Painter Emmanuel Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware. Note how hungry the rowers look.
According to legend, we can thank the Germans, or the Hessians, rather, for our winning of the American Revolution. Thanks to their boozy Christmas customs, which the English descended colonists didn’t share, Washington was able to quietly cross the icy Delaware River on Christmas Day Eve, 1776, surprise the British- hired Hessian mercenaries encamped at Trenton, New Jersey, and force their supposedly hung-over surrender.
Me standing in front of the Delaware Crossing Memorial on the Pennsylvania side.
We’ve all heard of the terrible, starving winter our Continentals faced at Valley Forge, PA, that winter. That night they would have had a hasty Christmas dinner of their typical rations of bread, salt fish, or perhaps some stale beef or pork, and maybe a slug of watered down whiskey if they were lucky- not exactly a very festive Christmas dinner. Then they boarded creaky ships to cross a pitch black and icy Delaware river.
General Washington’s Mess Kit, on display at Mount Vernon – what he would have used for his Christmas Dinner in 1776, before crossing the Delaware.
The Hessians were as weird to the British as the unannounced French nobles, ala the Marquis de Lafayette, who were coming over to volunteer to be major generals and ‘help’ the Continental army, were to the American Continentals. There’s a great scene in the new Turn series about Washington’s spy network, showing the Hessians at their camp stewing sauerkraut and the British redcoats walking by and turning their noses up at its stench. Whether or not the Hessians made camp sauerkraut is hard to verify, but it certainly points out how different their food customs were to the British they were fighting with.
The news of this much morale-boosting victory spread. That Washington had gotten the drop on a few hundred napping Germans blazoned to a skeptical world that these scrappy losers (that’s us Continentals) might actually have a chance at winning. This most notably caught the ears of the French government, who Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee were lobbying in Paris for money and help in the form of arms. Franklin wrote back to the Continental Congress that the victory in Trenton “caused the most vivid sensation” in France.
Although the French government wasn’t officially ready to condone and support the American Revolution, a covert arms deal was in progress and disguised merchant ships ready at Le Havre to be sent to America with cannons and supply. This was being arranged by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the author of the play The Barber of Seville. This deal was orchestrated by Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister. This Christmas Day-After victory sent the ballasts of those ships toward America.
But alas, the incognito drama-queen Beaumarchais, heard of a group of local thespians in Le Havre botching a production of his Barber of Seville. He revealed himself and directed the play, while arranging the arms ships. Britain found out, made a stink and a threat to France, which delayed more and official help to the Colonists. But the direction was already set in motion.
The postscript – confirmed by diaries of those who witnessed the battle of Trenton – is that the Hessians probably didn’t have too much to drink and were not hungover at the Battle of Trenton. And, many of the Hessians who were fighting for the British would later change their minds over the course of the Revolution, siding with the Colonists, and ended up staying in America.
It was the element of surprise and the fact that the Continentals showed up the day after Christmas so early in the morning that caused the surrender at Trenton. But it sure makes a good story with a lesson – don’t get drunk on Christmas.