The Weather & Washington's Crossing
Top picture: Emanuel Leutz 1881 painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware"
December 1776: The Revolution was taking a major toll on the Americans and the cause for independence was fading. The Continental Army led by George Washington was thinning in numbers after many battles lost to the British. Morale was very low and hope for winning the war was diminishing. The month of December did not help the soldiers spirits as it began with lots of rain and muddy travel conditions for the men. After retreating through New Jersey, they set up camp in eastern Pennsylvania, where the army was met with an extremely cold blast of air, which led to plenty of ice on the Delaware River. Things were not looking good for Washington's army.
However, George Washington devised a plan that would change the course of the war and the history of our nation. With only a week before his soldiers' enlistments expired, Washington had to do something fast. He decided he would attack Trenton, NJ, which the Hessians (German soldiers fighting with the British) controlled. He planned to cross the Delaware River on Christmas day and invade Trenton before sunrise on December 26th. Washington thought this action could catch the Hessians off guard and create a better possibility of victory, thereby boosting the morale of his army.
So the day came, Christmas 1776. The weather was actually tranquil most of the day. The morning started off with a mixture of sun and clouds along with cold temperatures in the upper teens. Winds were light out of the north. By the afternoon, clouds started to increase with temperatures in the upper 20s. These clouds were associated with a powerful nor’easter that was developing off the coast and rapidly strengthening. This brought rain that changed to sleet then to snow throughout the Delaware Valley, where Washington was located. The crossing began at 5pm on the 25th with temperatures in the upper 20s. As the 2,400 soldiers, 18 cannons, and 75-100 horses crossed the Delaware, they had to deal with the icy river conditions. During the crossing, one of the soldiers described the weather conditions as a “violent storm of rain, hail, and snow [the nor’easter] coupled with the ice flows and high winds, slowed operations.” Meanwhile, George Washington patiently watched his soldiers implementing his dramatic plan in these extreme conditions. One of his officers wrote, “He [Washington] stands on the bank of the stream, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet and cuts like a knife.” All the men finished crossing the river at 3am on the 26th, 3 hours behind schedule due to the weather and sheets of ice on the river. The plans to attack under cover of darkness were ruined, but Washington and his men marched to Trenton anyway, unwaivered by the conditions.
Above right picture: More accurate painting by artist Mort Kuntsler, shows "Washington's Crossing: McKonkey's Ferry, Dec. 26, 1776.
Above picture: Washington during The Battle of Trenton
Temperatures were now in the low 20s with wind driven snow and sleet coming down as the march continued to Trenton. Many soldiers were suffering and one even froze to death during the 9 mile trek. At 8 AM, hidden by heavy snow, the surprise attack on the Hessians began. Although the sleet and snow provided cover, it also made many of the muskets misfire, so cannons and bayonets were used by Washington’s forces. Washington’s plan had worked and the American army captured 900 Hessians with only a few revolutionary troops wounded. Trenton had been taken and the fight for Independence would survive.
In the end, Washington and his army endured extreme weather conditions and it is miraculous that they accomplished such an operation. On the other hand, the weather conditions helped with the surprise attack because the Hessians did not expect an assault in such weather. This is known as the turning point in the American Revolution and another example of how weather changed history.
For more information, read Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.