On December 25, 1776, General George Washington and a small army of 2,400 men crossed the Delaware River at McKonkey's Ferry in Pennsylvania on their way to attack a Hessian Garrison of 1,500 at Trenton, New Jersey. This march, at what was perhaps the lowest point of the American Revolution, provided a renewed hope in the Army, Congress and the general population. Because of its great significance to our nation's beginning, the historic resources associated with Washington's Crossing are eligible for listing as a National Historic Landmark.
Washington and his army were at McKonkey's Ferry for two reasons. The first is the American troops had been defeated in their attempts to keep the British forces out of New York City. The British occupation of the city and the heavy losses that the Americans suffered in men and material caused Washington to withdraw from the city and retreat across New Jersey. His aim was to prevent another battle between the two armies and provide a resting place for his troops. Placing the Delaware River between himself and the British provided just enough protection. There were few ferries across the river and those could be watched and defended with not much difficulty.
The second reason to fall back to this Bucks County location was strategy. His retreat allowed and forced the British to fill the void between New York and Philadelphia. In doing so, the British extended their forward lines and placed their outposts at too great a distance to be reinforced from New York. Thus, the garrisons in central New Jersey, such as Trenton, were exposed to an attack. Washington was also in a position to defend Philadelphia from an overland attack from New York. The British plan of attack, known to Washington, was to march across New Jersey, sweep the American army aside and occupy Philadelphia, the capital city. Because of the possibility of this attack, Congress abandoned Philadelphia.
While it was true that Washington, most likely, did not plan his exact movements to a fine detail, his overall strategy of a rearward march to Pennsylvania created a perfect situation for a bold commander to take advantage of his enemy's carelessness. It was also an opportunity for the British General Sir William Howe to defeat the American army. Howe had eventually hoped to attack Washington when the Delaware River froze to a sufficient depth so as to allow his army to cross over and attack the Americans.
The events that led up to the famous crossing of the Delaware began on August 22, 1776. On that date the American army was defeated at Brooklyn Heights. Almost a week later on August 27, the American army was again defeated by the British at the Battle of Long Island. Even after these defeats Washington remained close to New York City. However, a final defeat on November 16 at Fort Washington on Manhattan Island signaled the loss of New York City. With the capture of over 2,600 men and the earlier loss of an equal sum plus desertions, Washington's army was reduced to a point below which it could not effectively operate against the British force.
The American army's retreat brought them to the shores of the Delaware River at McKonkey's Ferry on December 7, 1776. At this point, Washington had about 6,000 men under his command. In order to get his men across the river, he ordered Colonel John Glover of Massachusetts and his regiment of fishermen to gather all of the large ore-carrying Durham boats that they could find. They were also ordered to destroy every boat of any size for 30 miles above and 30 miles below McKonkey's Ferry. Glover was able to gather together about twenty or thirty boats and these were used to carry the army across to safety in Pennsylvania.
With the army safely in Pennsylvania, Washington's next task was to feed and house them and to plan his next move. He occupied a house at Morrisville (Summerseat), opposite Trenton, while his men were quartered near McKonkey's Ferry. Because of the impermanent nature of the camp, the exact location of the troops is uncertain. Local tradition places them near the Thompson-Neely House. The entire locale was farmland.
Given the time of year there would have been much available open space for an encampment. From a military standpoint, the main camp near the Thompson-Neely House would have made perfect sense. It is about midway between McKonkey's Ferry and Coryell's Ferry (New Hope). It was at Coryell's Ferry that the main road from Philadelphia to New York passed.
The exact location of the General's headquarters are known but not that of any lesser officers. It is entirely likely that they camped with their men in tents. General Nathanael Greene stayed at the Merrick House, General John Sullivan at the Hayhurst House, General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) at the Thompson-Neely House and Colonel Henry Knox at the Chapman House. While Knox was not a General Officer, he was in command of the continental artillery.
Washington did not immediately move to the McKonkey's Ferry area. Instead, he remained at Trenton Falls (Morrisville) until December 15. That day he moved into the Keith House, it was here and at meetings in the other officers' quarters that the plan was refined and the details worked out.
Washington's final plan was for a three prong attack on Trenton with his troops at the center. A second column under Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross near Bristol and engage a Hessian outpost at Mount Holly. A third column, under Brigadier General James Ewing was to cross at Trenton Ferry and hold a position just south of Trenton in order to prevent the escape of the Hessian force in Trenton. Once Trenton was secure, the combined army would move against the British posts at Princeton and New Brunswick.
