Christmas Night, 1776: How Did They Cross? The Horses:

Part II.

Part 1 of this article showed that a total of 23 ferry trips were required to move all of Knox’s artillery men, guns, horses, and carts across the Delaware River. In addition, there were other horses needed for the march to Trenton. Many of the likely 35 horses associated with senior officers and aids could fit in with the above 23 trips at a rate of a couple per trip, especially the ferry with only one cart. 

There were six ferries operating to move the Continental Army across the river at McKonkey’s ferry site. Each of the six ferries could likely carry a maximum weight of roughly 8,750 pounds. That weight estimate comes from the intelligence report from Capt. Losbiniere on 22 December 1776 concerning the “7 flat-bottom boats which may carry about 50 men each and two ferry Boats, which may carry the like number” that were with Col. Cadwalader at Bristol ferry.[i]  There is no reason to believe those ferries were different from those at used at McKonkey’s. If it is assumed a man weighed 150 pounds plus 25 pounds of musket and gear, then the weight for 50 men comes to 8,750 pounds. With those capabilities the Philadelphia Light Horse needed 3 ferries for their unit (8 horses and riders per ferry).

Possibly one more ferry trip for any leftover senior officers and aids horses was necessary.  That is 27 trips total needed. With six ferries working that is four trips for all with three additional trips required. Those five round trips by the ferries were estimated by Washington in his plan to require six hours; however, it actually took a nine-hour period (6 pm to 3 am). The additional hours required for the crossing was likely explained by the floating ice and the increased river current driving the ferries out of position.

The question was raised about how difficult it would have been to transport the horses across the river. The somewhat surprising answer may be that it was not as difficult as many assume. No doubt a few horses were a problem; however, the majority of the horses probably presented few problems. How we surmise this is as follows:

Firstly, we can safely speculate that at least some of the horses had participated in earlier ferry crossings during the army’s previous movements and retreats. Those horses would remember that nothing was amiss in the crossing.  Secondly, many of the farm horses transferred to pull guns had previous experience pulling carts and wagons across ferries to take produce to market. Thirdly, each team had a driver who knew the horses and he could strategically place the lead horse with a horse who had experience. As for the cavalry, each horse rider likely slowly leads his horse onto the ferry. Horses who see a previous horse move onto a ferry without incident generally lose their fear.

The following picture of a contemporary ferry crossing (1779) shows a typical crossing.[ii] This period ferry appears to measure about 48 feet long (without the two four-foot ramps) by eight feet wide. If one replaces the carriage in the painting with a field gun and limber then the person holding the reins would be the driver. Note the horses are in a pair; whereas, on a gun team there would be a thill horse in front of the limber and additional horse(s) in front of the thill horse.


Many of the campaigns and battles of the Revolutionary War are better understood if a study of horses was included in the analysis. Often, it was all about horses, or the lack thereof. Both General Burgoyne’s march south in the Saratoga campaign and General de Kalb’s march toward South Carolina show that the lack of horses was very important. As for the crossing of the Delaware, General Washington showed his skill in planning. More important, Washington was lucky. It was not the horses that drove the outcome but rather the bad weather and severe river conditions. These bad conditions set in place the delay that assisted the surprise attack.


[i] William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898), 338

[ii] Camden County Historical Society, Drawing of the ferry done in 1779 in Lower Delaware River. Image retrieved https://www.living-in-the-past.com/ferry.html

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Campaigns, Emerging Revolutionary War, Northern Theater, Revolutionary War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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