Revolutionary War:  Washington Crossing the Delaware


The Battle of Trenton

The River Crossing

Emanuel Leutze's famous but inaccurate* painting of 14th Continental Regiment
manning the oars and poles for Washington's crossing of the icy Delaware River
on December 25th, 1776.


Excerpts from Chapter 1 of "Gen. John Glover and His Marblehead Mariners" by George Athan Billias.


"The shrill sound of blaring bands suddenly shattered the quiet along the banks of the Delaware one cold Sunday morning in early December, 1776.  With drums beating and flags unfurled, an advance guard of the British army tramped in to take possession of the little town of Trenton, New Jersey.  As the troops neared the river’s edge, the dull booming of cannon shook the morning air and a shower of shot flew over from the opposite shore. The brisk firing came from ragged remnants of Washington’s army that had escaped across the river a few hours before.

"After fleeing across New Jersey, the American commander-in-chief finally had succeeded in placing the Delaware between his force and the enemy.  Camped on the west bank opposite Trenton, Washington watched as the British struggled in vain to get across.  But further pursuit was impossible.  The Americans had commandeered nearly all the boats up and down the stream for miles, and all bridges were destroyed.

"Unable to span the Delaware, General Howe decided to bring to a close his campaign for the year and marched the bulk of his army back to winter quarters in New York.  To occupy the conquered colony of New Jersey, the British general left behind a chain of widely separated garrisons.  Two of these isolated cantonments, Trenton and Borden-town, were located on the river; the rest stretched back along the lines of communications running to the northeast.

"Washington grasped quickly the flaw in British defenses: exposed enemy posts along the river lay wide open for a surprise raid.  The Delaware, which had been a sanctuary from a British assault, could become a springboard for an American attack.  Several days before Christmas, he worked out a daring plan to throw four separate forces across the river to attack Trenton on the night of the holiday.  The main force led by Washington himself was to cross at McKonkey’s Ferry, nine miles above Trenton, and dash down the opposite shore to smash the Hessian garrison stationed in town.  A second detachment under General James Ewing was to pass over the river nearer Trenton and seize the bridge leading out of town to cut off any possibility of retreat in that direction.  A third body under Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross farther downstream to divert the attention of the Bordentown garrison.  Lastly, Washington called upon General Israel Putnam, commanding the forces in Philadelphia, to march a militia column into New Jersey further to distract the enemy.

"The plan was at best a desperate gamble.  It called for three of the trickiest maneuvers known to military men; a night attack, precise timing by dispersed forces, and a coordinated movement of columns radiating in an arc from a common center.  But Washington was willing to hazard nearly 5000 men, or half his entire force after receiving reinforcements, on this risky operation.

"He had no alternative but attack.  The week after Christmas his army would disintegrate as enlistments expired, and he had to get one more battle out of these men before many of them left the service.  So discouraged was Washington in December that he came closer to admitting defeat than at any other time during the war.  "The game" was "pretty near up," he wrote his brother in confidence, unless everything possible was done to create a new army.

"Unfortunately his four-pronged attack never came off as planned.  Ewing was unable to get across the river because, he reported later,
"…the Quantity of Ice was so great."  Cadwalader encountered the same difficulty, but he did not give up as easily as Ewing.  Moving to a different location, he managed to ferry a few troops to the Jersey shore.  But when he found that he could not get his artillery across, Cadwalader, too, returned to the west bank.  Unaware that his other commanders had failed, Washington was preparing to pull out for McKonkey’s Ferry when word reached him that Putnam’s troops would be unable to march as he had ordered.  By now the Trenton operation had narrowed itself down to a single question: could Washington’s own force navigate the ice-strewn river to get into position for the attack?

"The answer depended upon Colonel John Glover, a tough little terrier of a man on whom Washington relied for so many of the army’s amphibious moves.  Glover had been a ship owning merchant in Marblehead before the war, and his civilian career had admirably equipped him for military service.  Accustomed to a position of power and authority in the business world, he found it easy to command troops in the field.  The drive, intelligence, and ambition that enabled him to amass a small fortune in commerce were the same qualities required of a capable officer.  Most important of all, his knowledge and experience of maritime matters made it possible for him to master the difficult art of small-scale amphibious operations.

"Glover was forty-four at the time.  His well-chiseled features, broad, high forehead, and clear, deep-set eyes made him an attractive-looking man; a long, fine nose and full lips added to his handsome appearance.  But it was his outthrust jaw that denoted the commander, for its firm, strong lines indicated tenacity and determination.  Although he was short and stocky, Glover made up for his lack of height by abundant energy.

"The regiment Glover had recruited, the Fourteenth Continental, was one of the most colorful units in the entire army.  It was composed mainly of rugged fishermen and sailors from Marblehead, men who could handle oars as well as muskets.  Everything about the regiment smacked of the sea.  Clad in blue jackets, white caps, and tarred trousers, typical garb of fishermen, many Marbleheaders marched off to war in the same kind of clothes they wore off the Grand Banks.  The discipline for which the unit was famed was a result of the men’s training in taking orders on shipboard.  And if they approached the enemy with less fear than most troops, it was because their life at sea had accustomed them constantly to face danger.

"Washington had come to look upon Glover’s men as a kind of ferrying command ever since the regiment had helped to evacuate the American army from a precarious position on Long Island in August, 1776.  When the attack on Trenton first had been discussed, tradition avers that Washington turned to Glover to ask if his mariners could navigate the ice-choked river.  Glover had murmured quietly that his lads could manage the task.  Only after this assurance, it was said, did Washington proceed with his plan.

