1776: Victory or Death?

by JIM O'NEILL July 4, 2011
 
"Posterity (to all future generations) you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it." – John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) Sixth President of the United States
 
"The [Revolutionary] war was a longer, far more arduous and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate." – David McCullough
 
The scene by the Delaware River was illuminated by flickering wood fires started by the men, a few lanterns, and a scattering of storm-tossed torch-light.  
 
George Washington sat on his horse, with his back turned to the wind and sleet. It was 3:00 a.m. the morning after Christmas, 1776. Washington and his ragged band of soldiers had just crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey from Pennsylvania. They were gathering for an assault on German mercenaries – the Hessians – hired by Great Britain to help stamp out the revolt in their American colonies. The Hessians were stationed about 10 snow-covered miles away, in Trenton, New Jersey.
 
The crossing of the Delaware had been more difficult than anticipated, and Washington and his force were now three hours behind schedule. They were one tine of a planned three pronged attack on Trenton, and Washington knew that his force would no longer be able to meet up with the other two forces on time. He had to decide, quickly, whether or not to go ahead with the attack.
 
If they pushed ahead, Washington and his men would be facing the Hessians alone. Unknown to them, the other American commanders had called off their attacks due to the extremely bad weather.
 
The Nor'easter that blew in late Christmas Day had increased in fury until it was perilous simply to stand outside for any length of time. Freezing to death was a very real possibility and indeed, two Colonial soldiers died from the cold that night. How many suffered from frostbite will never be known.
 
John Greenwood, a 16-year-old fife player from Boston, later recalled, "...it rained, hailed, snowed, and froze, and at the same time blew a perfect hurricane..." Greenwood stood by a fire to warm himself, but found that he had to keep changing which side faced the fire: "...by turning myself round and round I kept myself from perishing."
 
This was no place for a fife player, and young Greenwood was, like all the other soldiers, carrying a musket, and three days’ worth of food. 
 
Washington made his decision – they would move ahead and attack the Hessians. He really had no choice, as the fragile fire of American liberty was close to being extinguished. David McCullough writes, "By all reasonable signs, the war was over and the Americans had lost."
 
After a series of defeats in New York at the hands of the British and Hessians, the Continental Army had crossed the Hudson River and then retreated down the length of New Jersey, hounded by the British every step of the way. "So destitute of shoes that the blood left on the frozen ground, in many places, marked the route they had taken."
 
In early December, Washington's diminished army had crossed over the Delaware into Pennsylvania, stopping to catch their breath and gather such strength as they had. 
 
Washington's friend and aide, Gen. Nathaniel Greene, wrote to John Adams, "But give me leave to tell you sir, that our difficulties were inconceivable to those who were not eyewitness to them."
 
Philadelphia artist, Charles Wilson Peale, along with a small militia unit, made the short trip north to reinforce Washington's exhausted force, and give what aid and succor they could. Washington's army was in bad shape. Peale was especially struck by one pitiful wreck. "He was in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long, and his face so full of sores that he could not clean it."
 
It was several moments before Peale realized that he was looking at his own brother, James, who had been serving with the army's rear guard.
 
Fearing the advancing British forces, the Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia. The city itself was largely abandoned. In less than a week's time the enlistment period for Washington's soldiers was due to expire.
 
Washington's attack on Trenton was much more than a clever jab at the enemy. It was a last ditch – do or die – attempt to save the revolution from extinction. As Washington put it to his aide Joseph Reed, "...necessity, dire necessity...must justify an attempt."
 
How had the young republic come to such a sorry state? The year had started out so well.
 
At the beginning of 1776, the American patriots had the British bottled up in Boston; Col. Henry Knox was on his way with 58 mortars and cannon from Fort Ticonderoga; Thomas Paine published "Common Sense," and George Washington had declared on New Year's Day a "...new army, which in every point of view is entirely continental." 
 
Thus, the rag-tag band of Colonial forces under Washington's command became known as the Continental Army.
 
During the previous spring, 15-year-old John Greenwood had heard of the events at Boston, Lexington, and Concord. He repaired a broken fife he found, taught himself to play, and walked 150 miles to join the fray.
 
He arrived at the outskirts of Boston in May of 1775, in time to see the wounded and beaten patriots retreating from Bunker Hill. The sight shocked and terrified him. "I could positively feel my hair stand on end," he recalled years later.
 
