The Continental Army was nearly destroyed. Beleaguered soldiers were half naked and many crossed New Jersey into Pennsylvania without shoes. Men were hungry and desperate. Feeling they had no option, many of them simply deserted.
Since his appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in June 1775, Washington had spent a year and half in the field building the American army from scratch. He was now facing the single greatest leadership challenge of his life. He was commanding an army on the brink of annihilation.
By Christmas Day 1776, enlistments were about to expire. While many soldiers had deserted, the ones who remained were eager to get home. The Cause appeared hopeless. The British army was powerful and seemingly invincible. In fact, they had driven Washington and his army out of New York City into New Jersey. Washington's army continued to move south and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. On December 25, 1776, George Washington was with many of his troops on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware near a ferry known as McConkey's Ferry.
By early evening, General Washington wrote a letter to Colonel John Cadwalader, who commanded troops further south near Bristol Ferry. Washington wrote:
I am determined, as the night is favourable, to cross the River, & make the attack upon Trenton in the Morning. If you can do nothing real, at least create as great a diversion as possible. I am Sir your most obt Servant
As he stood on the banks of the Delaware River, Washington made the decision to cross and attack a garrison of Hessian soldiers garrisoned in Trenton, New Jersey. The attack was scheduled for the morning of December 26, 1776.
As Washington's letter indicates, there were supposed to be multiple crossings to include those of Colonel Cadwalader's troops further south. However, due to the storm and the large chunks of ice rushing rapidly down the Delaware, Cadwalader's forces turned back and did not join the attack on December 26.
One of Washington's aides-de-camp was an Irishman named John Fitzgerald. Washington knew Fitzgerald from Alexandria, Virginia. In fact, prior to the Revolutionary War, Fitzgerald did business in Alexandria as a merchant and later built a warehouse along the foot of King Street.
On Christmas evening, Lt. Col. Fitzgerald remarked of the commander-in-chief, "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 the troops. He is calm and collected but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet and cuts like a knife."
In order to execute the river crossing, Washington's army had procured Durham boats. These were flat bottomed boats. In peaceful times, they were used to transport goods up and down the Delaware River. Now they were being used to transport troops and equipment.
The American soldiers loaded into the Durham boats after dark. The storm continued to rage and pelted the Americans with sleet and snow. The men huddled close inside the boats protecting one another from the cutting wind.
By the early morning hours, the army crossed into New Jersey. At that point, Washington and his forces began an eight mile foot march south to Trenton.
The number of troops was nearly 2,400. Washington split them into two columns. Soldiers trudged through the snow with bloody, bare feet. By dawn, Washington's army reached the unsuspecting Hessian garrison that numbered 1,500.
The Battle of Trenton began a little after dawn on December 26, 1776. It was a decidedly lopsided battle. In fact, Washington's attack on the garrison was so bold that he was able to achieve near total surprise. Many Hessians threw down their arms and surrendered. Thus, the Americans captured 800 of the vaunted German mercenaries.
While there were not a lot of American casualties, there was one notable one. America's fifth president, James Monroe, was a lieutenant and part of a company led by Washington's second cousin Captain William Washington. Lt Monroe was an artillery officer and part of the advance guard. He was shot through the shoulder and nearly died. However, he was taken off the battlefield and transferred to the Coryell home.
The Coryell's ran a ferry north of McConkey's. Considering that Washington used all available guides and boats to get his army across the river, the Coryell's must have helped on the night of December 25-26, 1776. However, Coryell's Ferry played another major role in the summer of 1778 as it was the primary crossing spot to get Washington's army into New Jersey prior to the Battle of Monmouth.
In the latter part of Washington's life, George Coryell moved to Alexandria, Virginia. He lived on Duke Street next to Washington's good friend and personal physician, Dr. James Craik. George Coryell was present at Washington's funeral on December 18, 1799. While he was not officially slated to be one of Washington's pallbearers, he ended up helping when another one of the pallbearers could not perform his duties. Thus, George Coryell became one of Washington's pallbearers by being in the right place at the right time. He lived for another five decades until 1850 and was later buried in Lambertville, New Jersey in a Presbyterian burial ground.
Nevertheless, Washington's courage and determination paid off. His leadership is aptly summarized in the aforementioned quote from Lt. Col. Fitzgerald. There was nothing that could stop him from willing his army to victory.
The result was a ten day turnaround of events that eventually culminated in another battlefield victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777. After the battle of Princeton, Washington finally settled his army into winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey.
The American victory did not alter the immediate military situation of the war in a significant way. The British still held New York City and retained a strong military advantage. However, the impact of crossing the Delaware and winning battles at Trenton and Princeton had major ramifications in terms of recruiting and morale. It helped alter the strategic landscape by proving the Americans could fight and win.
Much of Washington's success as a commander-in-chief was based on his ability to keep a standing army in the field. He would not have a truly decisive victory until the surrender of Yorktown in October 1781. However, to maintain an army and prove they were able to fight was critical to winning the American Revolution.
Crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776, Washington risked everything to preserve an army and, thus, save a nation. America had only declared her independence six months previously on July 4, 1776. By December, it looked like that declaration might have been a mistake. When America needed a brave leader, Washington was there.
Furthermore, he was not alone. Brave Patriots fought beside him. Many of them went on to help build America. Some like James Monroe would follow in Washington's footsteps and become President of the United States.
Christmas Day 1776 is an important day in the story of America. In the history of our nation, it seems to be miraculous in its own right. Considering the Christian beliefs of George Washington, he felt the hand of Providence at work. With abounding faith in the righteousness of the American cause and the fortitude of his fellow Americans, Washington took a calculated risk. As a result of his decision, nearly 250 years later, Americans celebrate as a free and independent people.