Well, actually it’s more like 4,500 words—but if you’re interested, you’ll find them here in the Journal of the American Revolution.
My thanks to JAR for being kind enough to (ahem) hold my Hand.
Please Note: The images of a brutish and needless conflict instigated without provocation and orchestrated by a murderous and delusional bully, which have splashed across our screens the last few days, made me somewhat hesitant to publish a blog post about any type of military engagement at this point, even though I realize one has nothing to do with the other—except perhaps to remind us yet again that, as General William T. Sherman once observed, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” And more so today than ever before.
But notwithstanding all that, here goes . . .
The Battle of Assunpink Creek, also known as the Second Battle of Trenton, on January 2, 1777 (imaginatively depicted in the nineteenth-century print above) was the second of three military engagements during the Continental Army’s triumphant winter campaign from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777—what historians commonly refer to as the “Ten Crucial Days.” (For the Patriot cause, these might also be termed the “Tense Crucial Days.”) The desire to correct its neglect in our collective historical memory was the genesis of my second book, The Road to Assunpink Creek: Liberty’s Desperate Hour and the Ten Crucial Days of the American Revolution. I contended there and have since that this affair—largely ignored by historians until David Hackett Fischer’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Washington’s Crossing (Oxford, 2004)—was arguably the most pivotal military engagement of the war for independence.
Traditional accounts of this period in the Revolutionary War have treated the clash at Assunpink Creek as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of military encounters, emphasizing instead the first battle at Trenton on December 26, 1776, in which Washington’s army overcame the Hessian brigade occupying the town after the legendary Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River, and the battle at Princeton on January 3, 1777 that provided the Continentals with the capstone victory of their winter offensive (very offensive if you were British).
But consider this . . .
— Had Washington been defeated at Assunpink Creek, his victory at Trenton on December 26 would have been a historical footnote that did nothing to alter the strategic dynamic of the contest and there would have been no victory at Princeton on January 3 because in all likelihood there would have been no American Army to march there.
— The second battle involved the largest number of soldiers of the three engagements fought during the 1776-1777 winter campaign, particularly if one includes both the fighting between the Anglo-German army as it approached Trenton and the skirmishers under Colonel Edward Hand resisting its advance and the follow-up confrontation when the Crown’s forces attempted to cross the Trenton bridge spanning the creek.
— If we compare the three battles, this was the only one in which the enemy had a numerical advantage. It was also the only one in which Washington’s army fought both British and Hessian troops, and in which the enemy forces were led by a British general (Charles Lord Cornwallis, probably the most competent and energetic field commander in the King’s army). Moreover, it was the only one in which the geographic position of the American troops was such that they were in danger of being trapped between two waterways—the creek in their front and the Delaware River at their back—with no means of escape if they were outflanked and pushed up against the river.
— This was the longest battle of the “Ten Crucial Days” if one counts as a single encounter the resistance offered by Colonel Hand’s contingent during their fighting withdrawal from Maidenhead (Lawrence Township today) to Trenton and the clash at the creek immediately following the delaying action.
— January 2, 1777 was the first time the Continental Army repulsed an attack by British troops during a truly significant battle. Had the rebel army failed to stop their adversary’s advance at Assunpink Creek, the result would probably have been the destruction of that army and possibly the cause of American independence. And in that scenario, Washington would most likely have met his end on the battlefield or suspended from a British rope.
— The recollections of those present attest to the gravity of this moment: Major James Wilkinson—“If there ever was a crisis in the affairs of the Revolution, this was the moment”; Ensign Robert Beale of Virginia—“This was the most awful crisis”; Captain Stephen Olney of Rhode Island—“It appeared to me then that our army was in the most desperate situation I had ever known it”; and Private John Howland of Rhode Island—“Had the army of Cornwallis…crossed the bridge, or forded the creek, unless a miracle intervened, there would have been an end of the American army.”
— In Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Viking, 2016), Nathaniel Philbrick opines that if Cornwallis’s effort to cross the Trenton bridge and overrun the rebel army had succeeded, “the war was as good as finished” for the capital city of Philadelphia “would surely [have fallen] that winter, and the Continental Congress in Baltimore might very well [have decided] that a negotiated settlement was in the country’s best interests.” Washington’s decision to fight here, he writes, created “the make-or-break moment” of the Revolutionary struggle.
