Late December 1776 may have been the American Revolution’s gloomiest hour. The Patriot army, which seemed unable to win a battle, lay shivering in Pennsylvania. The troops were hungry, sick, and exhausted. More and more men deserted every day. “I think the game is pretty near up,” George Washington wrote.
Across the Delaware River in Trenton, New Jersey, 1,400 Hessian soldiers hired by King George of England sat snugly before their fires. Figuring that no army could move in such frozen winter weather, they were getting ready for a Christmas feast of roast goose and rum. George Washington’s men, meanwhile, were searching the Pennsylvania banks of the river for every boat they could find.
The Patriots began crossing the river as dark fell on Christmas night. Chunks of floating ice crashed into their boats as they fought the currents. Rain, hail, and snow fell. “It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes,” wrote one of Washington’s aides. “Some of them have tied old rags around their feet.”
It was 3 a.m. before the last of the troops and equipment were across. The snow was stained with bloody footprints as the men stumbled nine miles toward Trenton. The wet weather had soaked much of their gunpowder, making it useless. Washington decided to push on.
The Americans attacked in the early light of December 26 in a blinding snow. The Hessians, stunned to discover an army appearing out of nowhere, had no chance to organize a defense. Within forty-five minutes, the fighting was over.
News of the American victory raced through the colonies. Perhaps the Patriot cause was not so hopeless. Weary soldiers began to talk of fighting on. With one bold move, George Washington had his countrymen believing that the fight for liberty might be winnable after all.