Greenwood ran across a wounded black patriot, bleeding profusely from a neck wound. Greenwood asked him if "it hurt him much," and the man replied that it wasn't bad, and that all he needed was a bandage to stop the bleeding, and he would be ready to get back into the fight.
 
The man's response and demeanor had a profound effect on Greenwood. He later wrote that, "I began to feel brave and like a soldier from that moment, and fear never troubled me afterward during the whole war."
 
Bunker Hill was a Pyrrhic victory for the British and once they had Bunker Hill under their command, they were in no rush to enter into another such bloodbath. The Americans weren't too keen on the idea themselves and consequently, the strategically important Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston, was a sort of "no man's land," that neither side bothered to take.
 
It wasn't for lack of bravery on the British side. The General in command of the British forces, William Howe, had personally led his men in three charges up Bunker Hill. After one particularly wicked volley during the third assault up the hill, Howe was the only man in the front line left standing. Courage was not an issue for Howe; he simply didn't want to waste any more of his troops.
 
Nor was bravery an issue for the Americans. Their problem was that they lacked the cannon that would make the taking of Dorchester Heights a practical move. It didn't make any sense to occupy this strategic hill if they lacked the cannons to bombard Boston. But Col. Knox was about to fix that.
 
It had been Knox's idea to pick up some cannons at Fort Ticonderoga, in upstate New York, and transport them back to Boston – no mean feat in the middle of winter (or in any season, for that matter).
 
Knox arrived back in the Boston area with his cannons in late January, and plans began in earnest to occupy Dorchester Heights. The night of March 4th was decided upon, as being the soonest the Americans could make their move.
 
Starting on March 2nd, the Americans started firing night-long salvos at the British (who returned the fire with vigor). The cannonade's noise would be used on the 4th to cover the sound of all the men and cannon being moved into position on the heights.
 
On the morning of March 5th, the British awoke to find that the Americans had erected fortifications, and installed cannon, on Dorchester Heights. Gen. Howe felt that Boston had become an untenable position and decided that it was time to leave.
 
On March 17th, St. Patrick's Day, the British fleet pulled anchor and left Boston behind. Over 100 ships, filled with close to 9,000 troops and over a thousand Loyalists, sailed away toward Canada to regroup, reorganize, and await reinforcements. 
 
The British would be back, and when they returned, they would come prepared to thoroughly crush the American Revolution. 
 
Washington and his staff thought (correctly), that the next major move the British would make would be directed at New York City. So after leaving a small force behind to watch over Boston, Washington and the 20,000 strong Continental Army headed south to New York in high spirits.
 
The army made between 15-20 miles a day, and they arrived in New York City in mid-April. They immediately started to fortify the city. New York City was at the time, the second largest city in the colonies. Of its population of around 20,000, most were Loyalists – loyal to the British crown.
 
In addition to fortifying New York City, Washington and his staff assumed (again, correctly) the British would probably make their main amphibious landing on Long Island. Consequently, they fortified the high-ground surrounding Brooklyn (a small village of eight houses and a church). 
 
The British sailed into New York harbor on June 29th, took over Staten Island, and used it as their base of operations. Gen. Howe's brother, Adm. Richard Howe, was in charge of the British fleet, which included five warships whose combined firepower alone dwarfed the American shore batteries.
 
Over 32,000 troops disembarked onto Staten Island – this was greater than the population of Philadelphia; the largest city in America. Although the troops were generally well behaved; rape and pillage were not unknown.
 
British officer Lord Rawdon was pleased by the rapes, as they seemed to indicate a proper disdain for the Americans and an admirable "spirit" in his troops. Nonetheless, the British soldiers were often punished for these unbecoming lapses in discipline.
 
Rawdon wrote of the American women that "they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don't bear them with proper resignation, and of consequence we have most entertaining courts-martial every day." Every day.
 
He also wrote, "We shall soon have done with these [American] scoundrels, for one only dirties one's fingers by meddling with them."
 
The "American scoundrels," in the meantime, were working furiously to complete their fortifications around the city, and the Brooklyn area of Long Island. 
 
With prophetic foresight, Henry Knox wrote to his wife, "We are fighting for our country, for posterity perhaps. On the success of this campaign the happiness or misery of millions may depend."
 
While the British and American troops both prepared for the battle to come, the Continental Congress declared independence from the British crown. In Philadelphia on July 4th, the Declaration of Independence was read in public and the Liberty Bell rang for the first time.
 
