Monday, December 26, 2016
About 10,000 at Washington's Crossing 2016 Reenactment
If you are a night owl and see this story at midnight or in the early morning hours, it will be right around the time that General George Washington had just completed his daring crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day in 1776. Unlike the pleasant weather we had, the Delaware was beginning to ice over, and a nor'easter made things worse with rain, sleet and blowing snow. Most of the crossing would be done in darkness. He went on anyway. He had no choice. "Victory or Death!" was his password.
On Christmas Day 2016, a huge crowd of about 10,000, helped by mild weather, left their homes to watch or participate in a re-enactment of this historic event, a daring raid on a Hessian encampment at Trenton. This event took place at Washington Crossing park, which is located on both sides of the river,
Militarily, it meant nothing. Politically, it meant everything. Washington gave the American people the one thing it has always relished most - hope.
Things were looking bleak for the American Revolution. Just a few months earlier, the largest sea-borne invading force ever assembled by any nation had landed on Long Island with 32,000 veteran troops, including the Hessians. In short order, they destroyed the American army. Hessians answered surrender attempts with a bayonet. Washington was stuck with the British and Hessians in front of him and the East River at his back.
That night, a strange fog rolled in, making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Colonel John Glover and his Marblehead Regiment were all sailors. They managed to use this Providential fog to ferry what was left of a 20,000 man army across the East River. From there, Washington and his army limped across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.
Washington made sure that every boat between Easton and Philly was scuttled or put to his use. Those included the Durham boat, a sturdy flat-bottomed boat that could be as much as 65' long, used to transport pig iron and other resources to Philly from points north.
This is the boat that Glover used to ferry Washington, 2400 troops, 18 cannons and 50-75 horses back across the Delaware on Christmas day 1776. Reproductions of the Durham boat were used in yesterday's re-enactment.
Washington had to strike. If he waited, the river would freeze, and the Hessians would simply cross and destroy him.
After crossing the river, Washington's army marched ten miles to Trenton. Some of them really were barefoot and leaving bloody imprints in the snow. They were starving. They had no sleep. Yet they defeated the world's most feared mercenary force in an hour.
Contrary to popular belief, the Hessians were in no drunken stupor. They were on high alert, and had been for days. They were constantly being harried by much smaller raids and were likely exhausted. The nor'easter gave Washington a strategic surprise.
This was just the first of three battles that Washington would fight, and win, in a series of ten days. The troops whose enlistments were set to expire stayed on, despite having no pay, no food, and in many cases, no weapons. They stayed because he asked, and let them make the decision. They had a leader not known for flowery speeches, but who would sleep under a tree just like his men. A General who led from the front, even with Hessians heading at him with their bayonets in an effort to take the bridge at Assunpink Creek. A taciturn man who initially despised his troops, but would break down in tears and hug his men on the day he said good-bye.
No less a person than Frederick the Great would say, "The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots between the 25th of December and the 4th of January, a space of 10 days, were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements."
It was an integrated army, too. At least ten per cent of the soldiers who fought under Washington were black. Though Washington never spoke publicly on the subject, he set all of his slaves free in his will, and set aside monetary provisions for each family. It was a gesture that other so-called founding fathers failed to grasp or, more likely, chose to ignore.
Yesterday's reenactors included the very young and the very old. It included people of all colors. But just as the Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia as the British advanced, there was a shortage of politicians.