WASHINGTON -- Let's get this straight: The greatest Christmas in American history was not the result of the Germans being drunk or hung over. Gen. George Washington lost most of his battles -- it has been said the Revolutionary War was won by brilliant retreating -- so let's not diminish any of his victories, and certainly not the one without which American independence probably would have been extinguished like a candle in a gale.
Among the many things that ``everyone knows'' that just are not so is that the 2,400 men of the Continental Army won the Battle of Trenton, an operation that began on the night of Dec. 25, 1776, because the Hessian mercenaries had partaken too vigorously of Christmas drink. According to David Hackett Fischer, whose ``Washington's Crossing'' was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award, the Hessians were weary from a week of constant vigilance against attacks by local insurgents, but fought well.
Not well enough, however, to prevent what Fischer, a Brandeis historian, says was -- combined, over the next eight days, with a second battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton -- the most important victory in U.S. military history. Since the Declaration of Independence on July 4, the Americans had lost every battle fought to make independence a fact. The military disasters inflicted by 33,000 British and German troops in what is now Brooklyn, and on Manhattan Island, contributed to Washington losing 90 percent of his army. New Jersey's loyalty was tilting toward the crown.
By marching his shivering men -- two froze to death on the march -- to the banks of the ice-clogged Delaware River, and making the crossing that became the subject of the most familiar American painting, Washington rolled the dice, risking everything. Had he lost the gamble -- had his men been repulsed from Trenton and pinned against the river -- the continent would have been lost. The brief American rebellion would be a historical footnote akin to the insurrections of the Scots in 1745 or of the Irish in 1798, and subsequent world history would have been very different.