‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, 1776

This drawing shows Washington holding a council of war in 1778.  The scene would have been similar in the Merrick house on Christmas Eve, 1776.  Washington always liked to consult his generals before making big decisions.  However, on Christmas Eve of 1776, there were almost no options left. (NYPL)

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.”

General Nathanael Greene by Charles Willson Peale.  The final council of war before the Battle of Trenton was held at his headquarters and Washington would personally lead Greene’s division at Trenton. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Merrick House sign
A plaque on the site of the Samuel Merrick house placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution denotes the structure’s historical significance. (Author Photo)

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.”

Merrick House
The Samuel Merrick house as it looks in 2017.  The stone part is the original building.  Today it is a private residence. (Author Photo)

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.”

One thought on “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, 1776

  1. Leah

    As a former US History teacher, I enjoyed this article. But it is especially personal to me since Samuel Merrick and Rachel Heston Merrick were my 6x great-grandparents! Thank you for posting.


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