After reading this title you may assume this is a quote about the year 2020, but this is actually a quote from financier of the Revolution Robert Morris in a letter to George Washington describing the year 1776. While the year 1776 started with much promise and hope with the capture of Boston and the passage of the Declaration of Independence, the second half of the year saw the Patriot cause nearly destroyed.
After losing New York City and a long string of battles, Washington’s Continental Army had shrunk from more than 23,000 men to just around 5,000 by December. Washington breathed life into the dying cause at Trenton on the day after Christmas, defeating a Hessian garrison. This glimmer of hope was almost crushed by the fact that most of his army’s enlistments expired on January 1st, and his army was on the verge of dissolution. As General Cornwallis and a large British army marched towards Washington and his army at Trenton, Washington needed to convince his veterans to hold on. It led to one of the most dramatic moments of the Revolution, which occurred on New Year’s Eve, 1776.
While many of Washington’s brave men believed they had done their duty, at this moment, they were needed more than ever before. All day on December 31, 1776, Washington’s generals appealed to the soldiers through impassioned speeches to reenlist. Washington authorized an exorbitant $10 bounty to those men who agreed to remain. Despite all these exhortations, very few men were agreeing to stay on. Finally, in one of the most affecting scenes of his life, Washington himself personally appealed to the patriotism of the men who had campaigned by his side.
Washington paraded Gen. John Sullivan’s and Gen. Nathanael Greene’s divisions just outside Trenton. He entreated the men to stay on just a few weeks more. He asked those who wished to reenlist to move forward, but at that point no one moved. Sergeant Nathaniel Root of the 20th Continental Regiment (Connecticut) remembered that the men were “worn down with fatigue and privation” and had their “hearts fixed on home.” Washington, pleading with his brave soldiers wheeled his horse in front of the men and declared to them:
“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances. The present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny.”
Moved by their commander’s words, more than two hundred of these men stepped forward to stay on and fight. The combination of patriotic pleas and hard currency helped persuade many more to stay. Washington retained a force of about 3,000 men from his army. These veterans would prove invaluable in the coming days, and some of them would tragically pay the ultimate price in the coming days.
America has persevered through many terrible years, and we shall again. The men who persevered in the winter of 1776-1777 give us hope. Happy New Year, from all of us at Emerging Revolutionary War!
To learn more about the campaign that saved the Revolution, check out my book: Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton or consider joining us on a tour of the actual sites in November.