Christmas of 1776 marked the first major victory for the Continental Army. Several months earlier, General Washington’s troops lost New York City to the British and eventually retreated south. The British army chased the Americans through New Jersey and Delaware en route to Philadelphia, the Continental capital. The situation was made even more dire by the prospect of a vastly reduced number of Continental troops after December 31, when enlistments were due to expire.
In early December the Continental Army crossed the Delaware and destroyed or captured all watercraft for a 75-mile stretch along the river to deter the British from crossing. The British leaders evidently thought the Continental Army was no threat, and General Howe decided to move his men into winter quarters in Trenton, Pennington and Bordentown, New Jersey, with a base of operations in Brunswick.
Washington decided to make a bold move and attack Trenton, where Hessian troops were wintering. On December 25, the Americans formed into three divisions and were to cross the river at three separate locations once night fell. Washington personally led one division. The weather was poor. Ice chunks were floating in the river, and the falling snow soon turned to sleet and hail driven by a bitterly cold wind. Once the troops – many lacking warm winter clothing and shoes – crossed the river, they marched nine miles to the town of Trenton. The Hessian soldiers were celebrating Christmas in a traditional German style, never expecting an attack on the morning of December 26.
The Continental Army’s overwhelming victory at Trenton had several important consequences. The Americans managed to capture more than 900 men and their weapons and accouterments, and lost only two soldiers. British General Howe was so stunned by the outcome of Trenton that he sent for General Cornwallis, who was about to board a ship for England, to return to New Jersey to command the army. For the American cause, Trenton was a great morale booster, and General Washington became an overnight hero!