Washington Crossing the Delaware
Washington Crossing the Delaware
Emanuel Leutze (1816 - 1868).
License: Public Domain

Washington Crosses the Delaware

Final preparation for the attack was begun on December 23. On December 24 Washington ordered that each man be provided with three days rations and that they keep their blankets handy. He also ordered that security be tightened at each river crossing. The Durham boats used to bring the army across the Delaware from New Jersey were brought down from Malta Island near New Hope and hidden behind Taylor Island at McKonkey's Ferry. A final planning meeting took place on December 24, with all of the General Officers present. General Orders were issued by Washington on December 25 outlining plans for the march and attack.

Operation

On Christmas Day 1776 the troops assembled at the ferry landing and were given the password for the day, "Victory or Death". All of the men were gathered at the point of embarkment by 3:00 p.m. and the loading of the boats began at nightfall. Washington and a party of Virginia troops crossed over first to secure a landing site. The original plan called for the entire army to be disembarked on the New Jersey side of the Delaware by midnight, but it was not until 3:00 a.m. on December 26 that the army completed the crossing and it took another hour to get the troops organized for an attack. A hail and sleet storm had broken out early in the crossing, winds were strong and the river was full of ice floes. The treacherous weather conditions stopped General Ewing from even attempting his crossing. Colonel Cadwalader crossed a significant portion of his men to New Jersey, but when he found that he could not get his artillery across the river he recalled his men from New Jersey. When he received word about Washington's victory, he crossed his men over again but retreated when he found out that Washington had not stayed in New Jersey.

Elisha Bostwick was a soldier in the Continental Army who took part in the battle and published his memoirs shortly after. We join his story as Washington (whom he refers to as "his Excellency") and his force begin to cross the Delaware:

"[Our] army passed through Bethleham and Moravian town and so on to the Delaware which we crossed 9 miles north of Trenton and encamped on the Pennsylvania side and there remained to the 24th December. [O]ur whole army was then set on motion and toward evening began to re-cross the Delaware but by obstructions of ice in the river did not all get across till quite late in the evening, and all the time a constant fall of snow with some rain, and finally our march began with the torches of our field pieces stuck in the, exhalters. [They] sparkled and blazed in the storm all night and about day light a halt was made at which time his Excellency and aids came near to the front on the side of the path where soldiers stood.

I heard his Excellency as he was coming on speaking to and encouraging the soldiers. The words he spoke as he passed by where I stood and in my hearing were these:

'Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers!' Spoke in a deep and solemn voice.

While passing a slanting, slippery bank his Excellency's horse's hind feet both slipped from under him, and he seized his horse's mane and the horse recovered.

Our horses were then unharnessed and the artillery men prepared. We marched on and it was not long before we heard the out sentries of the enemy both on the road we were in and the eastern road, and their out guards retreated firing, and our army, then with a quick step pushing on upon both roads, at the same time entered the town. Their artillery taken, they resigned with little opposition, about nine hundred, all Hessians, with 4 brass field pieces; the remainder crossing the bridge at the lower end of the town escaped....

Marched the next day with our prisoners back to an encampment. I here make a few remarks as to the personal appearance of the Hessians.

They are of a moderate stature, rather broad shoulders, their limbs not of equal proportion, light complexion with a bluish tinge, hair cued as tight to head as possible, sticking straight back like the handle of an iron skillet. Their uniform blue with black facings, brass drums which made a tinkling sound, their flag or standard of the richest black silk and the devices upon it and the lettering in gold leaf....

When crossing the Delaware with the prisoners in flat bottom boats the ice continually stuck to the boats, driving them down stream; the boatmen endeavoring to clear off the ice pounded the boat, and stamping with their feet, beckoned to the prisoners to do the same, and they all set to jumping at once with their cues flying up and down, soon shook off the ice from the boats, and the next day recrossed the Delaware again and returned back to Trenton, and there on the first of January 1777 our years service expired, and then by the pressing solicitation of his Excellency a part of those whose time was out consented on a ten dollar bounty to stay six weeks longer, and although desirous as others to return home, I engaged to stay that time and made every exertion in my power to make as many of the soldiers stay with me as I could, and quite a number did engage with me who otherwise would have went home. "

Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers!

— George Washington