I’ll rest my case with the following excerpt from The Road to Assunpink Creek (the author says it better than I can):
Historians of the Revolution never mention Assunpink Creek in the same breath as Saratoga or Yorktown—the most recognized and significant battles in that struggle, with the former in 1777 leading to France’s crucial intervention in the contest and the latter in 1781 breaking the back of England’s will to fight against the colonials—but those later engagements might very well have never occurred if January 2, 1777 had turned out differently for Washington’s army. The events of that day, including the delaying action by Colonel Hand’s men and the fighting at the creek, plausibly created a deciding moment of as great consequence for the cause of American independence as the far better-known confrontations that occurred later in the war. Perhaps no military action in our country’s history is more paradoxical than the one on the road to Assunpink Creek, and at the bridge that crossed it, in the sense that its obscurity in the public mind and neglect by many historians is so disproportionate to its impact on the course of a conflict with global implications.
In other words, if things had gone differently that day, the quest for American independence may very well have been (ahem) up the creek.
Attention all Rev War buffs and history enthusiasts!
Check out this link to the Princeton Battlefield Society’s website, where you’ll find information about an exciting event on January 2, 2022 that will celebrate the 245th anniversary of the third and final engagement fought during the Revolution’s “Ten Crucial Days.”
All the best!
P.S. The image above depicts General Washington leading the climactic charge at Princeton on January 3, 1777.
Rev War buffs are about to commemorate the 245th anniversary of the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign—from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777, perhaps the ten most remarkable days in American history—that reversed the momentum of the war for independence just when the Revolutionary enterprise seemed on the verge of final defeat, The battles at Trenton and Princeton—the first significant victories for Washington’s army—altered not only the course of the conflict but the public image of the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief as well.
In this season of remembrance, I thought it timely to recall some observations about these events here:
SIR GEORGE OTTO TREVELYAN, British Historian—It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world. (Source: The American Revolution in six volumes, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, 1899-1907)
FREDERICK II, King of Prussia, 1740-1786 (Frederick the Great)—The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots between the 25th of December and the 4th of January, a space of ten days, were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements. (Source: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William S. Stryker, 1898)
THOMAS PAINE, Author and pamphleteer—The conquest of the Hessians at Trenton by the remains of a retreating army…is an instance of heroic perseverance very seldom to be met with. And the victory over the British troops at Princeton, by a harrassed and wearied party, who had been engaged the day before and marched all night without refreshment, is attended with such a scene of circumstances and superiority of Generalship, as will ever give it a place on the first line in the history of great actions. (Source: The American Crisis, Number V, Thomas Paine, March 21, 1778, in Thomas Paine, Collected Writings, 1955)
JAMES WILKINSON, Major, Continental Army—The joy diffused throughout the union by the successful attack against Trenton, reanimated the timid friends of the revolution, and invigorated the confidence of the resolute. Perils and sufferings still in prospect, were considered the price of independence, and every faithful citizen was willing to make the sacrifice. Success had triumphed over despondency, and the heedless, headlong enthusiasm, which led the colonists to arms, had settled down into a sober sense of their condition, and a deliberate resolution to maintain the contest at every hazard, and under every privation. (Source: Memoirs of My Own Times, James Wilkinson, 1816)
MERCY OTIS WARREN, American poet, dramatist, and historian—Perhaps there are no people on earth, in whom a spirit of enthusiastic zeal is so readily enkindled, and burns so remarkably conspicuous, as among the Americans….The energetic operation of this sanguine temper, was never more remarkably exhibited, than in the change instantaneously wrought in the minds of men, by the capture of Trenton at so unexpected a moment. (Source: History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren, 1805)
ALEXANDER HAMILTON, Captain, Continental Army—After escaping the grasp of a disciplined and victorious enemy, this little band of patriots were seen skillfully avoiding an engagement until they could contend with advantage and then by the masterly enterprises of Trenton and Princeton, cutting them up in detachments, rallying the scattered energies of the country, infusing terror into the breasts of their invaders and changing the whole tide and fortunes of the war. (Source: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William S. Stryker, 1898)
LORD GEORGE GERMAIN, British Secretary of State for North America—All our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton. (Source: Remarks by George Germain, May 3, 1779, in The Parliamentary Register: Or History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons during the Fifth Session of the Fourteenth Parliament of Great Britain, Volume XI, John Stockdale, 1802)
