He really had no choice, as the fragile fire of American liberty was close to being extinguished
1776: Victory or Death
By Jim O’Neill Thursday, December 23, 2010
”[Future generations] you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.” —John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) Sixth President of the United States of America
“The [Revolutionary] war was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate.”—David McCullough “1776”
“There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily.”—George Washington (1732-1799) 1st President of the United States of America
The frigid scene by the Delaware river was illuminated by flickering camp-fires, a few lanterns, and a scattering of storm-tossed torch-light.
George Washington sat on his horse, with his back turned to the wind and sleet. It was 3:00 a.m. on the morning after Christmas, 1776. He and his ragged band of soldiers had just crossed the Delaware river into New Jersey from Pennsylvania. They were gathering for an assault on German mercenaries—the Hessians—hired by Great Britain to help stamp out the revolt in their American colonies. The Hessians were stationed about ten snow-covered miles away, in Trenton, New Jersey.
The crossing of the Delaware had been more difficult than anticipated, and Washington and his force were now three hours behind schedule. They were one tine of a planned three pronged attack on Trenton, and Washington knew that his force would no longer be able to meet up with the other two forces on time. He had to decide, and quickly, whether or not to go ahead with the attack..
Unknown to them, if they pushed ahead, Washington and his men would be facing the Hessians alone. The other American commanders had called off their attacks, due to the extremely bad weather.
The Nor’easter that blew in late Christmas Day, had increased in fury until it was perilous, simply to stand outside for any length of time. Freezing to death was a very real possibility, and indeed two colonial soldiers died from the cold that night. How many suffered from frost-bite will never be known.
John Greenwood, a sixteen-year-old fife player from Boston, later recalled, “…it rained, hailed, snowed, and froze, and at the same time blew a perfect hurricane…” Greenwood stood by a fire to warm himself, but found that he had to keep changing which side faced the fire—“…by turning myself round and round I kept myself from perishing.”
This was no place for a fife player, and young Greenwood was, like all the other soldiers, carrying a musket, and three-days-worth of food.
Washington made his decision—they would move ahead and attack the Hessians. He really had no choice, as the fragile fire of American liberty was close to being extinguished. David McCullough writes, “By all reasonable signs, the war was over and the Americans had lost.”
After a series of defeats in New York, at the hands of the British and Hessians, the Continental Army had crossed the Hudson river, and then retreated down the length of New Jersey, hounded by the British every step of the way. “So destitute of shoes that the blood left on the frozen ground, in many places, marked the route they had taken.”
In early December, Washington’s diminished army had crossed over the Delaware into Pennsylvania, and had stopped to catch their breath, and gather such strength as they had.
Washington’s friend and aide, Gen. Nathaniel Greene, wrote to John Adams, “But give me leave to tell you sir, that our difficulties were inconceivable to those who were not eyewitness to them.”
Philadelphia artist, Charles Wilson Peale, along with a small militia unit, made the short trip north to reinforce Washington’s exhausted force, and give what aid and succor they could. Washington’s army was in bad shape. Peale was especially struck by one pitiful wreck, “He was in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long, and his face so full of sores that he could not clean it.”
It was several moments before Peale realized that he was looking at his own brother, James, who had been serving in the army’s rear guard.
Fearing the advancing British forces, the Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia. The city itself was largely abandoned. In less than a week’s time the enlistment period for Washington’s soldiers was due to expire.
Washington’s attack on Trenton was much more than a clever jab at the enemy. It was a last ditch—do or die—attempt to save the revolution from extinction. As Washington put it to his aide Joseph Reed, “…necessity, dire necessity…must justify an attempt.”
How had the young republic come to such a sorry state? The year had started out so well.
At the beginning of 1776, the American patriots had the British bottled up in Boston; Colonel Henry Knox was on his way with 58 mortars and cannon from Ft. Ticonderoga; Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” and George Washington had declared on New Year’s Day a “…new army, which in every point of view is entirely continental.” Thus, the rag-tag band of colonial forces under Washington’s command, became known as the Continental Army.
During the previous spring, fifteen-year-old John Greenwood, had heard of the events at Boston, Lexington, and Concord. He repaired a broken fife he found, taught himself to play, and walked 150 miles to join the fray.
He arrived at the outskirts of Boston in May of 1775, in time to see the wounded and beaten patriots retreating from Bunker Hill. The sight shocked and terrified him. “I could positively feel my hair stand on end.” he recalled years later.
Greenwood ran across a wounded black patriot, bleeding profusely from a neck wound. Greenwood asked him if “it hurt him much,” and the man replied that it wasn’t bad, and that all he needed was a bandage to stop the bleeding, and he would be ready to get back i