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

The Other Great Artilleryman

Mention the words “artillery” and “American Revolution” and what name instantly pops into your mind? Henry Knox.

Rightfully so.

Yet, like George Washington, Knox needed competent officers under him to successfully organize, train, lead, and develop the artillery arm of the Continental Army.

Enter John Lamb.

John Lamb
John Lamb

Born on the first day of 1735 in New York City, he was destined to rebel. The reason he was even born in New York City was due to the fact that his father, a convicted burglar had been sentenced for deportation to the colonies in the 1720s.

His early upbringing saw him become a prosperous wine merchant and he quickly ingratiated himself into the burgeoning patriot movement by becoming an integral part of the Sons of Liberty in New York City.  Continue reading “The Other Great Artilleryman”

George Washington’s Greatest Speech?

On the morning of March 15, 1783, George Washington strode into the “New Building” or “Temple” as the structure was referred as, to address the assembled officers of the Continental Army. He asked General Horatio Gates if he could have the floor to say a few words and when he unfolded his pieces of paper on the podium, the words lost their importance.

Why? Continue reading “George Washington’s Greatest Speech?”

AfterWARd, the new exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. A visit with Curator Kate Gruber

The stacks of books reflect Knox’s role as a bookseller before the war.

If you have not made a trip to the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (the former Yorktown Victory Center) then you are missing out. Not only does the museum great exhibits on the causes of the war and the events leading up to Yorktown (with great technology), there is a changing exhibit gallery that allows for short term exhibits. The first exhibit opened in June and features the lives of four prominent Revolutionaries after the American Revolution. Continue reading “AfterWARd, the new exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. A visit with Curator Kate Gruber”

A Quick Trip to Fort Ticonderoga

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome guest historian David A. Powell to the blog. A biography of David is at the bottom of this post. 

The Hudson Valley in upstate New York is one of my favorite historical places – which might come as a surprise to some, given that my usual historical beat is the 1861-1865 time-frame. There are a handful of Civil War related sites along the Hudson, but not many.

But for two centuries before our war between the states, the region was the pathway for commerce, settlement, and conflict. The banks of the Hudson, Lakes George and Champlain, and the St. Lawrence are all dotted with crucial reminders of a violent historical past.

Ruins Crown Point
Ruins of Crown Point

I’ve been to most of these sites; West Point, Bennington and Saratoga battlefields, the site of Fort William Henry, Crown Point, and plenty of other locations. One of them, however, fixes my attention beyond all others:

Fort Interior
Interior of Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga.

The fort occupies a strategic place on Lake Champlain, were a land portage connects Champlain to Lake George, and ultimately, the Hudson River.

<Lake Champlain from Fort, looking south>

Originally called Carrillon by the French, who built it in 1755; the fort changed hands several times during the ensuing 25 years. It was unsuccessfully attacked by the British in 1758, and finally captured the next year, part of the British “Annus Mirabilis,” that string of decisive triumphs over the French that reached their crescendo with Wolfe’s victory at Quebec. Two decades later, it figured in the American Revolution; it was wrested from British control by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold in 1775. Its heavy artillery was sledged across many miles of Wilderness snow and ice to reinforce the Rebel army besieging Boston by Henry Knox, which forced the British to abandon that city. In 1776 Ticonderoga was a bulwark of the Patriot defenses on Lake Champlain. In 1777, it was easily re-captured by the British under Burgoyne, but returned to American control after Burgoyne’s disasters of Bennington and Saratoga.

Ticonderoga is fully restored now, owned and maintained by a private foundation that has done an outstanding job of presenting and preserving the Fort’s history. The town and the fort grounds are also dotted with interesting monuments, many erected by British regiments, mainly placed to honor their troops who fought in the Fort’s bloodiest single battle, that of 1758.

British General James Abercrombie led 17,000 troops – colonials and British regulars – against a much smaller garrison of between 4,000 and 5,000 French, Canadian Militia, and Indian Allies. The French, under the Marquis de Montcalm, defended an entrenched line outside of the fort walls, which Abercrombie obligingly assaulted. The British lost 2,000 men, and Abercrombie retreated.

My favorite monument at Ticonderoga is actually paired with another monument erected by the American Colonists in Westminster Abbey (left to right in picture below). They both commemorate the death of Lord George Howe, a Brigadier General in Abercrombie’s army (and elder brother to the Howes of Revolutionary War fame) who embraced irregular warfare.



Go spend an afternoon at Ticonderoga. You won’t be disappointed.



*David A. Powell is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (1983) with a B.A. in history. He has published numerous articles in various magazines, and more than fifteen historical simulations of different battles.

For the past decade, David’s focus has been on the epic battle of Chickamauga, and he is nationally recognized for his tours of that important battlefield. The result of that study was his first published book, The Maps of Chickamauga (Savas Beatie, 2009).

His latest book is Failure In The Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry In the Chickamauga Campaign (Savas Beatie, 2011). He is currently working on a full length monograph of the battle of Chickamauga. The first volume of that work, entitled The Chickamauga Campaign: A Mad Irregular Battle, is scheduled for a 2014 release.

David and his wife Anne live and work in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. He is Vice President of Airsped, Inc., a specialized delivery firm.

Dorchester Heights

On a recent trip to Boston, I was shown by fellow Emerging Revolutionary War historian Rob Orrison, Dorchester Heights. One of my favorite quotes of the entire American Revolutionary War was in reference to the Continental Army’s move to fortify the very heights at Dorchester.


“My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.” Uttered by General William Howe the morning after the Americans had used the night to build an entire fortification network on the commanding hillsides of Dorchester.

This move, conducted in the secrecy of the night, led to the British evacuation of Boston, after an aborted offensive by the British do a providential snowstorm. Less than two weeks after that influential night, on March 17, 1776, the British evacuated Boston, never to return.

I did not get to spend too much time on the heights but I was able to snap a few pictures, shown below. But, I did have the great fortune to be on the heights at night, looking out over Boston, which has grown just slightly since 1776. A few moments of silence ensued, where I had the chance to mull over what that view must have looked like and what the soldiers who hurriedly dragged the fascines and gabions, and shoveled dirt that night must have worried about as they feverishly tried to finish their duties.

Stone monument marking the spot where the cannon that Henry Knox brought from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston stood. You can see the lights of Boston in the background with the reflection of the lights on the water past the first row of houses in the foreground.

The cannon that bore down on Boston from the heights of Dorchester Heights were a product of one of the greatest feats of the entire war. Former Boston bookseller turned artillerist extraordinaire had brought the heavy armament on an arduous trek, through the late stages of winter from upstate New York to the Continental Army besieging Boston.

Henry Knox was the man behind the delivery and he would serve as George Washington’s Chief of Artillery before the war was over. Afterwards, Knox would become the first Secretary of War in Washington’s Administration.  At Dorchester Heights, with Washington’s planning and Knox’s delivery the city of Boston was liberated without firing a shot.

A view of the monument


The heights retained its military importance through the end of the War of 1812. By the end of the 19th century, in 1898, the General Courts of Massachusetts had commissioned a monument to stand on what remained of the heights. The white marble Georgian revival tower that stands 115 feet, commemorates that night in 1776 that American soldiers did what British soldiers would take months to complete. By 1978, after a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the monument and remaining hill site was handed to the National Park Service by the city of Boston. Dorchester Heights became part of Boston National Historical Park which was established in 1974.

When planning a visit to Boston National Historical Park and to Dorchester Heights, which is open to visitation, both during the day and at night please consult the website for the national park here. That way you can familiarize yourself with the regulations and how to make the most of your visit.