A Christmas Story for Patriots

This last year has been trying, and many of us have been led to believe that it is unprecedented in our history.

But our memories are foggy.

The year 1776 had it’s trials as well. It was on December 23, 1776 that Thomas Paine wrote these words:

these are the times that try men’s souls.

I am often reminded of the strength of God that can only be enjoyed during times of weakness on our part. I think of Gideon and how God whittled down his army to a handful before they faced the vast forces of the Midianites. I am also reminded of the weakness of the original Patriots of the War for Independence.

They were farmer soldiers and frontiersmen, clothed mostly in homespun and buckskin and filled with passion for kin and country. These men were fierce, but they were also few. Compared to the well-clothed, well-fed, well-trained British army, they were nothing.

But then God, or Providence, as they wrote over and over, strengthened and enabled. The evidence of His help was so overwhelming, and the further need of it so compelling, that by the next Christmas of 1777 a day of “solemn thanksgiving and praise” was set aside by the Continental Congress. Read the official directions for this day:

that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him graciously to afford his blessings on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and sea, and all under them, with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments, under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, independence and peace; that it may please him to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people and the labor of the husbandman, that our land may yield its increase; to take schools and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.

We read these words and we are in shock–how far we have fallen when our enemies have succeeded in striking the name of Jesus Christ from almost every public institution, yet our forerunners officially recognized and bowed in reverence to Him.

What will 2021 bring to us?

As patriots we know that freedom is costly, as Christians we know God’s Kingdom will prevail. Still, we need encouragement to strengthen our resolve. King David knew this:

Now David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.

1 Samuel 30:6

In this way, I hope you will read this post and gain strength and encouragement. It is about the Battle of Trenton and occurred on December 26, 1776. It is taken from the book The Boys of ’76 (a terrific book for U. S. History for homeschooling) written by Charles C. Coffin and can be read for free here or ordered in physical form here (affiliate link).

*Be sure and read the bonus material after the end of the story.

GENERAL HOWE, having secured New York, began to make preparations to take Philadelphia. Congress was in session there, in Independence Hall, and had declared America to be independent of Great Britain. He would see about that. He would chase Washington through New Jersey as a hound chases a fox, scatter the last remnant of the rebel army, seize the members of Congress, and send them to England to be hanged as traitors. A division of the army was placed under Cornwallis, who was instructed to pursue Washington.

Washington had less than three thousand men. It was a weary march to Elijah and Esek across the marshes from Hackensack to Newark, and from there to New Brunswick. Their hearts sunk at New Brunswick when the New Jersey and Maryland troops, whose time had expired, left camp and started for home. The army numbered only seventeen hundred, after their departure.

From New Brunswick they marched to Princeton, with Cornwallis pressing hard after them. From Princeton they hastened to Trenton over the frozen roads, with Cornwallis marching faster than ever. They were hastening to the Delaware. If they could but reach Trenton, where a large number of boats

had been collected—if they could have an hour or two there, they would be safe. They reached the river; sent over the cannon first, then the baggage. Regiment after regiment crossed; and just as the last reached the Pennsylvania bank, Cornwallis marched into Trenton, his drums beating and colors flying.

Cornwallis was baffled. The river could not be forded. He had no boats, and must wait till it was frozen before seizing his prey. General Howe issued a proclamation, offering pardon to all who would lay down their arms and own allegiance to the king. A great many people who had favored Congress flocked to Cornwallis’s camp, and swore fealty to the king. Half of the people in-New Jersey were Tories, and Washington knew not whom to trust.

The little army was disheartened to learn that General Lee, who had returned from Charleston, had been captured. He was marching from the Highlands of the Hudson toward the Delaware with a division of the army. General Sullivan was with him. Lee was ambitious, and wanted to be commander-in-chief, and, though ordered to join Washington, was meditating a disobedience of his orders. His troops were at Morristown. He left them under Sullivan, and rode down to Basking Ridge, a few miles, to pass the night in his own house, and was surprised the next morning to find the house surrounded by British dragoons. The Tories had given them information.

In his dressing-gown and slippers, bare-headed, with nothing but a blanket to protect him from the cold, he was taken to New York. Perhaps, instead of being a loss, his capture was a gain, for Sullivan, with the troops, hastened on, and crossed the river at M’Conkey’s Ferry, twelve miles above Trenton. A bridge now spans the river there, but then there was no bridge all the way from the mountains to Delaware Bay.

Although Cornwallis had not been able to capture Washington, General Howe was well satisfied with what had been accomplished. He had gained possession of New York, scattered the American army, driven Washington beyond the Delaware, and could write home to the ministers that the people were becoming loyal, and that the rebellion would soon be crushed. He was well situated in New York, gave grand dinners, drank his wine, enjoyed his evenings in playing cards, and looked forward to an agreeable winter.

General Cornwallis was well satisfied with the part he had performed. He had captured Fort Washington, chased Washington across the Delaware, and was going home to England to enjoy the honors which the king would confer upon him. He left Colonel Rail, with fifteen hundred Hessians and two hundred British cavalry, at Trenton; stationed Count Donop eight miles farther down the river, at Bordentown; and sent another party eight miles south of Bordentown, to Burlington; and another party ten miles from Burlington, to Mount Holly. He left some troops at Princeton, and made his grand supply of stores at New Brunswick. By dividing the army into detachments, the troops could obtain forage and fresh provisions. He held Washington and his little force in contempt. The American army had dwindled from twenty thousand, at White Plains on the 28th of October, to less than two thousand in December.

