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"Christmas Day, at night, one hour before day, is the time fixed upon for our attempt upon Trenton."

In this confused way, December 23, 1776, General Washington wrote from his camp, near Trenton Falls, to Colonel Reed, who was posted at Bristol, a few miles further down the Delaware, guarding an important ford.

 

Before crossing over to the safe side of this wide stream, about twelve hundred feet wide at Trenton, he gave an order so important that, if he had forgotten or omitted it, nothing could have saved Philadelphia from being captured by the British.

He directed that all the boats and barges of the whole region, for seventy miles, everything that could float and carry a man, should be taken over to the western bank of the river, and there carefully concealed, or closely watched.

All the boats and canoes in the creeks and tributaries were also secured, and hidden where they could do an enemy no good. There were many large barges then upon the Delaware, used for transporting hay and other produce, some of which could have carried over half a regiment of foot at every trip.

All of these were hidden or guarded, and as soon as General Washington had got his own little army over, he posted a guard at every ford, and kept trustworthy men going up and down the river, to see that the boats were safe.

If any one desires to see General Washington when he displayed his manhood and military genius at their best, let him study the records of his life for the month of December, 1776. The soldier, the statesman, the citizen, the brave, indomitable man, each in turn appears, and shines in the trying hours of that month.

Only the River Delaware separated the hostile armies, and the enemy waited but for the ice to form, in order to add Philadelphia to the list of his summer conquests.

Congress had adjourned from Philadelphia to Baltimore. New Jersey was ravaged by ruthless bands of soldiers. Disaffection was on every side. The winter, prematurely cold, threatened to make an ice-bridge over the stream in ten days, and within about the same time the terms of most of General Washington's troops would expire, and he might be left without even the semblance of an army. "Dire necessity," as he said, compelled a movement of some kind.

Christmas had come. It was a cold, freezing day. There was already a large amount of ice floating by, and heaped up along the shore, in many places rendering access to the water impossible, and in all places difficult.

About four o'clock in the afternoon, the troops were drawn up in parade before their camp at Trenton Falls. They were about twenty-four hundred in number. Every man carried three days' cooked rations, and an ample supply of heavy ammunition. Few of the soldiers were adequately clothed, and their shoes were in such bad condition that Major Wilkinson, who rode behind them to the landing-place, reports that "the snow on the ground was tinged here and there with blood." The cold was increasing. The ice was forming rapidly. The wind was high, and there were signs of a snow-storm.

Boats were in readiness, and about sunset the troops began to cross. The passage was attended with such difficulties as would have deterred men less resolute. The current of the river was exceedingly swift, the cold intense, and, although it was the night of a full moon, the thick snow-clouds made the night dark.

Colonel Knox, afterward General Knox of the Artillery and Secretary of War, rendered efficient service on this occasion. Soldiers from Yankee Marblehead manned many of the boats, and lent the aid of their practiced skill and wiry muscle. Every man worked with a will, and yet it was three o'clock in the morning before the troops were all over.

It was four o'clock before they were formed in two bodies and began to march, one division close along the river, and the other on a parallel road, some little distance in the country.

It had been snowing nearly all night, and about the time when the troops were set in motion the storm increased, the wind rose, and hail was mingled with the snow. The storm blew in the faces of the men and they had nine miles to go before reaching Trenton, where fourteen hundred of the Hessian troops were posted under Colonel Rahl.

Soon after, it was whispered about among the men that the fuses of the best muskets were wet and could not be discharged. Upon this being reported to General Sullivan, he glanced around at Captain St. Clair and asked: "What is to be done?"

"You have nothing for it," replied St. Clair, "but to push on and charge."

The gallant Stark of Vermont was in command of the advance guard, and perhaps near him marched the father of Daniel Webster. Colonel Stark told his men to get their muskets in the best order they could as they marched, and an officer was sent to inform General Washington of this mishap.

