“Necessity, dire necessity, will, nay must, justify an attempt.” – Washington Plans an Attack on Trenton

In another installment of #TrentonTuesday we look at Washington’s plan of attack. George Washington, who had been mulling the prospect of an attack for weeks, saw an opportunity in the Hessian outpost at Trenton. Much of his information was coming from his spies and he also realized that the British employed numerous spies in his own camp, so he would need to conceal his plans. Secrecy and stealth would be the most important aspects if he wished to keep the element of surprise on his side. Washington though needed to act. His 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’s initial plan had three crossings of the Delaware River.

Washington, as he would be known to do his entire military career, developed a large, complicated and intricate plan of attack that would require everything to happen correctly at one time. His plan was to take his 2,400 man army across the Delaware River late on Christmas, December 25th at McConkey’s Ferry upstream of Trenton and march the nine miles to Trenton and attack the 1,500 man Hessian force commanded by Colonel Rall before dawn on the 26th. At the same time this happened, General James Ewing would cross directly across from the town of Trenton with his force of 800 men. Meanwhile, eight miles below Trenton, in Bristol, Pennsylvania, General John Cadwalader with 1,200 Philadelphia Associators (Pennsylvania militia) and 600 Continentals would cross at Burlington and move north to prevent reinforcements from other outposts supporting Trenton. After successfully forcing the surrender of Rall’s brigade of 1,500 Hessians, they would cross the Delaware back into Pennsylvania. His plan was bold and daring, but the times necessitated that.

Washington wrote to Colonel Jospeh Reed the details of the attack. “For Heaven’s sake keep this to yourself, as the discovery of it may prove fatal to us, our numbers, sorry am I to say, being less than I had any conception of but necessity, dire necessity, will, nay must, justify an attempt.”

Colonel Joseph Reed

The entire plan was fraught with difficulty that portended desperation. He would have to move thousands of men, dozens of horses, multiple cannon across an ice choked river. Then his bare- footed, rag tag, despondent army would need to march nine miles in the cold to attempt to defeat a powerful, well trained Hessian army that had thrashed them on numerous battlefields just weeks before. Washington’s army was on the verge of disbanding at the end of the month when most the men’s enlistments expired. Any number of issues could literally sink the entire enterprise. The country was teeming with Tories and Loyalists who, seeking to support a winner, sought refuge with the British and Hessian forces. The disaffected people in the states looked to Great Britain for protection. Should one of these loyalists spy Washington’s maneuver and alert Rall’s men, the element of surprise would be lost. The Hessians were feared for their military prowess and Washington’s army had never attempted an offensive movement of this nature yet, much less succeeded at doing it. If Washington’s movement was detected at any point of the evening the well-disciplined Hessians would attack the American column and cut them up. That is, of course, if they were not forced to give up the enterprise because of the mere difficultly of the crossing as ice was beginning to pile up in the river. In addition, three different attack columns would need to act simultaneously in order for everything to come together. If one section was discovered, it could threaten to unravel the entire operation and each portion of his army could be destroyed piecemeal.

Doctor Benjamin Rush

Washington, though, was resolute. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Philadelphia physician, remembered visiting Washington at his headquarters just prior to the mission and saw him writing the password for the sentries in the hours leading up to this risky affair. One fell on the ground. It read “Victory or Death”. Perhaps no phrase better summed up the enterprise. Victory at Trenton could rally the nation, but a defeat here, against the Hessian soldiers, left the Delaware River at their back. Just as Washington’s men were encircled and destroyed at Fort Washington, there could be no crossing back to Pennsylvania under heavy fire, and it was entirely likely the whole force would be killed or captured, including the commander-in-chief. Everything rested on a successful operation. The army, the city of Philadelphia, the war, the Revolution, the future.

Join us this November, as we visit the places where Washington crossed the Delaware River and changed the course of American history.

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