HENRY KNOX, Brigadier General, Continental Army—I look up to heaven and most devoutly thank the great Governor of the Universe for producing this turn in our affairs. (Source: Letter to Lucy Flucker Knox, January 7, 1777, in The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William S. Stryker, 1898)
SAMUEL DeFOREST, Connecticut militiaman—The events of two weeks appears to have rolled on a pivot which has sealed and gave a stamp to the destiny of America. (Source: Samuel DeForest, Military Pension Application Narrative, in The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence, John C. Dann, ed., 1980)
NICHOLAS CRESSWELL, English diarist who travelled throughout the American colonies from 1774 to 1777—The minds of the people are much altered. A few days ago they had given up the cause for lost. Their late successes have turned the scale and now they are all liberty mad again. (Source: Nicholas Cresswell: Journal, January 5-17, 1777, in The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence, 1775-1783, John Rhodehamel, ed., 2001)
WILLIAM HARCOURT, Colonel, British Army—Though it was once the fashion of this army to treat [the American soldiers] in the most contemptible light, they are now become a formidable enemy. (Source: Letter to his father, Earl Harcourt, March 17, 1777, in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., 1967)
CHARLES EARL CORNWALLIS, Lieutenant General, British Army (reportedly responding to a toast at a dinner for British, French, and American officers hosted by George Washington after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781)—And when the illustrious part that your excellency has borne in this long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake. (Source: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William S. Stryker, 1898)
The final quote below is not generally cited in this context but is far better known than the others and VERY MUCH on point.
LAWRENCE PETER “YOGI” BERRA, Professional baseball player, coach, manager, and philosopher—It ain’t over till it’s over. (Source: Attributed to Berra as manager of the New York Mets during the 1973 season and quoted in The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said, Yogi Berra, 1998)
There, now I’ve covered all the bases (so to speak).
Please be advised that I anticipate diminished blog production for a period of time (a slowdown, not a complete stop), owing to my immersion in another literary project—a book about the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776 as part of Westholme Publishing’s Small Battles series.
I hope to return to a more regular blogging schedule in the not-too-distant future and extend my sincere thanks to those who have subscribed. To other readers, I hope you’ll consider signing up – it’s free and easy to do in the footer on any page.
Thank you for your indulgence.
Don’t go away. I’ll be back.
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of the Journal of the American Revolution (JAR).
I’m incorporating by reference here an article of mine that just appeared in the JAR (hope the lid is on tight) entitled “When War Came to the Thompson-Neely Farmstead.” It’s about the Continental army’s encampment on the grounds of the Thompson-Neely house (TN), which is the historical focal point of the upper park section at Washington Crossing Historic Park.
Hopefully this article will enhance the salience of the park and other sites relating to the 1776-1777 “Ten Crucial Days” winter campaign among the Rev War aficionados who subscribe to JAR. TN deserves that recognition—which I suppose you might call an article of faith.
You can’t go home again, at least according to the title of Thomas Wolfe’s literary classic. Maybe not, but then the acclaimed novelist never met Thomas Maddock II, who has come about as close to doing that as you possibly can.
Tom was born in Trenton, NJ, in 1936 and spent the next fifteen years living in what is commonly referred to as the McConkey’s Ferry section of Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP)—the site of the Continental army’s legendary 1776 Christmas night crossing—before his family moved to Ewing Township in 1951. A Ewing High graduate, Tom earned a B.A. in history from Haverford College in 1958 and spent six months on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He then entered into the fine paper business and over time was employed in sales, marketing, business development, recruitment, and management. Tom’s career took him to North Jersey where he raised a family, but in 2002 he returned to Bucks County, married his second wife Bunkie—now a fellow interpreter at WCHP—and would subsequently begin giving guided tours on the grounds of his boyhood home.
When the Friends of Washington Crossing Park (FWCP) organized in 2010, Tom became a FWCP historical interpreter, and he has been devoting himself to that endeavor ever since. As he puts it, “I have been able to complete the circle.” Tom’s many contributions to the FWCP and WCHP have included, but are not limited to: giving tours at the park’s different sites, reading the Declaration of Independence at public gatherings on July 4, giving talks about Washington’s military leadership to various groups, providing media commentary for the annual re-enactment of the 1776 Christmas night crossing, leading youthful visitors in musket and cannon drills, serving customers in the visitor center’s gift shop, and soliciting sponsor ads for the park’s annual program booklet. Along the way, he has mentored a slew of other historical interpreters at the park (yours truly among them).