When Washington's army first arrive at McKonkey's Ferry he had about 5,000 - 6,000 men. Unfortunately about 1,700 were unfit for duty and needed hospital care. In the retreat across New Jersey he had lost precious supplies. Washington had also lost contact with two important divisions of his army. General Horatio Gates was in the Hudson River Valley with 1,000 men. General Charles Lee was in western New Jersey with 2,000 men. Both of these Generals were ordered to join Washington in Pennsylvania, but both ignored their instructions in order to carry out campaigns that would have benefited their own goals. Both were former British army officers who felt that they would have made a better Commander-in-Chief than Washington.
Washington had additional problems. The enlistments of most of his men would expire on December 31. Most were inclined to leave then and many had taken the opportunity to desert the army before their enlistments were up. Because of the retreats and the lost battles, morale was dangerously low. Orders could be issued to bring supplies to camp and men could be dispatched to recruit new soldiers and these did slowly arrive in camp.
Morale was given a boost on December 19 by the publication of a new pamphlet by Thomas Paine. Pain had written Common Sense which had served to increase support for the Revolution in its early days. The new pamphlet was titled The Crisis. It began with the well-known words:
"These are the times that try men's souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
While the words would not feed or shelter the troops, it would serve to make them a little more happy about their condition. This was also improved by the fact that for most, they could leave the Army in a few weeks with their time of duty legally fulfilled and with the knowledge that they had stayed through the "dark days of war."
On the next day an event took place that was to have a much better effect on the men. General Lee's division of 2,000 men, without General Lee, arrived in camp under the command of General John Sullivan. General Lee had been captured by the British on December 12 when he had ventured several miles away from his troops in search of comfortable lodging. On the same day, General Gate's division of now only 500 men arrived in camp. Soon thereafter, 1,000 men from Philadelphia under Colonel John Cadwalader joined Washington. As a result of these reinforcements and smaller numbers of men who also joined the Army, Washington now had 6,000 men listed as "fit for duty." Of this number, a large portion were detailed to guard the ferries between Bristol and New Hope. Another group was placed to protect supplies at Newtown and to guard the sick and wounded that would not cross the Delaware and attack Trenton. This left Washington with about 2,400 men that could be able to take offensive action against the Hessian and British troops in central New Jersey.
Final preparation for the attack was begun on December 23. Washington ordered that each man be provided with 3 days food and that they keep their blankets handy. He also ordered that security be tightened at each river crossing. The 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 the twenty-fourth with all of the General Offices. On Christmas day, the troops were assembled just behind the ferry landing and given the password for the day "Victory or Death." All of the men were at the point of embarkment by 3:00 PM. As soon as it was dark, the loading of the boats was begun. Washington and a party of Virginia troops crossed over first in order to secure the landing site. The original plan had been to have the entire army on the New Jersey side of the Delaware by midnight. It was not until 3:00 AM on December 26 that the army finally was across and took another hour to get the troops in formation for attack. A hail and sleet storm had broken out early in the crossing, there was a high wind and the river was full of ice floes that had been moving downstream for a day or two. These weather conditions stopped General Ewing from even attempting his crossing and Colonel Cadwalader crossed a significant portion of his men to New Jersey but when he found that he could not get his artillery over, he recalled his men from New Jersey. When he received word about Washington's victory, he crossed over again but retreated when he found that Washington had not stayed in New Jersey.
As soon as the army was ready, Washington ordered it split into two columns. The first was to be under his command and that of General Greene and the second would be under the command of General Sullivan. The Sullivan column would follow the River Road from the Bear Tavern. Washington would follow the Pennington Road which lead to Trenton from the Bear Tavern but was inland from the River by a few miles.
As the two columns marched to Trenton, they proceeded, not just to an American victory, but to immortality. The myths that have sprung up about Washington's character and that of his men are uncountable. Perhaps the best symbol of deification of Washington can be seen in Emanuel Leutze's painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware." With Washington standing proud, his officers about him, and the men, with their faces set, working hard to push past ice and trying to ignore the cold and wet, there seems to be a Heavenly glow about them protecting them from the elements and from the British and the Hessians.
River Road • Route 32