The Declaration of Independence included the statement that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."   ("unalienable" meaning from God).
 
The Declaration explained that after the people had endured a long list of "abuses and usurpations" by the government, that "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government" and end the tyrannical abuses.
 
No longer were the patriots fighting to address grievances against Great Britain; they had declared open revolt against any connection with the status quo. They had declared themselves fully and irrevocably free.
 
On the morning of August 22nd, the long-anticipated British invasion of Long Island began. The landing itself went unopposed, and the British used the next few days to finalize their plans, and prepare their troops and artillery. At the same time, the Americans were feverishly completing their fortifications and deciding if the British landings on Long Island were a feint. They were not.
 
On August 27th the British and Hessians attacked. By nightfall the American troops were defeated and retreated to Manhattan Island. Although the Americans had fought bravely and tenaciously, they were outmaneuvered, overpowered, and out-gunned. The British and Hessian troops captured over a thousand American prisoners
 
American John Jewett, who commanded a company of patriots, had been bayoneted in the stomach and chest. That night, as he lay in extreme pain in a Staten Island POW camp, his friend Jabez Fitch comforted him as best he could. He later recalled that Capt. Jewett "...was sensible of being near his end, often repeating that it was hard work to die." 
 
The American defeat at Brooklyn was only the first of a series of defeats for the Americans. The British soon landed at the southern end of Manhattan and began moving northwards, hard on the trail of the retreating Continental Army. Although there were several battles of note (Kip's Bay, Harlem Heights, White Plains), Washington's army was defeated at each turn, and by November, he was forced to retreat over the Hudson river.
 
Many things of note happened during this period, of course, but I would like to direct attention to three in particular. On September 7th, American patriot David Bushnell's "Turtle" launched the world's first submarine attack against Admiral Howe's flagship, HMS Eagle. 
 
On September 21st, 21-one-year-old Yale graduate and patriot Nathan Hale was hung as a spy by the British in New York City. He famously said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" – or words to that effect – before the noose tightened. 
 
On November 16th, as the Battle of Fort Washington raged, John Corbin, who had come north with his Pennsylvanian artillery unit, was killed while firing his cannon. His wife Margaret, who had accompanied her husband, "...stepped into his place" and loaded and fired the cannon until she was severely wounded. 
 
Washington and a force of around 2,000 soldiers reached Fort Lee, New Jersey on November 13th (named after his second-in-command, British army veteran, and "odd genius," Maj. Gen. Charles Lee). 
 
After the fall of Fort Washington, across the Hudson, Washington and his soldiers – who had been strengthened by the addition of some fresh troops – began the long march south to Pennsylvania on November 21st. They surrendered Fort Lee without a fight.
 
It was at the start of this retreat that newly arrived 18-year-old James Monroe got his first glimpse of George Washington. "I saw him...at the head of a small band, or rather in its rear, for he was always near the enemy, and his countenance and manner made an impression on me which I can never efface." From this, and the many similar descriptions of him, Washington must have radiated charisma like a beacon.
 
Monroe's impression of Washington included the illuminating comment that, "A deportment so firm, so dignified, but yet so modest and composed, I have never seen in any other person."
 
Washington had not sought, or wanted, the command of the Continental Army. After receiving the position, he had written to his wife Martha, "...far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it...it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service."
 
Later he wrote to her that "I have often thought how much happier I should have been if I had taken my musket upon my shoulders and entered the ranks, or if I could have justified the measure to posterity, and my own conscience, had retired to the back country, and lived in a wigwam." As appears to be the case with everything this extraordinary man said, he meant it.
 
Washington lead his cold, hungry, exhausted troops south, toward temporary sanctuary across the Delaware, and in their wake followed the enemy troops, rape, and pillage.
 
David McCullough observes of these atrocities, "The British blamed the Hessians...The Hessians blamed the British, [and] the Americans blamed both the British and the Hessians..." This finger pointing was of little, if any, comfort to those who suffered.
 
The ragged remnants of the Continental Army reached, and crossed over, the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on December 7th. They either took with them, or burned, any and all boats they could find. Gen. Howe's troops pursued Washington as far as Trenton, along the river bank on the New Jersey side. Both armies stopped to take stock of things.
 
On December 13th, Gen. Howe decided to call off the chase for the time being and hunker down until spring. Although he was now within striking distance of Philadelphia, he retired to New York City, leaving string of British garrisons along the route they had followed south. At the southernmost outpost, Trenton, Howe left 1,500 Hessians under the command of Gen. Rall.
 
