Continental Army General George Washington’s celebrated “Crossing of the Delaware” has been dubbed in some military circles, “America’s first special operation.” Though there were certainly many small-unit actions, raids, and Ranger operations during the Colonial Wars – and there was a special Marine landing in Nassau in the early months of the American Revolution – no special mission by America’s first army has been more heralded than that which took place on Christmas night exactly 230 years ago.
Certainly the mission had all the components of a modern special operation (though without all the modern battlefield technologies we take for granted in the 21st century): “A secret expedition” is how John Greenwood, a soldier with the 15th Massachusetts, described it, as quoted in Bruce Chadwick’s The First American Army.
If nothing else, all the elements for potential disaster were with Washington and his men as they crossed the Delaware River from the icy Pennsylvania shoreline to the equally frozen banks of New Jersey, followed by an eight-mile march to the objective – the town of Trenton.
The river – swollen and swift moving – was full of wide, thick sheets of solid ice. And unlike the romanticized portrayal of the operation in the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze (the one with Washington standing in his dramatic, martial pose; his determined face turned toward the far side of the river), the actual crossing was made in the dead of night, in a gale-like wind and a blinding sleet and snowstorm. Odds are, Washington would have been hunkered down in one of the 66-ft-long wooden boats, draped in his cloak, stoically enduring the bitter cold with his soldiers, some of whom were rowing or poling the boats against the ice and the current.
WASHINGTON’S STRATEGIC CONCERNS
The decision for the crossing and the subsequent raid on Trenton was based on Washington’s belief that he had to do something. Otherwise – as he penned in a private letter – “the game will be pretty near up.”
To the easily disheartened and the cut-and-runners, it might have seemed “the game” was indeed already “up.” After all, many of Washington’s Continental Army were wounded, sick, and demoralized. Recent losses to the British had been severe. Desertion numbers were rising, and enlistment terms were almost up. Reinforcements were poorly trained and ill-equipped. Ammunition was in short supply. The soldiers were not properly outfitted for extreme winter conditions: Clothing was spare. Many men were in rags, some “naked,” according to Washington’s own account. Most had broken shoes or no shoes at all.
The mission itself, though a huge gamble, was tactically simple.