"As dusk fell early on that bleak December afternoon, the boats that Washington had collected and concealed from enemy view were brought down to McKonkey’s Ferry.  The Durham boats used for ferrying the troops normally carried cargoes of iron, grain, and whisky.  Built for river commerce, they were ideally suited for military operations because of their large size and light draft.  Averaging sixty feet in length and with a beam of eight feet, one boat could hold an entire regiment.Even when fully loaded they drew only twenty-four to thirty inches, so that troops would be able to wade to shore.  Pointed at both ends and looking like cumbersome canoes, the boats were propelled downstream by eighteen-foot oars and upstream by poles.  These freshwater craft must have seemed strange to Glover’s salt-water sailors.

"While the boats were being rowed into position, the 2400 men in Washington’s force reluctantly left the warmth of their small fires in the camp opposite Trenton and started their nine-mile trek to the ferry. It was a cruel march for thinly clad troops.  One young major who trailed the column to deliver dispatches recalled that the route was easily traced in the snow by bloodstains "from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes."  But there were no complaints, for another officer noted that the men bore up under these painful conditions without a murmur.

"Reaching the river’s edge, the soldiers were hustled aboard waiting craft.  Sitting there stiff and tense, the men must have watched anxiously as the process of loading weighted down each boat, causing it to settle lower and lower into the water.  Once filled, the heavily burdened boat slowly made its way out into the dark river.

"Christmas night brought with it a howling storm; the first phase of the battle of Trenton became a struggle against the elements, not the enemy.  An angry wind roared down, churning the river waters and making difficult the handling of pitching craft.The river was high; the swift and surging current was littered with ice.  As the night turned colder and the wind more piercing, new ice formed on the gear, and Glover’s men undoubtedly cursed as oars and poles slipped from numb hands.

"The Delaware at the ferrying place was only about one thousand feet wide, yet Glover’s soldiers were forced to call upon all of their seamen’s skill to navigate this short span.  Great chunks of ice came surging downstream like white torpedoes to smash against the sides of the boats.  As they ground to a halt, the huge slabs became obstacles as they clung alongside and impeded the forward progress of the craft.  Each cake of ice had to be wrestled out of the way before the boats could continue their passage.  'The floating ice in the river,' reported one participant, 'made the labor almost incredible'.

"As if river conditions were not bad enough, about eleven o’clock it began to snow.  What little visibility there had been to steer through the treacherous waters was now obscured.  Peering into the blinding storm, Glover’s men had to strain their eyes to pick out ice floes from the mass of white flakes that whirled across their vision.  Despite these difficulties, the men of the Fourteenth worked away, and the patriot force on the east side of the Delaware gradually swelled in size.

"Back on the west bank, young, stout Colonel Henry Knox bellowed orders to the troops boarding the boats.  No doubt he was given this assignment not only because his booming voice could be heard above the river’s roar, but because the success of the expedition hinged upon the eighteen cannon over which he had charge.  Artillery was the bad-weather arm of the American army. Muskets could not be relied upon once priming pans got wet, but cannon could be used in rain or snow, if protected.  As soon as it began to snow, Knox’s guns took on a greater importance.

"Ferrying the heavy howitzers and guns became the most critical part of the entire operation.  After all, Cadwalader had been able to get his men across the river; it was the artillery that had proved his downfall.  With much sweating and swearing, Glover’s men succeeded where Cadwalader had failed.  As Knox noted so aptly,
"... perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible."

"When it came time for Washington himself to be ferried, Marbleheaders leaped to command the craft in which he crossed.  William Blackler, a captain in Glover’s regiment, proudly asserted after the war that he had won this post of honor, having served on several patriot committees with Glover, the thirty-six-year-old mariner had both the background and training to be entrusted with so important a task.  Blackler’s boast was borne out by John Roads Russell, another Marbleheader and a private in Glover’s regiment, who claimed he rowed the boat with the general and captain aboard.’

* "The image most Americans carry of Washington crossing the Delaware is false.  It is based upon the familiar painting by Emanuel Leutze, a German-born artist who lived in America but spent more than two decades in the land of his birth.  Using the Rhine to portray the Delaware, Leutze took more artistic liberties than usual and his picture is filled with inaccuracies.  Instead of the Durham boats which were actually used, Leutze painted craft that looked like ship long-boats.  The dozen men crowded into the small boat in the foreground of his picture most certainly would have swamped a craft of that size.  If by some miracle the boat had remained afloat, its heavy draft would have prevented the men aboard from approaching within twenty feet of the shore.  Nor does it seem probable that a man with Washington’s innate good sense would have invited disaster by standing with one foot on the gunwale while crossing an ice-filled river on a dark night.

"But if this painting has served no other purpose, it has immortalized the performance of Glover’s regiment; without the efforts of the Fourteenth Continental there might never have been a battle of Trenton.  The seafaring talents of Glover’s unit gave it the worth of ten regiments that night.  Ferrying Washington’s force across the river without the loss of a single man or cannon, the Marbleheaders put the American commander in a position to launch a surprise attack against the Hessians.

"It was three in the morning, three hours behind schedule, before Glover’s men finished ferrying the troops. Another hour passed as the men milled about, lining up into marching formation.  Washington’s timetable called for the attack to take place one hour before daybreak. But with Trenton still nine miles away, it became increasingly clear that the attack could not be made under cover of darkness as planned.  "Victory or Death," the countersign suggested by Washington himself, took on a more ominous ring."

Revolutionary War:  Washington Crossing the Delaware
Last modified: January 21, 2013