“Are you alright General?” asked Joseph Reed, a lawyer and delegate of the continental congress. He and Benjamin Rush, a congressman and a physician, had come to join the army while congress was adjourned. They were talking with General George Washington in his headquarters in Bristol, Pennsylvania, on Christmas day . While it was no secret how desperate their circumstances were with hunger, illness, desertion and poor supplies decimating their small army, the General seemed more depressed than usual. Could the General be giving up?, Joseph thought to himself.
“It is widely known how poorly we have fared since the end of August,” Washington said flatly, as he wrote something on a small piece of paper. Joseph had noticed Washington had continued to write during their visit and he was curious what it was.
“My orders to retreat and the defeats in battle at the hands of the British have depressed the moral of our army and the country as a whole,” Washington continued. “Our men are dying for want of food and provisions. I have walked among them and my heart aches that they must endure such perils, especially with little victory of late. And with the end of the year, I don’t know how many of our men will stay. If something doesn’t change, most of the men will leave and our cause will be finished.
“I know there are many who question whether I should be leading this army, but I don’t care,” Washington said and raised a hand to stop the rebuttal of Joseph, who whole heartedly supported him. “I am here to serve as best I can while I am asked to hold this command. I know that if we can get some brilliant stroke, it would most certainly rouse the spirits of the people, which are quite sunk by our misfortunes.”
There was silence for a time as Washington continued to scribble on pieces of paper, while Joseph and Benjamin reflected on what Washington had said. As the men got up to leave, one of the small pieces of paper fell from the desk, and landed near Joseph’s foot. He stooped to pick it up as Washington quickly retrieved it. He had only just enough time to see what was written: “Victory or death.”
Washington let them know that this was the password for the night’s attach at Trenton. Washington had determined to make the attack in hopes of securing a victory before the end of the year and before the end of the enlistment term for most of the men. It was a daring move, but it became a pivotal time for the revolutionary war.
The plan was to have three forces attack from different sides; 1,500 men would come cross down river at Bristol and attack from the south, while 700 men crossed at Assunpink Creek directly across from Trenton, and Washington would cross with the largest force of 2,400 men at McKonkey’s Ferry, nine miles north of Trenton. They planned to have all the men over the river ready to fight by 5 am and actually start the attack at 6 am. Due to a northeaster blizzard, only the 2,400 men crossing at McKonkey’s ferry were able to continue on, though they were delayed by nearly three hours. Washington and Nathanael Greene led the attack on Trenton at 8 am, with the storm at their backs and in the faces of their enemy. In less than an hour on December 26, 1776, more than 1,500 of the feared Hessian mercenaries had been beat and the American’s had a daring victory to celebrate.
It wasn’t just a victory, it was when and how it was won. Washington had been doubted and even undermineded by others in power. He had suffered great losses at the hands of the British for months and was facing the prospect of the entire Continental Army going home after December 31. He recognized their perilous position and had little expectation of a change in fate. He knew the cold weather would only get worse and provisions wouldn’t come fast enough.
With all the reasons to quit plain for everyone to see, Washington wanted to take action. He moved when the British expected him to sit still. (They actually had been alerted to the attack, but didn’t act sufficiently on the knowledge.)
To illustrate his mindset, I quote from a letter General Washington wrote on Christmas day 1776 to Robert Morris, “I agree with you that it is vain to ruminate upon, or even reflect upon the authors of our present misfortunes. We should rather exert ourselves, and look forward with hopes, that some lucky chance may yet turn up in our favor.”
We all face dark times, and those bleak days can turn into weeks and even months. But as we see with Washington’s great victory at Trenton, you are better off looking forward to your next victory than pouting about your last defeat. Move forward for the goal which is in question. The fight will make the victory much sweeter.
“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 by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
– Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, December 23, 1776