Enough has been said to show that only heroic measures could now save the American cause. Fortunately, Washington was surrounded by a little knot of officers of approved fidelity, whose spirit no reverses could subdue. And though a calm retrospect of so many disasters, with all the jealousies, the defections, and the terror which had followed in their wake, might well have carried discouragement to the stoutest hearts, this little band of heroes now closed up around their careworn chief, and like the ever-famous Guard at Waterloo, were fully resolved to die rather than surrender.
This was much. It was still more when Washington found his officers inspired by the same hope of striking the enemy unawares which he himself had all along secretly entertained. The hope was still further encouraged by a reënforcement of Pennsylvania militia, whose pride had been aroused at seeing the invader's vedettes in sight of their capital. These were posted at Bristol, under Cadwalader, as a check to Count Donop, while what was left of the old army was guarding the crossings above, as a check to Rall.
To do something, and to do it quickly, were equally imperative because the term of the regular troops would expire in a few days more, and no one realized better than the commander-in-chief that the militia could not long be held together inactive in camp.
The isolated situation of Rall and Donop seemed to invite attack. Their fancied security seemed also to presage success. An inexorable necessity called loudly for action before conditions so favorable should be changed by the freezing up of the Delaware when, if the enemy had any enterprise whatever, the river would no longer prevent but assist, his marching into Philadelphia, and perhaps dictating a peace from the halls of Congress.
Donop being considerably nearer Philadelphia than Rall, was, as we have seen, being closely watched by Cadwalader, whose force being largely drawn from the city had the best reasons for wishing to be rid of so troublesome a neighbor.
More especially in view of possible contingencies, which he could not be on the ground to direct, Washington sent his able adjutant-general, Reed, down to aid Cadwalader. This action, too, removed a difficulty which had arisen out of Gates' excusing himself from taking this command on the plea of ill-health.
Below Cadwalader, again, Putnam was in command at Philadelphia, with a fluctuating force of local militia, only sufficiently numerous to furnish guards for the public property, protect the friends, and watch the enemies, of the cause, between whom the city was thought to be about equally divided. Most reluctantly the conclusion had been reached that the appearance of the British in force, on the opposite bank of the Delaware, would be the signal for a revolt. Here, then, was another rock of danger, upon which the losing cause was now steadily drifting,--another warning not to delay action.
It was then that Washington resolved on making one of those sudden movements so disconcerting to a self-confident enemy. It had been some time maturing, but could not be sooner put in execution on account of the wretched condition of Sullivan's (lately Lee's) troops, who had come off their long march, as Washington expresses it, in want of everything.
Putnam was the first to beard the lion by throwing part of his force across the Delaware. Whether this was done to mask any purposed movement from above, or not, it certainly had that result. After crossing into the Jerseys Griffin marched straight to Mt. Holly, where he was halted on the 22d, waiting for the reënforcements he had asked for from Cadwalader. Donop having promptly accepted the challenge marched against Griffin, who, having effected his purpose of drawing Donop's attention to himself, fell back beyond striking distance.
It was Washington's plan to throw Cadwalader's and Ewing's forces in between Donop and Rall, while Griffin or Putnam was threatening Donop from below; and he was striking Rall from above. Had these blows fallen in quick succession there is little room to doubt that a much greater measure of success would have resulted.
Orders for the intended movement were sent out from headquarters on the 23d. They ran to this effect:
Cadwalader at Bristol, Ewing at Trenton Ferry, and Washington himself at McConkey's Ferry, were to cross the Delaware simultaneously on the night of the 25th and attack the enemy's posts in their front. Cadwalader and Ewing having spent the night in vain efforts to cross their commands returned to their encampments. It only remains to follow the movements of the commander-in-chief, who was fortunately ignorant of these failures.
Twenty-four hundred men, with eighteen cannon, were drawn up on the bank of the river at sunset. Tolstoi claims that the real problem of the science of war "is to ascertain and formulate the value of the spirit of the men, and their willingness and eagerness to fight." This little band was all on fire to be led against the enemy. No holiday march lay before them, yet every officer and man instinctively felt that the last hope of the republic lay in the might of his own good right arm.
