Blogs > Cliopatria > Did Washington Surprise the British Hessians at Trenton in December 1776?

Dec 21, 2004 2:09 pm

Did Washington Surprise the British Hessians at Trenton in December 1776?

Lynne Cheney in an op ed in the New York Times on December 21, 2004, related the story of Washington's crossing of the Delaware. The paper headlined the article, "A Revolutionary Christmas Story." But there was nothing revolutionary about her rendering of the attack on Trenton. Her account reflected the traditional narrative told to American children for generations. Defeated in New York, Washington had led the patriot army on a humiliating retreat to New Jersey and crossed over into Pennsylvania. There on Christmas night 1776 he led his ragtag army across the Delaware in a surprise attack on the Hessians occupying Trenton. Three different groups were scheduled to cross the ice-clogged river. Only one of the three made it. But that morning Washington succeeded in defeating the Hessions, representatives of the greatest military force operating in the world at that time.

Sounds like a children's story--and is in fact. Cheney tells the story in the book, When Washington crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots.

Is it true? Not according to Joseph Ellis. In his recent bestseller, His Excellency: George Washington, Ellis, the Mount Holyoke historian, explains that the traditional account is deficient in several respects. Most importantly, Washington's troops, we now know, did not surprise the Hessians. Indeed, he relates, they had been expecting an attack for weeks. And that was the problem. On alert for weeks, they had become weary and vulnerable. When the attack finally came they were unprepared to meet it because of physical exhaustion.

Ellis does not entirely reject the traditional narrative. He goes out of his way, for instance, to explain that Washington actually stood up in the boat as he crossed the Delaware, though the crossing did not exactly take place as depicted in the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze. Leutze got the boats wrong. They were flat-bottomed and thus conducive to solders standing.

But the larger point of Ellis's exegesis is that the crossing employed a strategy of warfare that was wholly inadequate for the purpose of winning a war against a vastly superior force. Outnumbered by the British troops, Washington's army could succeed in the war only by adopting what was known as a Fabian Strategy, the strategy of winning by constantly withdrawing and wearing down the enemy. Named after the Roman consul who devised it to defeat Hannibal at Carthage during the Second Punic War. The Fabian Strategy was anathema to Washington's aggressive nature. He preferred direct attacks, if only because, suggests Ellis, it gave him a chance to demonstrate his manhood. But his war council prevailed on him to adopt the Fabian Strategy instead, arguing, correctly, that direct attacks on the British would end in the decimation of the Continental Army. Washington, in one of the noteworthy decisions of his career, agreed. Ellis notes that it was one in a series of decisions that demonstrated Washington's clear-headed self-discipline, a key to the success he was to enjoy both in the army and as president.

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Jim Williams - 12/27/2004

Why does this essay rely on Ellis's book? Why didn't it use David Hackett Fischer's new book on the crossing of the Delaware?

The author of this essay is also remarkably obtuse about the realities of Washington's situation. A successful attack, even if with only a small portion of his troops, was vital for morale and for Washington's survival as commander in chief. Folks in the Continental Congress were calling for him to be replaced, while soldiers' morale had suffered dreadfully from a year of defeat and retreat.

Furthermore, even if the British and Hessians expected an attack and had long been on alert, Washington still achieved tactical surprise in the time and weather in which he chose to attack. His choice was as gutsy as those of Eisenhower on D-day and MacArthur at Inchon.