George Washington spent the early part of the American Revolution simply trying to keep his army together and not get crushed by the British. While this strategy was effective in keeping the British spending money on the colonial uprising, it didn’t inspire confidence either within Washington’s troops or among foreign governments.
On December 19, 1776 Thomas Paine published “The American Crisis” in the Pennsylvania Journal. “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; 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 only that gives every thing its value.“
By the time of its publication, Washington had lost New York City and had been on the run for months – low on money, low on ammunition, and low on soldiers. Over 11,000 men had left his army, and he feared the rest would leave on December 31 when their contracts were up. A last ditch effort (miracle) was needed to keep the war of independence alive.
That miracle happened in Trenton. On Christmas night Washington led his men, cannons, and horses across the icy Delaware River, and marched 19 miles towards Trenton in a freezing storm. At 8 am, they surprised the Hessian mercenaries, killing their commander and capturing 2/3rds of the troops, while suffering very few casualties. Washington’s troops were back over the river to safety in Pennsylvania by noon.
On January 2, Washington would again defeat the British at Princeton (after sneaking away from Trenton in the middle of the night, leaving 500 men behind to keep the campfires lit in order to fool the British into thinking the army was still camped). The Battle of Princeton gave Washington his first victory against the British Regulars on the field. These two victories kept moral up over the winter, preventing the loss of Washington’s troops, and kept the revolution from fizzling out.
Today, just down the hill from the NJ State Capital, the Hessian barracks still stand. Constructed in 1758 for the French & Indian War, they were used as winter quarters for British soldiers. After Washington’s victory, they became an American army hospital where smallpox inoculations were given. Disease was responsible for 90% of the deaths in the Continental Army, with smallpox being one of the most deadly. After much debate, Washington made smallpox inoculations mandatory for his troops – a move that along with the victory in Trenton is credited with untimely helping to win the war. Field trips for all ages available.
Today, Washington’s Christmas crossing is recreated each Christmas Day at Washington’s Crossing parks on both sides of the Delaware River. Historic houses and museums are found in both parks (both are easy to visit together, as the are linked by a short river bridge with pedestrian crossing). The river crossing is celebrated with hundreds of costumed reenactors, with most of the festivities on the Pennsylvania side. There is parking on both sides of the river. The actual river crossing is weather dependent, but the reenactors always do their thing.
You can follow the path through the New Jersey park that the army took on its march to Trenton.
A memorial in Trenton marks the spot where American artillery was placed during the battle. Philly artist Thomas Eakins designed two of the brass relief panels decorating the base.
12 obelisks mark the route that Washington’s troops used to march from Trenton to Princeton.
The Battle of Princeton has its own park, with a historic house, memorial, and trails.