On Christmas Day, Washington assembled his soldiers and had Thomas Paine's new tract, "The Crisis," read to them. Paine had accompanied the soldiers along the march south, and knew firsthand of the hardships they had endured. He was all too aware of the precarious state of the young republic – a crisis indeed.
 
The first words of Paine's pamphlet echo down to us through the years. "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...."
 
During the course of the day, Congressman Dr. Benjamin Rush had a private meeting with Washington. Rush recalled years later that Washington kept writing something down on slips of paper. One of the papers fell to the floor, and Rush saw that Washington had been writing "Victory, or Death," over and over. They were the passwords for that night. They also, of course, signified much more than that – they were the truth.
 
Washington and his troops started crossing the Delaware, back into enemy-held New Jersey, a bit after nightfall that day. By 3:00 a.m. the next morning everything, including the men, horses and artillery, were finally across. Washington made the decision to go forward with the attack on the Hessians. They set off in the dark, moving slowly toward Trenton, amid the wind, rain, sleet, snow, and hail.
 
The young ex-fifer, John Greenwood, would write years later, that the men figured that they might as well forge ahead, "...for it was all the same, owing to the impossibility of being in a worse condition than their present one." What the heck, a good battle might even warm things up.
 
Washington and his soldiers arrived at the outskirts of Trenton later that morning. When informed by one of his generals that the men's muskets were too wet to fire, Washington told him to "use the bayonet." This battle would be Washington's first time as a field commander with the Continental Army. The attack began at 8:00 a.m. on December 26th.
 
Henry Knox recalled that, "The storm continued with great violence, but was [at] our backs, and consequently in the faces of the enemy." Knox placed his cannon at a strategic intersection in town, and rapidly cleared the streets of the Hessians who had run out of the houses and barracks.
 
Gen. Rall was mortally wounded while trying to rally his men, and after a fierce, if relatively brief engagement, the battle was over. The Americans had killed 21 Hessians, wounded 90, and captured over 900. No Americans were killed in the battle, and only four were wounded. The surprise attack had been overwhelmingly effective.
 
After searching the town and securing their prisoners, the Americans retraced their route. They made the trek back to where they had first crossed over into New Jersey, and that night, repeated the process in the other direction.
 
Soon, Washington would take his weary soldiers back into New Jersey to attack the British at Princeton, but that battle took place in early 1777, which is beyond our concerns here.
 
As for the year that was drawing to a close, I'm sure that many patriots would have agreed with Robert Morris, when he wrote to Washington, "The year 1776 is over. I am heartily glad of it, and hope you, nor America, will ever be plagued with such another."
 
As exhilarating and badly needed as the Trenton victory surely was, the struggle for independence was far from over. The next winter would see the Continental Army suffer through the brutal experience of Valley Forge, and it would be six more long years until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the war.
 
George Washington was a profoundly religious, even spiritual man. He was a man with a deep sense of duty, honor, and integrity. He felt honor-bound to lead "We the People" in the fight against an indifferent, arrogant, and tyrannical government. He never trusted government; he once said, "Government is...a dangerous servant and a fearful master."
 
It would appear that God was on his side – or rather, that Washington was on God's side. As McCullough says at the end of his book "1776", "...for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning...the outcome seemed little short of a miracle."
 
Laus Deo.
 
Post Script: All of the quotes in this article are from David McCullough's impeccably researched and thoroughly entertaining book, 1776. Indeed, this article can be considered something of a synopsis of the book (any misquotes, wrong attributions, in short, any mistakes, are mine alone). As "We the People" start our own revolution, perhaps one of the many targets we can set our sights on is to have 1776 taught in American schools, rather than Saul Alinsky's blueprint for nihilism and tyranny, Rules for Radicals. Just a thought.
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Jim O'Neill served in the U.S. Navy from 1970-1974 in both UDT-21 (Underwater Demolition Team) and SEAL Team Two. A member of MENSA, he worked as a commercial diver in the waters off Scotland, India, and the United States. In 1998 while attending the University of South Florida as a journalism student, O’Neill won “First Place” in the “Carol Burnett/University of Hawaii AEJMC Research in Journalism Ethics Award.” The annual contest was set up by Carol Burnett with the money she won from successfully suing the National Enquirer for libel. He also writes forCanada Free Press.
 

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