For it was just about 4 p.m. on Christmas afternoon, as it was beginning to get dark, when a ragtag group of American men assembled in the rain and the cold, and prepared to cross the river and fight a desperate battle.
|The troops assemble
During their retreat, the Americans had been forced to leave behind precious supplies. Morale among recruits was low. Over a thousand of them were ailing or injured and unfit for duty. A number of soldiers had deserted. Many of the others were looking forward to going home, since their enlistment period was expiring.
But Washington wouldn't give up. He sent some of his men to enlist new recruits from around the area. They signed up a number of new men, largely because of the mistreatment by British soldiers throughout New York and New Jersey. Then Thomas Paine published his pamphlet The American Crisis: "These are the times that try men's souls ..."
|Two men to carry one oar
And so Washington decided to cross the Delaware River and make a surprise attack on the Hessian soldiers who defended Trenton.
A small fleet of open boats was assembled from people along the Delaware. At dark, around 4 p.m., the Americans began to march quietly down to the riverbank. As night fell, the rain turned to sleet. But Washington pressed on. The general rode in one of the first boats to cross the river, but it took until 3 a.m. for the entire force to get across -- and longer to finish transporting the supplies.
|The plan of attack
Washington brought his men, and the prisoners, back across the Delaware to his outpost in Pennsylvania, and the Americans reveled in their victory, drinking rum captured from the Hessians. A few days later the Americans crossed into New Jersey again, and on January 3, 1777 they won a decisive victory in the battle of Princeton.
On this December day, in 2018, the river was high and ran fast. The reenactors decided not to cross the river, and I don't blame them one bit. Too dangerous. But they gathered the boats, assembled together, read the speeches, and then shot off the cannon, memorializing a bunch of men who were, I believe, far stronger and braver than we can ever claim.