Did we need any further proof of the desperate nature of these undertakings, it is found in the matchless group of officers that now gathered around the commander-in-chief to stand or fall with him. With such chiefs and such soldiers, the fight was sure to be conducted with skill and energy.
Greene, Sullivan, St. Clair, Sterling, Knox, Mercer, Stephen, Glover, Hand, Stark, Poor, and Patterson were there to lead these slender columns to victory. Among the subordinates who were treading this rugged pathway to renown were Hull, Monroe, Hamilton, and Wilkinson. Rank disappeared in the soldier. Major generals commanded weak brigades, brigadiers, half battalions, colonels, broken companies. Some sudden inspiration must have nerved these men to face the dangers of that terrible night. History fails to show a more sublime devotion to an apparently lost cause.
Boats being held in readiness the troops began their memorable crossing. Its difficulties and dangers may be estimated by the failure of the two coöperating; corps to surmount them. Of this part of the work, Glover took charge. Again his Marblehead men manned the boats, as they had done at Long Island; and though it was necessary to force a passage by main strength through the floating ice, which the strong current and high wind steadily drove against them, the transfer from the friendly to the hostile shore slowly went on in the thickening darkness and gloom of the waiting hours.
Little by little the group on the eastern shore began to grow larger as the hours wore on. Washington was there wrapped in his cloak, and in that inscrutable silence denoting the crisis of a lifetime. Did his thoughts go back to that eventful hour when he was guiding a frail raft through the surging ice of the Monongahela? Knox was there animating the utterly cheerless scene by his loud commands to the men in charge of his precious artillery, for which the shivering troops were impatiently waiting. At three o'clock the last gun was landed. The crossing had required three hours more than had been allowed for it. Nearly another hour was used up in forming the troops for the march of nine miles to Trenton, which could hardly be reached over such a wretched road, and in such weather, in less than from three to four hours more. To make matters worse, rain, hail, and sleet began falling heavily, and freezing as it fell.
To surround and surprise Trenton before daybreak was now out of the question. Nevertheless, Washington decided to push on as rapidly as possible; and the troops having been formed in two columns, were now put in motion toward the enemy.
The march was horrible. A more severe winter's night had never been experienced even by the oldest campaigners. To keep moving was the only defense against freezing. Enveloped in whirling snowflakes, encompassed in blackest darkness, the little column toiled steadily on through sludge ankle-deep, those in the rear judging by the quantity of snow lodged on the hats and coats of those in front, the load that they themselves were carrying. Not a word, a jest, or a snatch of song broke the silence of that fearful march.
At a cross-road four and a half miles from Trenton, the word was passed along the line to halt. Here the columns divided. With one Greene filed off on a road bearing to the left, which, after making a considerable circuit, struck into Trenton more to the east. Washington rode with this division. The other column kept the road on which it had been marching. Sullivan led this division with Stark in the van. At this moment Sullivan was informed that the muskets were too wet to be depended upon. He instantly sent off an aide to Washington for further orders. The aid came galloping back with the order to "go on," delivered in a tone which he said he should never forget. With grim determination, Sullivan again moved forward, and the word ran through the ranks, "We have our bayonets left."
All this time Ewing was supposed to be nearing Trenton from the south. In that case, the town would be assaulted from three points at once, and a retreat to Bordentown be cut off.
 John Cadwalader, of Philadelphia. His services in this campaign were both timely and important.
 Joseph Reed succeeded Gates as adjutant-general after Gates was promoted. Reed's early life had been passed in New Jersey, though he had moved to Philadelphia before the war broke out. His knowledge of the country which became the seat of war was invaluable to Washington.
 This force was under command of Colonel Griffin, Putnam's adjutant-general.
 James Ewing, brigadier-general of Pennsylvania militia, posted opposite to Bordentown. In some accounts, he is called Irvine, Erwing, etc.
 Col. John Glover commanded one of the best-disciplined regiments in Washington's army.