george washington crosses the delaware river -- 7/11/17

Today's selection -- from Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick. By December of 1776, Gen. George Washington had suffered a series of defeats and was contemplating an attack on the British in New Jersey as a way to revive American prospects and the morale of his troops. U.S. Gen. Horatio Gates, Washington's unwilling subordinate and rival for leadership of the army, felt that such an effort would fail and that Washington should retreat and rebuild his army. Gates sent a letter to Washington with this message via his aide, Maj. James Wilkinson, and was traveling south to "propose this measure to Congress," now meeting in Baltimore. Washington ignored the advice and embarked on the famous Delaware River crossing and the bold attack on Trenton that saved the Revolutionary cause -- and thus became one of the defining moments in American history:

"When Maj. James Wilkinson arrived at [Gen. George Washington's] headquarters around two in the af­ternoon of December 25, [Wilkinson] was surprised to learn that Washing­ton had marched with his troops to McKonkey's Ferry on the west bank of the Delaware River, about ten miles above Trenton. Their route was easily 'traced,' he remembered, 'as there was a little snow on the ground, which was tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.' About dusk, he found Washington 'alone with his whip in his hand, prepared to mount his horse.' Washington was about to lead the operation that could either make or break not only his own military career but perhaps the future of the United States, and Wilkin­son must now deliver what was likely to be a most unwelcome message. It was as uncomfortable a situation as he ever experienced, and in his memoirs Wilkinson provided a detailed account of his conversation with Washington after he had handed him Gates's letter.

"Obviously distracted, Washington looked up at the young major and said with what Wilkinson described as 'solemnity,' 'What a time is this to hand me letters!'

"Wilkinson explained that he had been 'charged with it by General

"'By General Gates! Where is he?'

"'I left him this morning in Philadelphia.' 'What was he doing there?'

"'I understood him that he was on his way to Congress.'

"'On his way to Congress!'

"Washington now knew for a certainty that if the attack on Trenton should miscarry, Gates, safely removed from any connection to the fail­ure, had positioned himself to become his successor. Washington broke the seal and began to read. Wilkinson bowed and left to join General St. Clair on the bank of the Delaware.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

"Sixteen-year-old John Greenwood was much like Joseph Plumb Martin, the teenager from Connecticut who had witnessed the British landing at Kips Bay, New York, back in September. Like Martin, Greenwood had joined the army more out of a boyish desire for adventure than in the service of high-minded ideals. On that frigid Christmas night he had every reason to regret the decision as he, along with more than two thou­sand others, waited his turn to be rowed and poled across the ice-choked river. High-sided vessels used for transporting iron ore known as Dur­ham boats carried the soldiers, who remained standing throughout the passage, while wider ferries transported the horses and fieldpieces. At first, a freezing rain soaked them to the skin; then it started to hail. By the time they arrived on the New Jersey bank it was blowing 'a perfect hurricane' and had begun to snow.

"Making matters even worse, Greenwood was suffering from the dreaded 'itch' -- a highly contagious bacterial infection that had afflicted him and many of the others since leaving Fort Ticonderoga back in No­vember. Also known as impetigo, the itch first appeared between the soldier's fingers, creating vesicles that when ruptured spread the infection to other parts of the body as a malodorous crust formed across the sol­dier's ulcerated skin. 'I had the itch then so bad,' Greenwood remem­bered, 'that my breeches stuck to my thighs, all the skin being off. and there were hundreds of vermin upon me.'

"But that night on the Delaware, the extreme cold was what most con­cerned the young soldier. Once he and his compatriots had been delivered to land by the same sailors from Marblehead who had rescued Washing­ton's army during the retreat across the East River, they made a huge bonfire out of some fence rails. Turning himself like a turkey on a spit, Greenwood 'kept [himself] from perishing before the large bonfire.'

"They had no idea what lay before them. They were wet and freezing and, in Greenwood's case, literally crawling with pus-encrusted lice, and yet they were, for reasons that were difficult to explain, enjoying them­selves. 'The noise of the soldiers coming over and clearing away the ice,' Greenwood recounted, 'the rattling of the cannon wheels on the frozen ground, and the cheerfulness of my fellow comrades encouraged me be­yond expression, and big coward as I acknowledge myself to be, I felt great pleasure.'

"Their commander in chief, however, did not share in the good spirits. Once ashore, Washington wrapped himself in a cloak, and sitting on a box that had formerly served as a beehive, he contemplated what to do next. He had hoped to get his army of twenty-four hundred soldiers across the Delaware by midnight. Given the miserable weather and ice, it would be three in the morning by the time the last cannon and soldier reached the New Jersey shore. His army had a punishing twelve-mile march ahead of it through the sleet and snow. He had originally planned to reach Trenton well before dawn for a surprise attack, but that was now impossible. Could he, in good conscience, ask these men to march into a village defended by professional Hessian soldiers in broad daylight? 'As I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered ... I determined to push on at all events,' he later wrote.

"With the snow blowing in their faces, the men marched into the storm. In the beginning, the pace was frustratingly slow -- no faster, Greenwood remembered, 'than a child ten years old could walk.' Dur­ing a particularly long halt, he became so 'benumbed with cold that I wanted to go to sleep,' and he sat down on a nearby stump. 'Had I been passed unnoticed,' he remembered, 'I should have frozen to death with­out knowing it; but as good luck always attended me, Sergeant Madden came and, rousing me up, made me walk about.' ...

"At one point as they approached a creek crossing, the rear legs of Washington's horse slid out from underneath it on what Bostwick called 'the slanting slippery bank.' In the flickering snow-filled light, Bostwick watched as Washington 'seized his horse's mane and the horse recovered' -- an astonishing act of strength and control that confirmed the general's reputation as the great­est horseman of his generation. Bostwick also remembered how his commander exhorted them 'in a deep and solemn voice [to] keep by your officers. For God's sake keep by your officers.'"



Nathaniel Philbrick


Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution


Penguin Books


Copyright 2016 by Nathaniel Philbrick


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