Tom has agreed to share some thoughts on his experience and issues relating to the work of the Friends organization and the historical-education programming at the park:
What was it like living in WCHP as a boy? What is most memorable about that experience? What did this site look like? Did you appreciate its historical significance back then?
The park in which I grew up was very different than today. There was no visitor center, and no other public buildings or walking trails. Life was very simple in those days. My siblings and I had to create our own games and entertainment. We played “Cowboys and Indians,” rode our bikes, and frolicked in the backyard until it was time to come inside, where we would listen to the radio before dinner. We had no TV. Bedtime was at 7:30 every night.
Family outings were few and far between. Each Sunday after church, we would take a family walk, which turned out to be wonderful. It was something to look forward to every week. We did not do much with sports because there were so few kids. I never played a team sport until I was a high school sophomore. Our early schooling was in a two-room, eight-grade schoolhouse with just two teachers. I spent my sixth and seventh-grade school years in a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher and outdoor toilets. Given this background, my parents were very proud that four of us graduated from college.
As an adult, visiting the park has always brought back very special memories. We grew up knowing about the history of the Crossing, but our parents did not spend any time discussing its historical significance with us. My memories of growing up here are very positive. Given the circumstances, I had a very happy childhood and developed a special bond with my siblings, which I treasure to this day.
How did you get involved with the Friends of Washington Crossing Park? What was it that led you to return to your roots, so to speak?
Around 2008, the State of Pennsylvania basically shut down the park because of a funding crunch, and the annual re-enactment of the Crossing was in jeopardy for the following year. The Friends group sent out a call for volunteers to help save the Crossing. My wife Bunkie and I were part of the crew that worked to make it happen; and, based on that success, the Friends decided to organize a group to keep the park open. After seeing a blurb in the newspaper, Bunkie and I attended a meeting and signed up to be tour guides at WCHP. After a year, we were hired as part of the FWCP staff and have been there ever since. As a history major who worked in sales in the corporate world, becoming a tour guide was an easy transition for me to make. I can think of nothing I would rather be doing than giving tours at the park.
I know you’re very interested in the concept of leadership and have given talks on Washington’s leadership style and particularly his decision-making in the context of the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign of 1776-1777? To what extent does your interest in this stem from your military and/or business experience and how so? Do you think Washington’s leadership offers us any lessons for today?
From my time in the military and my earliest days in the corporate world, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of leadership and curious about what it takes to be a successful leader. I wanted very much to be a platoon leader while in the Marines and was pleased to achieve that honor. Since then, I’ve been interested in learning how others became great leaders, and this led me to focus on George Washington.
Considering where GW came from and how he ended up, his is a truly remarkable story. That he and the ragtag group of citizen-soldiers he inherited hung together, grew by experience, and developed into an effective fighting force is nothing short of miraculous. What the hard corps of Washington’s men endured during their years of struggle is in large measure a tribute to the faith they placed in their leader. These soldiers were ill-clad, ill-fed, racked by disease, often unpaid, and faced with some of the most horrendous weather conditions imaginable.
I have come to admire Washington’s courage, commitment, and perseverance. Plus he was the ultimate team player; his collaborative style of decision-making allowed him to get a variety of input, which led to better decisions. I think his troops realized Washington would never give up. He believed deeply in the cause and simply refused to quit, no matter how difficult the circumstances his army faced. That passion trickled down to his men, and they believed in him.
As you can tell, I’m a huge GW fan. He was dedicated to doing what was best for the national interest, both in war and peace—something I don’t always see in our leadership today.
Other than a return to some semblance of normality in our current circumstances, is there anything in particular that you would like to see happen at WCHP as we go forward, either generally or specifically in connection with the upcoming observance of the 250th anniversary of American independence?
I feel strongly about using all of 2026 to focus on the 250th anniversary. Each month, WCHP should host a special event, like movies, speeches, book signings, and band concerts, among others, utilizing the auditorium in the visitor center. I would also like to see us make our July 4 celebration especially noteworthy that year—perhaps renting out the War Memorial Building in Trenton for a very special event that would include speeches by prominent guests. Let’s invite the President and the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania! I would love to see us plan this or another event jointly with the Old Barracks Museum and the Princeton Battlefield Society. We should prepare special children’s activities in observance of the 4th to go along with our usual park events, and finally I would suggest we update and expand our usual Crossing ceremony that December.
What has been your most memorable experience at WCHP?
