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George Washington won the Revolutionary War in part because of his ability to consider military problems from multiple angles. Unlike some other generals, he understood that success depended not just on tactics, firepower and supply, but also on political leadership and a civil society that believed in victory. Everything ultimately depended on unity of purpose. If either soldiers or civilians lost the will to fight, both were doomed to defeat.

Washington prepared his attack on Trenton, N.J., in the closing days of 1776 with these principles in mind. Whatever the circumstances, he always kept a finger on the pulse of American society. When that pulse flickered—due to military defeat, economic hardship or plain selfishness—Washington sensed the people had lost determination in their arduous struggle to attain independence from Great Britain. At such times he felt it his duty as commander in chief of the Continental Army to orchestrate some grand act that would rally the American people and renew their focus on winning the war. Trenton was a case in point.

Thomas Paine famously dubbed the latter months of 1776 as “the times that try men’s souls.” Routed from New York City in September, the Continental Army had staggered from defeat to defeat as the leaves fell and summer faded into fall. The long retreat from New York and across New Jersey into Pennsylvania demoralized Washington’s forces and panicked civilians as the victorious British army drove toward Philadelphia. Congress fled, and Washington ordered his precious papers evacuated from Mount Vernon.

A series of daunting problems loomed by mid-December. Washington’s column had fractured into small detachments across the region. Major General Charles Lee, commanding the main body of the Army, had disregarded Washington’s orders to join forces, only to be captured in New Jersey on December 13 by British cavalry. By then Washington had withdrawn across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania with the remnants of his column. Although the Army regained some cohesion over the following days, swelling to a few thousand men, an even more dreadful prospect loomed: By the end of the month the Army faced possible disintegration as soldiers’ terms of enlistment expired.

Amid all these challenges, however, Washington worried as much about civilians as he did about soldiers. The British army did not concern him “half so much,” he told cousin Lund Washington, as “the disaffection of the three states of New York, Jersey and Pennsylvania.” Patriot leader Sam Adams thought Americans seemed “determined to give it up” and gloomily contemplated carrying on the war from New England. Washington, no less an idealist than men like Adams and Patrick Henry (although historians rarely appreciate this important facet of his character), considered it his primary duty both to restore popular confidence in victory and to remind Americans of the principles for which they fought. “Our cause is righteous,” he declared on December 18, “and must be supported.”

Concerned that popular disaffection would increase “like a snowball…unless some means can be devised to check, effectually, the progress of the enemy’s arms,” Washington was already thinking in terms of a military solution to the moral crisis when he convened a council of war on December 22. At that meeting he and his officers conceived the idea for an attack on the garrison of German mercenary troops in Trenton. Washington did not harbor any illusions that such a victory would cripple the British military position in New Jersey. Instead, from the beginning he viewed this audacious maneuver as a means of restoring the moral unity of purpose essential to any hopes of winning the war. He would achieve his symbolic victory—and much more.

The men who crossed the Delaware with Washington on Christmas night knew they were participating in an event their countrymen would discuss for generations. Washington sensed the drama and carried himself as if he were standing in a spotlight onstage. His men looked to him for leadership by example, and he gave it. Soldiers sensed the first glimmerings of inspiration that would carry them through the years to come.

The December 26 Battle of Trenton ended with the capture of almost the entire German garrison and the death of its commander, Colonel Johann Rall. Outweighing the slight military import of this victory, however, were its far-reaching consequences. In the days that followed, Washington traded on this triumph to help convince many of his soldiers to extend their terms of enlistment. In the brilliant campaign that followed, the Patriots would win the Battle of Princeton and drive the British from most of their gains in New Jersey. In the process they restored Americans’ hope in ultimate victory.


Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.