The Road to Trenton

December was a desperate month for the Revolutionary cause, which badly needed a victory to turn the tide of losses. Expiring enlistments were steadily chipping away at the size of the Continental Army, and the British established a winter camp on Philadelphia’s doorstep. If Philadelphia fell to the enemy the blow to morale would be crippling; it would be “severely felt by the common cause, and… wound the heart of every virtuous American.”[1] Defeat had become the standard for the Continental Army, but logistically and psychologically, another loss would be unbearable. Washington needed to marshal all of the strength the Revolution had left to defend Pennsylvania and make a stand along the Delaware river.

The brothers can be seen standing behind Washington’s right shoulder. James Peale is in front, Charles Willson Peale is behind him.
James Peale after Charles Willson Peale, 1787-1790. Independence National Historical Park Collection in Philadelphia.

The remnants of the First Maryland Regiment limped into Pennsylvania from the north at the beginning of December with General Washington. Charles Willson Peale, the famed artist and naturalist, was in the Pennsylvania militia. He recorded his reunion with his brother, James Peale, who was an officer in the Maryland Line at that time. He “had been in the rear guard, through all the retreat of the American Army, from the North River, and had lost all his cloaths. he was in an Old dirty Blanket Jacket, his beard long, and his face so full of sores, that he could not clean it, which disfigured him in such a manner that he was not known by his brother at first sight.”[2] Although the American army was well-supplied with weapons and ammunition, it was agonizingly difficult to obtain clothing, shoes, and blankets during the winter of 1776.

By the time he retreated across the Delaware River with the Continental Army, Thomas Paine had already written a rough draft of The American Crisis, his antidote to the adversity of 1776. The struggles of war, he maintained, were preferable to living under tyranny. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” it began, “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. 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 that gives every thing its value.” By the time The American Crisis was printed in Philadelphia on December 19, the stakes had been raised and the fate of the rebellion depended on the American public’s willingness to continue the fight.

On December 8, the British arrived in Trenton, New Jersey and prepared to make winter camp along the Delaware River, right on the border with Pennsylvania. General Howe’s force was less than a day’s march away from Philadelphia. Congress relocated to Baltimore, which was then a Whiggish and scrappy boomtown. Likewise, the inhabitants of Philadelphia fled the city in a panic. The loyalists were coming out of hiding and there were rumors that the patriots would burn the city before allowing it to fall into the enemy’s hands. Philadelphia was set under martial law, and General Israel Putnam released a statement that he would regard “every attempt to burn the city of Philadelphia as a crime of the blackest dye.” He also entreated every man in the city capable of bearing arms to report to the state house, since he was “resolutely determined that no person shall remain in this city an idle spectator of the present contest.”[3] The call to arms was issued through the country. All of the American military power that remained was to be gathered on the New Jersey border. For its part, Maryland scraped together the militias of Frederick, Baltimore, Harford, and Cecil counties, where the men mustered in snowstorms to march to the Delaware river.[4]

The ragged pieces of the American army had been gathered together on the Delaware river. The Pennsylvania Navy, consisting of thirteen black river boats, floated below the falls at Trenton.[5] The British army was scattered through New Jersey, with three brigades on the river, where the Continental troops guarded every crossing to Pennsylvania. Colonel Johann Rall and three Hessian regiments occupied Trenton, where they were hounded by American raiders. Although the raids were not particularly damaging, they steadily eroded the confidence of Rall’s garrison, who were exhausted by the constant strain of being on alert.

Raids alone could not keep up the momentum of the Revolution. The morale of the country depended on a tangible victory before the end of the year. On Christmas eve day, Washington would write, “necessity, dire necessity, will, nay must, justify my attack.”[6] Colonel Rall and his garrison were in Washington’s sights; the capture of Trenton could give new confidence to the cause and secure the reenlistments the Continental Army depended on. But first, the men needed to cross the Delaware.

[2] Charles Willson Peale, The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale, vol. 5 of The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and his family, ed. Lillian B. Miller and Sidney Hart (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 50

[5] David Hackett Fisher, Washington’s Crossing, (Oxford University Press, 2004), 135.

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