On the trail of America’s first Christmas

Rich Grant

General Washington assembles his troops in front of McKonkey's Ferry Inn in an annual reenactment of the crossing. Photo courtesy of Visit Bucks County.

Troops board their boats at Washington Crossing State Park. Photo by  Wayne Henderek.It is forever Christmas at McKonkey’s Ferry Inn. The dining room in this lovely tavern, located on the banks of the Delaware River, 42 miles upstream from Philadelphia, is always decorated as it would have been on Christmas night, 1776, when George Washington had his dinner here.

As Washington dined, 2,400 of his men assembled outside along the riverbank. They were a rag-tag army, dressed like scarecrows and huddled in blankets against the bone-chilling cold and snow.

Their password for the evening told the story: “Victory or death.” This night, Washington was to gamble his army on a desperate stroke – an all-or-nothing surprise attack on the enemy across the river in Trenton.

What happened in the next 24 hours changed the world.

Today, the setting along the Delaware River is remarkably scenic and little has changed from the fateful night that shook the British Empire and saved a young nation. Many of the historic structures have been preserved. You can see the spot where Washington crossed the river, and you can enter the two ferry houses he used as temporary command posts. Nearby, you can examine replicas of the boats he commandeered for the crossing and then march in the footsteps of his men on the old Continental road.

Historic monument marks the spot of the crossing.The natural starting point is Pennsylvania’s Washington Crossing State Park, where a short film in the museum sets the stage.

1776 began well for the Americans in their struggle for freedom from Great Britain. Washington successfully forced the British from Boston and moved his army of 20,000 men to New York. But then the Empire struck back. In August, the largest armada the world had ever seen arrived off Long Island with a British army of 30,000 crack troops. They quickly routed Washington’s smaller force and drove the rebels south through New Jersey. Marching in the retreat was journalist Thomas Paine, who summed up the situation, writing “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

The Empire strikes back.

When Washington’s demoralized army reached the Delaware, he seized all the available boats and retreated across the river, using it as a temporary buffer. But the end was only a matter of time. Soon the river would freeze and the British could march over the ice. Congress fled from Philadelphia and even Washington confessed, “the game is pretty near up.”

Crossing the Delaware

After watching the film, visitors move on to the highlight of the museum: a digitally reproduced, full-size copy of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. (The original 12- by 21-foot masterpiece hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.) The painting’s depiction of a stern, determined Washington, standing at the prow of a boat, leading an invasion of landing craft into an ice-choked river, is an American icon. Reproductions can be purchased in the gift shop on everything from kitchen magnets to mouse pads.

From a military standpoint, experts point out, the masterpiece has several mistakes. Most prominent is that Washington’s crossing took place in pitch darkness – not in the conveniently lit-up skies highlighting him in the picture – with the commander probably seated in the back of a boat. For another, the river depicted in the painting is the Rhine.

You can see the real river and crossing point just outside the museum.

The only building here at the time was McKonkey’s Ferry Inn, but today there is a picturesque village of structures lining a tree-rimmed road. At the Boat House, there are four reproductions of the Durham boats that were used in the crossing. Built to carry iron ore, the pitch-black craft were 40 to 60 feet long and looked like thick, stretched out canoes.

Washington’s plan was to stop retreating and go on the offensive. His first attack would be across the river at Trenton where three regiments of German Hessians fighting on the side of the British were stationed. The timing was crucial. An aide wrote: “They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance. They will be sleepy tomorrow morning. Washington will set the tune for them about daybreak.”

The Delaware today is a placid stream with hardly a current, but on Christmas night 1776 it was a hellish scene with swift swirling waters and huge cakes of floating ice. The boats were manned by a regiment of fishermen from Marblehead, Mass., but it took these expert small boat handlers nine hours to ferry the 200 horses, 18 cannons and 2,400 men across the icy current.

Fortunately, it’s now much easier to cross the Delaware. Leave your car on the Pennsylvania side and walk across a narrow 1933 steel bridge to New Jersey. There are pretty views of the river along the way, giving you time to think about the men in the boats below.

As Thomas Paine had written, the “summer soldier and sunshine patriot” had long ago deserted. But the men who were left were special. Among those crossing the Delaware that night were James Monroe, who would become the fourth U.S. President; Alexander Hamilton, who would become the first Secretary of the Treasury; and John Marshall, who would become a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Painting by Charles H. McBarron, Jr. shows the battle of Trenton.Across the river, the battle of Trenton lasted less than an hour. When it was over, 90 Hessians had been killed or wounded, and more than 900 were taken prisoner. The American casualties were two men wounded.

After the fight, an uncharacteristically beaming Washington rode up to one of his officers, grabbed his hand and said, “This is a glorious day for our country.”

And it was. From a military standpoint, Trenton was a minor raid. There were still five years of bitter war ahead. But psychologically, it was a turning point. Never again would American spirits or prospects sink so low.

More info:  Visit the Washington Crossing Historic Park at www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing/                    

Book report:  The current bestseller 1776 by David McCullough tells the dramatic story of Washington’s retreat from New York and the attack on Trenton.

Cover image by Wayne Henderek

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