It is usually depicted as something romantic and brave. The crossing was anything but smooth. Step back from how the event has been glamorized and think logically. What time of year was it? December 26th. Where was it? New Jersey in the northeast of the coastal United States. What do we know about this geographical location at this time of year? It is darn cold with lots of ice and snow. Now the picture we have is not so glamorous.
These soldiers were not well-kept. They were wearing rags. In this bitter cold, many had no shoes. Torn cloth was used to bind their feet. The truth be told, if the soldiers knew how we looked at this event today, they would roll over laughing. This was not pleasant for them. It was downright miserable. The odds were totaling against them.
The crossing was difficult. Take a look at what Washington wrote in a letter to the Congress on December 27th:
The evening of the twenty-fifth I ordered the troops intended for this service to parade back of McKonkey’s ferry, that they might begin to pass as soon as it few dark, imagining we should be able to throw them all over, with the necessary artillery, by twelve o’clock, and that we might easily arrive at Trenton by five in the morning, the distance being about nine miles. But the quantity of ice, made that night, impeded the passage of the boats so much, that it was three o-clock before the artillery could all be got over; and near four, before the troops took up their line of march.
Nothing was going right for the tired army. Washington next said, “This made me despair of surprising the town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke.” The surprise he wanted to give the Hessians was crucial to his plans. It also did not help that all his army did not make the crossing. General Ewing’s section could not win against the ice.
This event was nothing like we imagined. It was horrible and freezing. It was a night not fit for man nor beast.
The Hessians were German mercenaries employed by the British to help fight the rebellious colonists. They were a group that Washington really wanted out of the picture.
Tradition has always had it that the Hessians were drunk from their Christmas festivities. This myth is actually debatable. According to all accounts, Washington chose this time because he knew the Hessians would be caught off guard as this was a holiday they all celebrated quite well. It has been said that by the Hessians celebrating so much that they had to have been drunk. Let’s look at this even closer.
According to Washington’s letter: “We presently saw their main body formed: but, from their motions, they seemed undetermined how to act.” It was about five in the morning. Nobody had shaken the cobwebs from their heads yet. This was a morning after a holiday. Did we really expect them to be fully alert? Or should they have been?
Soldiers are trained to quickly gather their wits and prepare themselves to fight. If they did not, they would not last long. If this was just any other morning, only the very first few seconds would have the Hessians disoriented. Not minutes into the fighting. What could have them “undetermined how to act”?
Without being stereotypical, Germans are pretty well known for their drinking. Let’s be fair. So are the Irish, the French, and many others. These were German soldiers celebrating a holiday away from home. Do we seriously think that they did not have a single drop of alcohol the night before? Do we seriously believe that they did not get drunk? It is hard to believe that the men were not a little hung over when Washington’s army attacked them. Otherwise, they would have more alert and might not have given up so easy.
The myth here might actually be fact. The historians are still debating this one.
There is a famous painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze that has caused the world to take in the myths of the crossing of the Delaware as fact. This painting shows Washington standing tall in the front of the boat as he led the soldiers across the river. Though very moving and patriotic, very little about this painting is a true representation of the event.
Problem #1 – The uniforms are just too pretty. The soldiers , including Washington, was not wearing pristine uniforms. They were dirty. They were not a pretty site and did not want to be. They were on a mission to win a battle.
Problem #2 – The time of day is all wrong. The crossing started as night fell. Remember from the quote earlier that Washington wanted to start across at nightfall on the 25th and be completely over by midnight. They would then have arrived by five o’clock in the morning to commence fighting. Instead it was three o’clock in the morning before they got the last of the artillery over. They crossed in the middle of the night.
Problem #3 – The flag is completely wrong. This flag was not adopted and placed into service for about six months after the battle. It was added into the painting for patriotic reasons only.
Myths develop around famous people and events because of the emotions involved. They myths could be developed to make someone or something more menacing than reality. They could be created to make them larger than life. The myths surrounding the Battle of Trenton were patriotic and romantic. Yet, they are myths that need to be removed to better understand the historical events. History is about facts. It is about real people and places. It is about knowing what really happened.
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