By RICH GRANT
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 ragtag army, dressed like scarecrows and huddled in blankets against the cold and spitting 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.
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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 enter the two ferry houses he used as temporary command posts. There are bus tours that follow the entire battle, lectures about the men who were here, and on Dec. 12 and 25, 2021, you can watch a reenactment of the actual crossing using replicas of the boats.
The natural starting point is Pennsylvania’s Washington Crossing Historic Park. A short film in the museum sets the stage.
The Empire Strikes Back
The year 1776 began well for the Americans in their struggle for freedom from Great Britain. Washington successfully forced the British to evacuate from Boston and then Washington moved his army of 20,000 rebels 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, including hated German Hessian troops that had been hired by the British to put down the rebellion. The king’s forces quickly routed Washington’s smaller army and drove the rebels south through New Jersey. Marching in the retreat was journalist Thomas Paine, who summed up the situation, writing by the light of a campfire on a drumhead, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
When Washington’s demoralized army reached the Delaware, he did the only thing possible – he seized all the boats and retreated across, using the river 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 to his brother, “the game is pretty near up.”
Crossing the Delaware
In the museum shop, you can buy replicas of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. They are silkscreened on everything from mouse pads to coffee cups.
The original 12×21-foot masterpieces 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.
But from a historical standpoint depicting the crossing, the masterpiece has several mistakes. Most prominent is that Washington’s crossing took place in pitch darkness 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, and only the basement of the inn is original, the rest being rebuilt in 1790. 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 long, thick canoes.
Washington’s plan was to stop retreating and go on the offensive against a regiment of Hessians stationed across the river in Trenton. 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, Massachusetts, 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 much easier to cross the Delaware today. 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 the men crossing the Delaware were James Monroe, who would become the fourth U.S. president; Alexander Hamilton, who become the first secretary of the Treasury; John Marshall, who would become a chief justice of the Supreme Court and Arron Burr, who would become vice president and kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
On the other side of the river, you enter New Jersey’s Washington Crossing State Park. In 1776, there were dueling ferries here; today there are dueling state parks. Use the pedestrian overpass to walk to the Johnson Ferry House, which Washington’s staff used temporarily as a command post.
One of Washington’s aides recorded the scene in his diary. “Dec. 26, 3 a.m. I am writing in the ferry house … I (have) never seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops … The storm is changing to sleet, and cuts like a knife. The last cannon is being landed, and we are ready to mount our horses.”
You can follow in their footsteps on a short stretch of the old Continental lane, which today is a shallow grass depression between rows of trees that runs for a quarter mile to the Visitor Center. A Major Wilkinson remembered that the snow “was tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.”
At the Visitor Center, an excellent museum has exhibits, maps, paintings and artifacts that trace the retreat through New Jersey and the coming battle.
It’s about a half-mile walk back to your car in Pennsylvania and then a nine-mile drive to Trenton.
The Attack on Trenton
Not much of colonial Trenton has survived. It is a modern, confusing and not particularly attractive city, but the Trenton Battle Monument, marks the spot where the battle began. The 148-foot high column opened in 1893 and has an elevator to an observation deck.
The Hessian commander, Johann Rall, ignored threats of an American attack and stayed up all Christmas night playing cards and drinking. In the gloomy morning, the Americans advanced to the edge of town before the Hessian guard saw them. With cries of “Der Fiend!” — “the enemy” – the guard tried to alert their men. It was too late.
Washington placed his artillery at the head of Trenton’s narrow streets, where they could fire canister — tins filled with musket balls that exploded from the cannon barrel like a giant shotgun, sweeping everything in their path.
As the dazed Hessians poured out of their barracks, they were cut down by cannon fire. Rall ordered a retreat to an orchard and tried to make a stand, but Washington’s men surrounded them. When Rall was mortally wounded, the fight went out of the Germans and they surrendered.
The battle lasted less than an hour. Ninety Hessians were 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 Major Wilkinson, 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.
To learn more about the context of this battle to the rest of the war, drive the short distance to Philadelphia and visit the Museum of the American Revolution. Opened in 2017 and just a block from Independence Hall, the museum tells a vastly different story about the American Revolution than you heard in high school. You soon learn that the ugliness in 1776 makes today’s political divisiveness look rather tame.
At the start of the revolution, there were 2 million colonialists living in North America – a third of whom were rebels, another third were loyal to the king, and the final third just wished the whole thing would go away. Also living here were another million souls caught up in the war without any choice: Enslaved Africans (who made up one out of five people on the continent), Native Americans, French in Canada and Spanish in Florida.
It was a brutal civil war of death and destruction. Since Trenton is only a few miles away, the battle there occupies center stage, but Washington is the main character. Behind him, the museum focuses on dozens of other people you never heard of: Young boys from Germany, conscripted to fight as Hessians; poor Irish lads who ended up in the British Army; women and camp followers, who suffered as much as the men; Native Americans who ended up fighting for both sides and lost everything, no matter which side they supported; and enslaved Africans, who also fought on both sides and were betrayed by both.
It was no picnic living during the American Revolution. Paintings, artifacts, high tech exhibits and videos make it effortless to follow the battles and violence.
What did colonial Philadelphia really look like? Well, if you walk a few blocks from the Revolutionary War Museum to Elfreth’s Alley, you can see. This is the oldest continuously inhabited street in the United States. The 16-foot-wide cobblestone alley is lined with 32 brick rowhouses built between 1728 and 1836. It is incredibly picturesque. Originally, these were the homes of grocers, shoemakers, tailors and other tradesmen who worked on the bottom floor and lived up above. Today, they are all private houses, but two of them built in 1755 operate as a small museum providing a glimpse of colonial city life. Of course, the alley probably didn’t look this pretty in the 19th century, but today, it can hold its own with any quaint backstreet in Europe.
George Washington marched his army down this street in 1777 en route to the Battle of Brandywine (he lost that one). It’s easy to tell which houses were here at that time. Homes from the revolutionary era had front doors that opened directly onto the street. Because the streets were filthy, the stoop was invented later in the 19th century with doors that opened a foot above street level onto a stone block.
IF YOU GO:
You can check out the dueling state parks at the official website.
Best Book: The bestseller “1776” by David McCullough tells the dramatic story of Washington’s retreat from New York and the attack on Trenton, “Washington’s Crossing” by David Hackett Fischer is the best book on the event itself.