George Washington’s Christmas 1776: Crossing The Delaware Wrapped Perfect Gift to Raise the Spirit of 1776

George Washington

General Washington and Colonel John Glover beat the Hessians in the Battle of Trenton, giving the best Christmas gift ever to the 13 brand new United States of America.

The only thing normal about this Christmas Morning in 1776 was the smell of an abundance of food being prepared. Was General Washington planning a celebration? He was not! This little military encampment on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River did not have much to celebrate. They had just been through 4 months of defeat in this American Revolution. This included a grueling and harrowing flight across New Jersey that began with a midnight boat ride from Brooklyn on Aug 29th. Their joy when the statue of King George was torn down after hearing the Declaration of Independence seemed a memory too far recessed to be illuminated by any new Christmas light.

A Christmas Card?

George Washington had formed a plan to attack the town of Trenton on the New Jersey side of the Delaware. Trenton was occupied by mercenary Hessians commanded by Col. Johann Rall. On Christmas Eve, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Continental “surgeon” saw General Washington writing short notes on several scraps of paper. One might surmise that he was writing Christmas notes to members of his military “family”. This may have seemed even more likely when he called a messenger to deliver the slips to his staff. Dr. Rush noticed one of the slips of paper fall to the floor. When he picked it up and read it, there was no Christmas cheer. Instead it was a stark statement; a child of their stark situation. “Victory or Death!” Washington had decided to use this as the password for the day as his intrepid plan was unwrapped.

The Plan

Washington and his staff had planned this assault very carefully. They had very good intelligence from a small network of spies (they even knew that Col. Rall usually slept until 9am). It was to be a three pronged attack. Col. John Cadwalader would take 1800 Philadelphia Associators and New England Continentals and cross the Delaware south of Trenton. Militia General Ewing would take about 800 Pennsylvania Militia and to a crossing point directly across from Trenton. Washington would take the remaining 2400 Continentals and cross ten miles north and march to a pre-dawn meeting with the others and take Trenton by surprise.

The Christmas Gift

The ambitious and complicated plan began to unravel from the start. It had been very cold and ice had already begun to form on the river. Yet, in the last few days, a premature thaw had loosened great chunks of ice and sent them hurtling downstream. This was a disaster on a night when timing was so critical to the plan’s success. The worst blow was that the ice was so bad in the two crossing locations to the south that they did not succeed. For the Continentals it was a Christmas nightmare. They were hours behind but Col. John Glover’s Marblehead mariners once again showed their character and skill by bringing soldiers across a river under extreme circumstances, without any loss of life. The rest of the grueling march in a mixture of snow sleet and rain finally ended, not with a pre-dawn raid but with an all out assault of the Hessian positions in Trenton. Even without two thirds of the attacking force, these Continental Soldiers gave a priceless Christmas gift to their commander and the rest of the new nation.

Victory … finally … after so many defeats

The Spirit of 76 was resucitated in the Battle of Trenton that began on Christmas Day in 1776. That same spirit would face many more challenges but its indomitable character was cemented into the American psyche and has still not been shaken loose today!


  1. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, 2004, Oxford University Press