During the Crossing ceremonies in 2010, I was given the FWCP Volunteer of the Year Award, which came as a complete surprise to me. Needless to say, I was very touched and most appreciative. What made it extra special was the fact that we were standing very close to the spot where I had lived for my first fifteen years. Truly a very memorable moment!
What gives you the most satisfaction of all the activities in which you’ve been involved at WCHP and why?
What I enjoy most is interacting with interested people who come to the park to learn more about the “Ten Crucial Days” of the Revolution. Many of our visitors do not have a good understanding of our early history, and I enjoy helping them learn more about this momentous period.
Thank you, Tom.
Although he turns 85 years young this year, Tom hasn’t gotten the memo about slowing down. During what has been an unsettling period for us all, it’s comforting to savor the timeless quality of certain things that so richly deserve our recognition and esteem. Washington Crossing Historic Park is one of those. Tom Maddock’s connection to it is another.
Our current health-related circumstances have obviously impacted the mission of historic sites such as Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) in Pennsylvania, one of the most revered venues in North America. I am grateful to Jennifer Martin, Executive Director of The Friends of Washington Crossing Park (FWCP), for her willingness to explore the subject in this blog post.
In conjunction with its board of trustees, Jennifer oversees the efforts of FWCP to educate the public about the significance of WCHP—the site of George Washington’s fabled 1776 Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River—and to preserve its legacy for future generations. Since 2010, the Friends have worked in collaboration with the State of Pennsylvania to share the inspiring story of that extraordinary event—and since 2015 with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as their partner in this endeavor.
Here are Jennifer’s thoughts on a variety of issues relating to the work of the Friends organization and the historical-education programming at the park:
What has been your biggest challenge in managing FWCP operations during this unsettling time?
The biggest challenge has been finding ways to reach and engage our visitors safely during a time when in-person programming is not possible and funding is limited. The park has always been a community center and an important destination for students looking to learn more about the Revolution and the role that the Christmas night crossing played in the quest for America’s independence.
This year, our staff was challenged by the need to alter programming, and I was very impressed with the innovations that we accomplished. Our monthly book club and lecture series became virtual, and audience attendance grew by five-hundred percent. Our “Colonial Days” field trips and summer camp became virtual, and that allowed us to develop programs for students all over the country that will carry on even after current restrictions are lifted. Our video presentation of the 2020 crossing reenactment has been viewed over twenty-three-thousand times on the park’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, as compared with the six thousand visitors that we typically get for the event—so the virtual crossing has allowed us to share this experience with a much larger audience.
Fundraising was a challenge with the cancellation of such activities as our Spring and Fall Brewfest events and the Summer Winefest. However, our staff had time to investigate and apply for new grants and develop a successful annual giving campaign, which has created new funding sources to help us build capacity as we approach the 250th anniversary of the legendary crossing in 2026.
What are you hoping – and do you think is realistic – for FWCP to accomplish in this new year?
Though virtual programming, I hope we are able to provide resources to all the schools that typically visit the park. I am also hoping that during this time, we are able to reach new audiences throughout the country by providing educational content that will encourage future site visitation and public engagement with the park.
What do you think is most important for the public to know about FWCP and how it is responding to current circumstances?
Our goal has always been to safely provide high-quality programming for the community we serve. We are practicing all safety measures recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and will only resume public programs when it is safe to do so. Until then, we will continue to provide educational opportunities and resources for both the general public and the teachers who depend on the educational value that the park offers.
Can you discuss any plans that the organization has in terms of preparing for the 250th anniversary of the Crossing in 2026?
FWCP is working closely with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to fundraise and execute the implementation of a visitor-experience plan that will prepare the park for 2026. This plan includes new features on our site such as an interactive exhibit, interpretive signage, and tour enhancements. Our hope is that the semiquincentennial will encourage more site visitation and that visitors will enjoy new and enhanced educational opportunities to learn about how Washington’s army made its daring crossing of the Delaware River on December 25-26, 1776.
Are there ways that the related historic sites in this area can collaborate to help convey the story behind the “Ten Crucial Days” specifically or the legacy of the Revolution more generally and has there been any discussion of that among the staff or board at WCHP and with people from the other sites?
