The Christmas morning of 1776, here in Bucks County, PA

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The Christmas morning of 1776 here in Bucks County, PA

A little bit of history about Washington Crossing in Bucks County Pennsylvania


On December 25, 1776, General George Washington and a small army of 2,400 men crossed the Delaware River at McKonkey's Ferry, Pennsylvania on their way to attack a Hessian Garrison of about 900 in Trenton, New Jersey. The crossing, made during a time when morale was at its lowest point during the American Revolution, renewed hope among the Continental Army, Congress and the general population. Washington's troop movements across the Delaware River were of great strategic and historic significance to the United States' national beginning, and the resources associated with Washington's Crossing are eligible for listing as a National Historic Landmark. Washington and his army had fallen back to McKonkey's Ferry for two reasons. The first was that 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, with British forces in close pursuit. 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 that existed could be watched and defended without much difficulty.

The second reason to fall back to this Bucks County, Pennsylvania location was strategy. Washington's retreat allowed and forced the British to fill the void between New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and 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 in Trenton, were vulnerable to an attack. Washington was also in a better 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 most likely true that Washington did not plan his exact movements to a fine detail, his overall strategy of a rearward march to Philadelphia 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 planned to move against 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 22 August 1776, when the American Army was defeated at Brooklyn Heights. Almost a week later on 27 August 1776, the American Army was again defeated by the British at the Battle of Long Island. After these defeats Washington kept his troops close to New York City, but a final defeat on 16 November 1776 at Fort Washington on Manhattan Island signalled the loss of New York City. With the capture of over 2,600 men and the earlier loss of an equal number of deserters, Washington's army was reduced to the point that it could no longer effectively operate against the British forces.

The American army's retreat through New Jersey brought it to the shores of the Delaware River at McKonkey's Ferry on 7 December 1776. By this time, Washington had about 6,000 men under his command. In order to get his men across the river, he ordered Colonel John Glover of Marblehead, Massachusetts and his regiment of Marblehead fishermen to gather all the large ore-carrying Durham Boats that they could find. They were also ordered to destroy every boat of any size for 30 miles (48 km) above and 30 miles (48 km) below McKonkey's Ferry. Glover was able to gather about 20 or 30 boats and these were used to carry the army across the river 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 (then called Summerseat) across from Trenton, New Jersey while his men were quartered near McKonkey's Ferry. Because of the temporary nature of the camp the exact location of the troops is uncertain, but local tradition places them near the Thompson-Neely House. The entire area was farmland and 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 (now called 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 is known but not that of any lesser officers, and it is likely that they camped with their men in tents. General Nathanael Greene was quartered at Merrick House, General John Sullivan at 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, PA) until December 15, 1776, when he moved into the Keith House. It was here and at meetings in the other officers' quarters that the daring plan to cross the river was created and the logistical details worked out.

Washington's final plan was for a three pronged attack on Trenton with his troops at the center. A second column under Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross at Dunk's Ferry, near Bristol, Pennsylvania and engage the Hessian outpost at Mount Holly, New Jersey. 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 in Princeton and New Brunswick.

When Washington's army first arrived at McKonkey's Ferry he had about 5,000 - 6,000 men, although 1,700 soldiers were unfit for duty and needed hospital care. In the retreat across New Jersey Washington had lost precious supplies as well as losing contact with two important divisions of his army. General Horatio Gates was in the Hudson River Valley and General Charles Lee was in western New Jersey with 2,000 men. Both Generals were ordered to join Washington in Pennsylvania, but both ignored their instructions in order to carry out campaigns that they believed benefited their own goals. Both were former British Army officers who felt that they would have been a better choice for Commander-in-Chief than Washington.

Washington had additional problems, including the fact that the enlistments of his men would expire on December 31, 1776. A series of lost battles and retreats had left morale dangerously low among the soldiers. Many of them were inclined to leave the army once their commission was finished and several had taken the opportunity to desert the army before their enlistments were up. Orders were issued to bring supplies to the camp and men were dispatched to recruit new soldiers, who did slowly begin to arrive at the camp.

Morale was given a boost on December 19 by the publication of a new pamphlet by Thomas Paine. Common Sense had served to increase support for the Revolution in its early days, and Paine's new pamphlet, titled The American Crisis, began with these well known words:

“ These are 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 Paine's writing could not feed or shelter the troops it did serve to increase morale and help them feel a little more tolerant of their current conditions. Morale was also improved by the fact that most soldiers knew they could leave the army within the next few weeks, with their time of duty legally fulfilled and with the knowledge that they had stayed throughout the "dark days of war".

On the next day an event took place that was to have an even better effect on morale. General Lee's division of 2,000 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 more comfortable lodgings. Later that day General Gates's division, now numbering just 500, arrived in camp. Soon after, another 1,000 men from Philadelphia under Colonel John Cadwalader joined Washington. As a result of these reinforcements and smaller numbers of volunteers from the local area, Washington now had 6,000 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, Pennsylvania and to guard the sick and wounded who would remain behind when the army crossed the Delaware River. This left Washington with about 2,400 men 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 three days rations 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 December 24, with all of the General Officers present.

On Christmas Day 1776 the troops assembled at the ferry landing and were given the password for the day, "Victory or Death". All of the men were gathered at the point of embarkment by 3:00 p.m. and the loading of the boats began at nightfall. Washington and a party of Virginia troops crossed over first to secure a landing site. The original plan called for the entire army to be disembarked on the New Jersey side of the Delaware by midnight, but it was not until 3:00 a.m. on December 26 that the army completed the crossing and it took another hour to get the troops organized for an attack. A hail and sleet storm had broken out early in the crossing, winds were strong and the river was full of ice floes. The treacherous weather conditions stopped General Ewing from even attempting his crossing. Colonel Cadwalader crossed a significant portion of his men to New Jersey, but when he found that he could not get his artillery across the river he recalled his men from New Jersey. When he received word about Washington's victory, he crossed his men over again but retreated when he found out that Washington had not stayed in New Jersey.


Main articles: Battle of Trenton and Battle of Princeton
As soon as the army was ready, Washington ordered it split into two columns, one under the command of himself and General Greene, the second under General Sullivan. The Sullivan column would take River Road from Bear Tavern to Trenton while Washington's column would follow Pennington Road, a parallel route that lay a few miles inland from the river.

Joseph Grabowski, Bucks County Association of REALTORS

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Comments (3)

Rob Robinson- Lehigh Valley PA
Bertrum Settlements (Title & Abstract) - Allentown, PA

George and his rag tag army had better boating skills then those re-enactors this past Christmas.  Another display of inept boating 8^O

Geeze, can't handle a little current? I think they should just walk over the bridge each year. It's really getting embarrasing (and of course dangerous).


Oh, and thks for the history.

Dec 27, 2007 08:48 AM
Joseph Grabowski
Keller Williams Preferred Real Estate - Yardley, PA


Yeah, I did not go this Christmas. I haven't gone in some time actually. I opted to stay home and wrap the presents since I waited till the last minute.

Dec 27, 2007 11:53 AM
Lance Winslow
Great historical record there, and the Cherry Tree tale might be a good addition to your blog also some day, keep us informed - Lance
Dec 27, 2007 07:36 PM

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