One of the iconic images of the Revolutionary War is Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. It is the night of December 25, 1776. The Continental Army is being transported across the Delaware River to attack a Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, some nine miles to the south. In the foreground, anonymous men (and possibly one woman) of varying nationalities and races row an overloaded boat across the river, pushing great slabs of ice out of the way. Two of the boat’s occupants are not anonymous: General George Washington, standing resolutely near the bow, and young Lieutenant James Monroe, holding the stars and stripes.
Leutze’s painting is glorious–and wrong in almost every detail. The river resembles the Rhine more than the Delaware; the boat is too small and of inaccurate design; there is too much light for what was a night crossing; Washington did not cross standing up; the stars and stripes had not yet been adopted by the Continental Congress; and James Monroe was not holding the flag, not in the boat, and not even present with the army.
He was already across the river, and he was busy.
Washington’s plan for a surprise attack on Trenton was a risky attempt to reverse the sagging fortunes of the Patriot cause. During the summer of 1776 British forces, including Hessian mercenaries, had driven the Continental Army from New York across New Jersey and into Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. Expired enlistments and outright desertion had thinned the American ranks, and many of those who remained were despondent. Washington gambled that a successful attack against an isolated British outpost would boost the army’s morale and stiffen the resolve of Congress and the people.
Three Hessian regiments, comprising about 1,400 men, were stationed at Trenton under the command of Colonel Johann Rall (also spelled Rahl). Washington planned to bring 2,400 Continental soldiers across the river overnight at McKonkey’s Ferry, march to Trenton, and attack before dawn. Two other elements of the army were part of the plan. A 1,900-man force under Colonel John Cadwalader would make a diversionary attack against British troops at Bordentown, New Jersey. General James Ewing would lead 700 men across the Delaware at Trenton Ferry, control the bridge over Assunpink Creek, and intercept any Hessian troops retreating from Trenton. Bad weather prevented both of these deployments, meaning that everything would depend on the main body’s effort. The army’s password for the evening was “Victory or Death.”
Washington’s plan included sending a small detachment of troops over the Delaware first to secure the army’s route of march. James Monroe was with this contingent. In his autobiography (written in the third person late in life and not completed before his death), Monroe described the mission:
The command of the vanguard, consisting of 50 men, was given to Captain William Washington, of the Third Virginia Regiment . . . Lieutenant Monroe promptly offered his services to act as a subaltern under him, which was promptly accepted. On the 25th of December, 1776, they passed the Delaware in front of the army, in the dusk of the evening, at [McKonkey’s] ferry, 10 miles above Trenton, and hastened to a point, about one and one-half miles from it, at which the road by which they descended intersected that which led from Trenton to Princeton, for the purpose, in obedience of orders, of cutting off all communication between them and from the country to Trenton.
Monroe noted that the night was “tempestuous,” and that snow was falling. While manning their post, the detachment was accosted by a local resident who thought the Continentals were British troops. Describing the incident many years later at a White House dinner during his presidency, Monroe recalled that the man, whose name was John Riker, was “determined in his manner and very profane.” Upon learning that the soldiers were Americans, he brought food from his house and said to Monroe, “I know something is to be done, and I am going with you. I am a doctor, and I may help some poor fellow.” Dr. Riker proved remarkably prescient.
The main army’s river crossing and march to Trenton took longer than planned, meaning that the attack would occur well after sunup. Outside the town Washington divided his force, sending a division commanded by Major General Nathaniel Greene to attack from the north while the other, led by Major General John Sullivan, attacked from the south. At 8:00 AM the assault began, and here we return to Monroe’s account from his autobiography:
Captain Washington then moved forward with the vanguard in front, attacked the enemy’s picket, shot down the commanding officer, and drove it before him. A general alarm then took place among the troops in town. The drums were beat to arms, and two cannon were placed in the main street to bear on the head of our column as it entered. Captain Washington rushed forward, attacked, and put the troops around the cannon to flight, and took possession of them. Moving on afterwards, he received a severe wound and was taken from the field. The command then devolved upon Lieutenant Monroe, who attacked in like manner at the head of the corps, and was shot down by a musket ball which passed through his breast and shoulder. He was also carried from the field.
Monroe was brought to the same room where William Washington lay, and their wounds were dressed by the army’s surgeon general and Dr. John Riker. Riker’s prediction of helping “some poor fellow” came true as he repaired a damaged artery in Monroe’s shoulder. What neither man realized at the time was that the intrepid physician had saved the life of a future president.
George Washington’s gamble in initiating the Battle of Trenton paid off. The victory was complete, and came at a surprisingly small cost in terms of American casualties. Two enlisted men froze to death during the nighttime march, and two were wounded in combat. The only losses among officers were the nonfatal wounds sustained by William Washington and James Monroe. Washington followed up his success at Trenton with another at Princeton on January 3, 1777, where the Continental Army proved that it could prevail over regular British troops.
The best commentary upon James Monroe’s performance at Trenton, and his Revolutionary War service generally, comes from no less an authority than George Washington. Writing to an acquaintance in 1779, Washington noted Monroe’s “zeal he discovered by entering the service at an early period, the character he supported in his regiment, and the manner in which he distinguished himself at Trenton, where he received a wound.” The general concluded that James Monroe had “in every instance maintained the reputation of a brave, active, and sensible officer.”
Scott H. Harris is the Executive Directors of the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Harris became director of the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in July 2011, following ten years as director of the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park (administered by Virginia Military Institute). From 1988 to 2001, Scott was the first curator of the Manassas Museum and later director of historic resources for the City of Manassas, Virginia. Prior to his work in Manassas, he was a consulting historian with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in Richmond and an historical interpreter with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He has been a board member of the New Market Area Chamber of Commerce, Prince William County/Manassas Convention and Visitors Bureau, Shenandoah Valley Travel Association, and Virginia Civil War Trails, Inc. He is a past president of the Virginia Association of Museums and serves as a peer reviewer for the Museum Assessment and Accreditation programs of the American Association of Museums.
Scott received his BA with honors in History and Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington in 1983. In 1988, he received an MA in History and Museum Administration from the College of William and Mary. Scott is also a graduate of the Seminar for Historical Administration, the nation’s oldest advanced museum professional development program.
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