WCHP leads a group called the Ten Crucial Days Round Table that consists of WCHP staff and representatives from Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey, the Old Barracks Museum, and Princeton Battlefield State Park. We discuss program opportunities and collaboration among the various organizations. Last year, we created a rack card to encourage tourism at partner sites, and in December 2019 we hosted a Ten Crucial Days bus tour that stopped at three of the four sites. In 2021, if circumstances permit, all four sites will be included in the tour. Our goal is to promote the Ten Crucial Days historic area in such a way as to offer visitors a more comprehensive understanding of the 1776 Christmas night crossing and the remarkable ten-day military campaign that followed it.
What is most satisfying to you about doing this job?
I remember my first trip to the Howell Living History Farm when I was eight years old. Prior to that, I never really cared about history, but there was something different about dressing up in period clothes, playing eighteenth-century games, and touring the grounds. I learned that history can be fun and exciting. I like finding creative ways to make history fun for visitors of all ages so that people can connect with and understand the importance of preserving places like Washington Crossing Historic Park and sharing the important history that took place here.
Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your perspective—and for your leadership.
Great news! The State of Pennsylvania has committed $8.7 million to a significant restoration project at WCHP that will rehabilitate eleven historic homes and other structures throughout the park, and groundbreaking is to occur this month. The long-overdue effort augurs well for a celebration of America’s approaching 250th birthday at this venerable locale that will be worthy of the occasion.
Let’s face it. If you’re a history buff, the news of this upgrade to Washington’s storied crossing site has to (ahem) float your boat—oar else.
January 3, 2021 will mark the 244th anniversary of the Battle of Princeton. In that 1777 engagement, George Washington’s army won its third and climactic victory of the fabled “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that profoundly altered the course of our war for independence. It was one of the very few encounters in which the Americans defeated British regulars in open-field combat, although Washington’s roughly four-to-one numerical advantage clearly facilitated that outcome.
Princeton’s frozen ground could not absorb the blood shed during a winter morning’s savage clash. Few Revolutionary War encounters were more ferocious, and brave men abounded on both sides. Here are a few of them:
Charles Mawhood: The lieutenant colonel was an eccentric but highly esteemed officer—routinely riding into battle accompanied by a pair of “springing spaniels”—who commanded the British 4th Brigade, which held Princeton when Washington’s army arrived on January 3. Mawhood led a spirited and skillful resistance by his small contingent that held off the much-larger rebel force long enough to enable most of the British supply wagons to escape from Princeton and so exhausted the attackers—already weary after a twelve-mile overnight march from Trenton—that they were unable to achieve Washington’s primary objective of assaulting the redcoats’ supply depot at Brunswick (New Brunswick today).
Hugh Mercer: The Scottish-born general led the advance guard of his small Continental brigade into battle against Mawhood’s elite 17th Regiment of Foot in the initial phase of the engagement. Mercer refused to surrender when he toppled from his wounded horse and was surrounded by the British. He was bayoneted seven times while attempting to fight off the enemy and died nine days later in the Thomas Clarke House adjacent to the battlefield. (Mercer County, NJ, was named after him when it was created in 1838.)
John Haslet: The Irish-born colonel of the Delaware Continental Regiment was killed by a musket ball to the head while attempting to rally Mercer’s men or come to the general’s aid after the latter had fallen from his horse. Following the battle, a search of his pockets found an order from Washington for Haslet to return to Delaware to recruit soldiers for his depleted regiment, which he had deferred acting upon until the army concluded its winter campaign. Legend has it that Washington wept over the colonel’s body.
Joseph Moulder: The 62-year-old captain of the 2nd Company of Artillery, Philadelphia Associators, orchestrated a cannonade from his two-gun battery that halted the British advance—after Mawhood had routed Mercer’s vanguard—long enough for the Americans to regroup and launch a countercharge that turned the tide of battle. Today a marker graces the spot where Moulder’s young gunners stood their ground at this most pivotal moment.
Thomas Rodney: The Delaware militia captain was among those holding off the British advance until the rebel army organized its counterattack. His account attests to the ferocity of the action: “the enemies fire was dreadful and three balls, for they were very thick, had grazed me; one passed within my elbow nicking my great coat and . . . another carried away the inside edge of one of my shoesoles, another had nicked my hat and indeed they seemed as thick as hail.”
George Washington: The battle featured one of the most remarkable moments of the war when the Continental army’s commander-in-chief personally rallied his regulars and militia as he rode to within thirty paces of the British line. Washington presented an easy and obvious target for an enemy musket yet escaped without a scratch, much to the amazement of some very fretful subordinates. He reportedly inspired his troops with these words: “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.”
