Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Americans in this Christmas of 2008 are facing one of the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression of 1929-1941. There is also a serious crisis in the confidence of the American People. In times like these it is helpful to remember when we overcame worse problems.
In the winter of 1776 George Washington kept the American Revolution alive. Gen. Washington had a long and painful summer and autumn of defeat in 1776. His American Army had been defeated across New York -- in Brooklyn, Manhattan and White Plains -- and then driven across New Jersey and forced to flee across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.
Washington's forces had dwindled until he had only about 4,000 effective soldiers left. There were another 6,000 men present, but they were so sick they were unable to go into battle.
Yet he conducted himself with honor. James Monroe, a future Precedent, described Washington during the retreat as follows:
"I saw him... at the head of a small band, or rather in its rear, for he was always near the enemy and his countenance and manner made an impression on me which I can never efface. A deportment so firm, so signified,, but yet so modest and composed, I have never seen in any other person"
Washington knew the end could be near. A majority of the citizens of the 13 former colonies were either pro British or felt the war for Independence was lost. The British were a mere 60 miles from Philadelphia. The Congress that had declared Independence only a few months before were ill or exhausted or absent. Jefferson had gone home to Virginia, John Adams was back home in Massachusetts and Ben Franklin had departed to France. At times there were not enough delegates for a quorum. Philadelphia was in a panic due to the advancing British. People in Philadelphia were getting out and taking all of the possession they could carry.
Thomas Paine who had volunteered to serve as a civilian aide to one of Washington's Generals wrote during the long retreat by the light of a campfire on a drum head:
"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 their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
Faced with declining morale, rising desertions, the collapse of political will in the country at large and a sense of despair, Washington decided to gamble everything on a surprise attack. It would require a night crossing of an icy river against a formidable professional opponent.
But the most telling sign of Washington's mood as he embarked on the mission was his choice of a password. His men said "victory or death" to identify themselves.
That night crossing,is immortalized in the painting above of Washington's standing in the boat as Marblehead Fishermen rowed him across the ice-strewn river. It started December 25, 1776 when all of the men were gathered at the point of embarkment by 3:00 p.m. and the loading of the boats began at nightfall. Washington and a party of Virginia troops crossed over first to secure a landing site. The original plan called for the entire army to be disembarked on the New Jersey side of the Delaware by midnight, but it was not until 3:00 a.m. on December 26 that the army completed the crossing and it took another hour to get the troops organized for an attack. A hail and sleet storm had broken out early in the crossing, winds were strong and the river was full of ice floes.
As soon as the army was ready, Washington ordered it split into two columns, one under the command of himself and General Greene, the second under General Sullivan. The Sullivan column would take River Road from Bear Tavern to Trenton while Washington's column would follow Pennington Road, a parallel route that lay a few miles inland from the river. Only three Americans were killed and six wounded, while 22 Hessians were killed with 98 wounded. The Americans were able to capture 1,000 prisoners and seize muskets, powder, and artillery
In two weeks, Washington had gone from defeated, hopeless bungler to victorious American hero and personification of the American Cause.
Much of the above information is from David McCullough's book "1776". I recommend it highly.