On Christmas, 1776, Patriot General George Washington crossed the Delaware River with 5,400 troops, surprising a Hessian mercenary force fighting for the British while celebrating Christmas at their winter quarters in Trenton, New Jersey. The unconventional attack came after several months of substantial defeats for Washington’s army that had resulted in the loss of New York City and other strategic points in the region.
At about 11 p.m. on Christmas, Washington’s army commenced its crossing of the half-frozen river at three locations. The 2,400 soldiers led by Washington successfully braved the icy and freezing river and reached the New Jersey side of the Delaware just before dawn. Some of the men lacked shoes and marched through the snow, feet bloodied, to fight the Hessians. The other two American divisions, made up of some 3,000 men and crucial artillery, failed to reach the meeting point at the appointed time.
At approximately 8 a.m. on the morning of December 26, Washington’s force, separated into two columns, reached the outskirts of Trenton and descended on the unsuspecting Hessians. Trenton’s 1,400 Hessian defenders were groggy from the previous evening’s festivities and underestimated the Patriot threat after months of decisive British victories throughout New York. Washington’s men quickly overwhelmed the Germans’ defenses, and by 9:30 a.m. the town was surrounded. Although several hundred Hessians escaped, nearly 1,000 were captured at the cost of only four American lives. However, because most of Washington’s army had failed to cross the Delaware, he was without adequate artillery or men and was forced to withdraw from the town.
The victory was not particularly significant from a strategic point of view, but news of Washington’s initiative raised the spirits of the American colonists, who previously feared that the Continental Army was incapable of victory. It also put the British and the Hessian mercenaries on notice that the Americans would stand and fight. Washington and his troops’ brazen move was just the tonic needed to strengthen American resolve to throw off the yoke of the British monarchy.