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
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
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.
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
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.