"Tell your General," said the Commander-in-chief, "to use the bayonet and penetrate into the town; the town must be taken, and I am resolved to take it."

The soldiers overheard this reply, as it was given by the aide to General Sullivan, and quietly fixed bayonets without waiting for an order.

About eight in the morning both parties arrived near the village of Trenton. General Washington, who rode near the front of his column, asked a man who was chopping wood by the roadside:

"Which way is the Hessian Picket?"

"I don't know," replied the Jerseyman, unwilling to commit himself.

"You may speak," said one of the American officers, "for that is General Washington."

The man raised his hands to heaven and exclaimed: "God bless and prosper you, sir! The picket is in that house, and the sentry stands near that tree."

General Washington instantly ordered an advance. As his men marched rapidly toward the village with a cheer, Colonel Stark and his band answered the shout and rushed upon the enemy.

The Hessians made a brief attempt at resistance; first, by a wild and useless fire from windows, and then by an attempt to form in the main street of the village. This was at once frustrated by Captain T. Forest, who commanded the battery of six guns which had caused much trouble and delay in crossing the river.

At the same time Captain William Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe, afterward President, ran forward with a party to where the Hessians were attempting to establish a battery, drove the artillerists from their guns, and captured two of them, just as they were ready to be discharged.

Both these young officers were wounded. Colonel Stark during the brief combat, as Wilkinson reports, "dealt death wherever he found resistance, and broke down all opposition before him."

Colonel Rahl, who commanded the post, was roused from a deep sleep by the noise of Washington's fire. He did all that was possible to form his panic-stricken and disordered troops, but soon fell from his horse mortally wounded. From that moment, the day was lost to the Hessians.

During the combat, General Washington remained near Captain Forest's battery, directing the fire. He had just ordered the whole battery, charged with canister, to be turned upon the retreating enemy, when Captain Forest, pointing to the flagstaff near Rahl's headquarters, cried, "Sir, they have struck!"

"Struck!" exclaimed General Washington.

"Yes," said Forest; "their colors are down."

"So they are!" said the commander.

General Washington galloped toward them, followed by all the artillerymen, who wished to see the ceremony of surrender. He rode up to where Colonel Rahl had fallen. The wounded man, assisted by soldiers on each side of him, got upon his feet, and presented his sword to the victor.

At this moment Wilkinson, who had been sent away with orders, returned to his general, and witnessed the surrender. Washington took him by the hand, and said, his countenance beaming with joy: "Major Wilkinson, this is a glorious day for our country!"

In a moment, however, the unfortunate Rahl, who stood near, pale, covered with blood, and still bleeding, appeared to be asking for the assistance which his wounds required.

He was at once conveyed to the house of a good Quaker family near by, where he was visited by General Washington in the course of the day, who did all in his power to soothe the feelings of the dying soldier.

This action, reckoning from the first gun, lasted but thirty-five minutes. On the American side two officers were wounded, two privates were killed, four were wounded, and one was frozen to death. Four stands of colors were captured, besides twelve drums, six brass field-pieces, and twelve hundred muskets. The prisoners were nine hundred and forty-six in number, of whom seventy-eight were wounded. Seventeen of the Hessians were killed, of whom six were officers.

We can scarcely imagine the joy which this victory gave to the people everywhere, as the news slowly made its way. They were in the depths of discouragement. There had been moments when Washington himself almost gave up Philadelphia for lost, and it was from Philadelphia that he drew his most essential supplies.

The capture of the post at Trenton, a thing trifling in itself, changed the mood and temper of both parties, and proved to be the turning-point of the war. It saved Philadelphia for that season, freed New Jersey from the ravages of an insolent and ruthless foe, checked disaffection in minds base or timid, and gave Congress time to prepare for a renewal of the strife as soon as the spring should open.

It was a priceless Christmas present which the general and his steadfast band of patriots gave their country in 1776, and it was followed, a week later, by a New Year's gift of similar purport--the capture of the British post at Princeton.