There was perhaps no darker Christmas Eve in American history than in 1776. The cause of American liberty and independence was on the very verge of disintegration. General George Washington’s army (that had once had more than 20,000 soldiers) had melted to only about 3,000 fit for duty. Of those soldiers, many of their enlistments would expire the following week on January 1. The victorious British and Hessian soldiers had thrashed Washington’s army in nearly every engagement they fought. Just a week before Christmas, Washington wrote that he “tremble[d] for Philadelphia” and that he thought “the game was pretty near up.” The British were well known for their harsh treatment of rebels, and it was likely they would show no mercy to these colonial rebels. Gloom and dread filled the minds and hearts of the patriots. Writer Thomas Paine famously wrote that “these are the times that try men’s souls!” General Nathanael Greene was hopeful some event would change their fortunes when he wrote “I hope this is the dark part of the night, which is generally just before the day.”
On December 22, Washington’s aide, Colonel Joseph Reed wrote to Washington that “our affairs are now hasting fast to ruin if we do not retrieve them by some happy event. Delay is now equal to total defeat.” Washington had to act.
On the night before Christmas, Washington met with his generals in the home of Samuel Merrick in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where General Nathanael Greene had made his headquarters. Here, Washington laid out his final dispositions for what would be one of the boldest missions of the entire war. The following night, his army would cross the Delaware River and march on Trenton, New Jersey and attack the 1,500 Hessian soldiers garrisoned there. What exactly was said in this meeting we do not know, but there must have been major objections to such a dangerous and desperate action. The demoralized army would have to cross an ice-choked river, march nine miles in a winter storm and defeat well-drilled and equipped German soldiers. However, as Washington had written the day before: “Necessity, dire necessity, will, nay, must, justify an attempt.” As Washington and his fellow generals left the Samuel Merrick house that Christmas Eve, they were given the password for this daring Christmas mission: “Victory or Death.”
The events that would follow would prove to be the most crucial in the history of the United States. To learn more about these events and what must have been the gloomiest night before Christmas, as well as have a field guide to see where these sites are today, I hope you check out my new book about this campaign: “Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton.”