owner” in Amboy, New Jersey. According to Paine, that Tory agreed that Americans would sooner or later have to fight to separate from the British Empire. However, as he stood next to his 8 year old child, the Tory said he would not help George Washington’s soldiers because he wanted “peace in my day”.
This infuriated Thomas Paine. “A generous parent should have said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day so that my child may have peace”. Paine went on to say “This single reflection, well applied is sufficient to awaken every man to his duty”.
Thomas Paine’s experience in New Jersey inspired him to write and publish a pamphlet called The Crisis on December 23, 1776. It began with the now famous words:
“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 his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
While Thomas Paine was writing, George Washington’s battered soldiers got help from a most unlikely source – pacifist Quaker farmers from South Jersey! Quakers came to America to escape the wars of Europe. They included William Penn who established Philadelphia. They also included the Smith, Somers, Risley, Scull, Conover, and Leeds families who settled near what is now Atlantic City.
However, once in America, these Quakers slowly changed their thinking. They became “fighting Quakers” who believed God permitted “defensive war” to protect their lives and property.
When German “Hessian” soldiers hired by the British occupied Central Jersey, they began stealing food, destroying property, and abusing women in the Quaker towns and farms they occupied.
Companies of Quaker militia throughout southern and central Jersey began fighting back. One of them was the Gloucester County Militia led by Colonel Richard Somers of Somers Point—the father of the future navy hero of his same name. At that time, what is now Camden and Atlantic Counties were part of Gloucester County.
The words of Thomas Paine and the actions of these “fighting Quakers” persuaded Washington’s to return to New Jersey and attack 1,200 Germans troops in Trenton..
As soon as it got dark at the end of Christmas Day, 1776, Washington’s 2,500 volunteers assembled on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River just north of Trenton. They then rowed across the icy river, and marched south to Trenton on the Jersey side in strong winds, wet snow and freezing rain.
When they arrived at Trenton, they Henry Knox and his young assistant Alexander Hamilton skillfully deployed their cannons. They quickly mowed down the Germans when they came out to fight.
Henry Knox was a bookseller from Boston. He learned to operate cannons by reading books. He surprised the Germans with cannon fire in a freezing rainstorm by “keeping his powder dry”. Knox used the same wax seals and packaging that kept books dry when he shipped them to customers.
After learning of Washington’s attack, General Charles Cornwallis quickly marched his main British Army from New Brunswick to attack Washington’s army in the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2. Washington’s outnumbered soldiers stood their ground. That night, they snuck away from Trenton and then surprised the British from behind at Princeton the following day.
News of these three victories, and the inspiring words of Thomas Paine quickly spread throughout the American colonies. Thousands of young Americans volunteered to join Washington’s army. There would be five more years of hardship and struggle. However, American independence, liberty and prosperity were all saved during those ten fateful days in New Jersey that began on Christmas, 1776.