By John Latta
In the early winter of 1776, George Washington and his tattered army were in trouble. The force was small and so close to disintegrating that the fight for independence was as near to being lost as it would ever be.
With the weather worsening, Washington’s spirits fell even though his confident public persona never wavered. After a promising start to the year with a victory in Boston, he had made a series of blunders in his attempt to defend New York.
As Christmas loomed, the British had driven the newly-declared independent America’s Continental Army to the gates of Philadelphia, and the country’s civilian leaders had left their work in that city and dispersed for safety, leaving Washington to make his own decisions.
In the dark of that night, Washington saw little chance to turn the tide of the war. Even as the British decided to call a halt to the fighting for the winter, a common 18th-century military practice, Washington had too few men, most of them in no condition to go into battle, to do much. The British sent most of their army to camp in New York and left a token force in New Jersey. Philadelphia would be theirs in the spring.
Washington then made what he thought was an obvious call. He would attack.
In the weeks leading up to his predicament, Washington had written to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, to keep him informed. Washington had mentioned the idea that perhaps only a bold stroke could save the army from disaster. The time for that stroke had come, he decided.
The American army, he told his officers, would cross the Delaware River in three places and advance on the village of Trenton from three sides. The village was defended by a force of Hessian soldiers, tough, often brutal hired guns from today’s Germany paid for by the British.
The assault went wrong almost from the start. Two of the three crossings failed because of ice flows in the Delaware. But the main force, under Washington and Nathanael Greene, made it across and arrived at Trenton the morning after Christmas Day. The plan had the men arriving just before dawn, but after struggling with the ice, they got there two hours after sunrise. Washington, however, never wavered and ordered the attack.
The surprised Hessians at Trenton were easily beaten, and a few days later Washington boldly attacked a garrison at Princeton, N.J., for another victory. Then he backed off.
Neither Trenton nor Princeton were huge victories. Militarily they may even have technically been called “skirmishes” rather than battles. But it isn’t always the big battles that count the most. After both of these American victories, especially after the stunning surprise at Trenton, America and Americans were different, both to themselves and the rest of the world.
After the dark days in New York, here was evidence that the Americans could think and fight. Spirits soared. Americans started thinking like Americans – not British subjects, not people struggling to come to terms with the idea of being independent, whatever that would mean. They were no longer who they had been.
Being a trucker can often mean some tough choices, some tough battles. Sometimes you are on the losing end for a long time and there’s not much you can do about it.
Faced with the prospect of either giving up or being steadily pounded into defeat, Washington knew his bold stroke would not win the war, but it would dramatically change the way it was fought. It would show the enemy we were not licked, nowhere near it. It would show the enemy they would have to keep fighting us and that fighting would not be easy. It might even, as it did, turn “rebels” into “Americans.”
When things look blackest out there on the interstate and you can’t foresee any big victories in the immediate future, remember George Washington. Attack. Make a thoughtful, bold stroke that, while it won’t win the war for you, will let your adversaries know you are not beaten and you’re not going down any time soon.