John Cadwalader: The colonel of the Philadelphia Associators made a valiant effort to rally his militia in the face of a fierce British bayonet charge across the frozen field after Mercer’s outnumbered vanguard had been forced to retreat. Cadwalader would lead his men forward as part of the counterattack that ensued from Washington’s effort to personally rally his troops.
Today the 96-acre Princeton Battlefield is a New Jersey state park and a registered National Historic Landmark. Visitors can walk the grounds and, once public health restrictions are lifted, will be able to explore the 1772 Thomas Clarke House, the last surviving witness to the battle. In the meantime, the Princeton Battlefield Society (PBS)—celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021—has been developing a new educational exhibit for the Clarke House Museum with the generous assistance of donors to its History & Heritage Fund. The exhibit’s opening is planned for early next year.
In recent years, PBS has been conducting tours from May through October in conjunction with the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry, and although the pandemic frustrated that effort in 2020, PBS looks forward to its resumption as soon as practicable. In addition, area Rev War buffs can anticipate (not this year but as soon as public health circumstances permit) a continuation of the annual PBS early-morning, premier educational event that celebrates the battle’s anniversary in late December or early January. For now, you can learn more about PBS and a variety of related informational resources on the PBS website while we await more opportune circumstances to celebrate and promote in person the legacy of a Revolutionary generation’s gift to posterity.
It has been called America’s most memorable commute, and was even dubbed our first D-Day. But whatever phrase you use, this event began the “Ten Crucial Days” of the American Revolution—the period from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777.
The crossing of the Delaware River, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, on Christmas night 1776 by George Washington’s Continental army was probably the most famous nautical venture ever undertaken by American infantry (with the possible exception of June 6, 1944) and the beginning of perhaps the ten most remarkable days in our country’s history. Despite a fierce blizzard that impeded both the crossing and their march of almost ten miles to Trenton, this ragtag force overcame the brigade of British-allied German soldiers (known as Hessians) occupying the town. Washington’s winter campaign reversed the momentum of the war just when the quest for independence from Great Britain appeared on the verge of final defeat.
Each December since 1953, weather permitting, the crossing has been faithfully reenacted at Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) in Upper Makefield Township, Pennsylvania. And since the Bicentennial, the limestone sculpture seen above has been standing guard across the street from the park under the care of the Washington Crossing Foundation. A gift from the citizens of Bedford, Indiana, it’s a three-dimensional representation of the world-renowned Emanuel Leutze painting, which is displayed in the form of a digital reproduction in the WCHP visitor center.
Three of the leading stewards of this site’s historic legacy share their thoughts below on the significance of the 1776 crossing and the annual reenactment. Their comments provide a useful perspective on why this inspiring aspect of America’s past and present still matters:
Kimberly McCarty, Museum Curator, WCHP — In one of the most unexpected and celebrated military maneuvers in American history, the crossing of the Delaware River began a series of events that changed the course of the war, and the course of history. Washington’s army was diverse—if not by choice, then by necessity. While women followed the army, soldiers of color were part of it and actively participated in the crossing and the battles that followed. The annual reenactment is an important reminder of that and shines a light on this often-overlooked part of our nation’s history.
Jennifer Martin, Executive Director, The Friends of Washington Crossing Park — Washington’s crossing of the Delaware was a very daring undertaking at a desperate time for his army. Despite the obstacles they faced, he led his troops to victory at Trenton and turned the tide of the Revolution. Each year, the crossing reenactment shares with visitors this powerful story and the courage that led our nation to independence.
Thomas Maddock II, Historical Interpreter, WCHP — The bold military action initiated by General Washington and his very ragged army was a wonderful example of courage, determination, and perseverance. These qualities helped make Washington the leader that soldiers wanted to follow. They believed in him because he believed in them. The reenactment helps us remember all that.
There may be no more hallowed ground in North America than the site where the crossing occurred and where it has been reenacted for more than half a century. While current public health considerations preclude the type of crossing reenactment that occurs each December before a vast throng of avid viewers, the tradition will abide. Beginning Christmas Day, you will be able to view a special pre-recorded video presentation on the WCHP Facebook page and YouTube channel that represents the 2020 version of this venerated ritual.
Going forward, information about the various events and programs at WCHP is available online or by contacting the visitor center at 215-493-4076. And you can rest assured that the crossing reenactment will resume in customary fashion as soon as practicable. After all, this is one routine that is not routine.