But Congress had made a patriotic appeal to the country, promising to give each officer and soldier a liberal bounty of land, and the militia of Pennsylvania were coming into camp. Two thousand came, under General Cadwalader and General Ewing, and took post at Bristol, between Trenton and Philadelphia.

[Soldiers] could look across the river, at Trenton, and see the Hessians on parade, or roaming through the village. The Hessians enjoyed themselves. At night they plundered pig-pens and hen-roosts, and made themselves at home in the kitchens. They insulted the girls, and felt that they were conquerors.

General Washington saw that Cornwallis had made a mistake, in the military game: he had spread his troops out too much.

He resolved to take advantage of it, and laid his plan. He had about twenty-five hundred men opposite Trenton, and twenty cannon. The boats in which he had crossed the river had been taken up stream to M’Conkey’s Ferry, and were safely moored on the Pennsylvania side. Generals Cadwalader and Ewing, at

Bristol, also had some boats. He would send the two thousand men there across the river to attack Count Donop at Bordentown. Such a movement would prevent Donop from helping Rail at Trenton.

With his twenty-five hundred, with Greene, Sullivan, and Knox to aid him, Washngton resolved to make a night march up the river to M’Conkey’s, cross there, divide his army, and make a rapid march to Trenton in two divisions—one on the river road, and the other by the road leading through the village of Pennington. He would knock at the front door and back door at the same instant, surprise the Hessians, get them between two fires, cut off their retreat, and capture the whole force.

General Washington thought that Christmas-night would be the best time to make the attack, for the Hessians kept Christmas, and would drink a great deal of beer, and be boozy before morning.

General Putnam was in Philadelphia; and, to help the plan on, two days before Christmas, sent Colonel Griffith, with four hundred and fifty militia, across the river to march toward Mount Holly, but to make no attack upon the British there. If they advanced, he was to retreat. Colonel Griffith crossed the river, and Count Donop started south from Bordentown with all his troops.

Christmas came. The wind was raw, the ground frozen and covered with snow. Elijah and Esek sat around their camp-fire, thinking of the folks at home, and the comfort by the fires in the old kitchens. They had been fighting for liberty a year and a half, and now the prospect was gloomier than ever before. In a few days the river would be frozen over, for it was now filled with floating ice, and then the British could cross anywhere, and the little army would be scattered to the winds.

Night came. The wind was east, and the cold, gray clouds came rolling in from the sea, bringing darkness at an early hour.

“Fall into line, boys!” said the captain of their company. The soldiers wondered what was going on, but the regiments all paraded. There was no beating of drums, but silently they moved away, marching up the road leading to M’Conkey’s.

They reached the ferry, and found the Marblehead men there, in the boats, ready to pull at the oars. They were the men for the hour—as they were at Brooklyn.

The artillery-men led the horses into the flat-bottomed boats, and held them by the bit, while the soldiers wheeled the cannon on board, and the boats pushed out into the stream. The current was strong, and the great cakes of ice whirled against the boats and ground their sides. It was slow work, cold work, hard work. Elijah and Esek stood at the bow of one of the boats, with poles to push the ice away. They had no mittens, nor had any of the soldiers, nor the rowers. The water froze upon the oars. They thrashed their hands till the blood oozed from under their finger-nails. The current carried them down stream. The night was dark, but they pulled and pushed, and reached the shore, and lifted the cannon up the bank; then the boats, pulled by the ever faithful fishermen, pushed off in the darkness for another load.

General Washington stood upon the Pennsylvania shore, wrapped in his cloak, directing affairs; while General Knox, on the New Jersey side, shouted to the men to be quick in getting the cannon up the  bank. From seven in the evening till four in the morning the boatmen pulled at the oars, and the soldiers stood shivering upon the bank. Many of them had no overcoats, some no blankets; some had no shoes, but stood in the snow with old rags around their feet. The wind was blowing more keenly from the east, and the snow-flakes began to fall. Some of the soldiers curled down under the bank to keep themselves warm; some stamped their feet and thrashed their hands, waiting through the gloomy night.

The last boat came, bringing General Washington. He took General Greene, General Stirling, General Mercer, and General Stevens, and started, with about half the troops, down the Pentonvdle road. Esek was with this division. General Sullivan, with the rest of the troops, started down the river road, 10 knock at the front door, while General Washington was approaching the back door. General Sullivan had half of the artillery. Elijah was with this division.

They move rapidly, for the cocks are crowing in the barns, and they have fully seven miles to march, and it will be daylight before they reach Trenton. They fear that the plan will fail. Oh, the dreariness of the night! So cold, so dark; the wind cutting like a knife, the snow falling in their faces, their clothes frozen, the crust cutting through the rags bound around their feet. They leave their blood-stains on the snow; they stagger and stumble over the uneven ground. They are hungry and weary, but on they go—tramp, tramp, tramp! For what? To secure their liberties and the liberties of those who may live when they are dead. Dead! For this night’s work they shall live forever.

In Trenton the Hessians are asleep, or else singing songs and drinking their last mugs of beer. Colonel Rail is at Mr. Abraham Hunt’s. Mr. Hunt is a Quaker—some say that he is a patriot, others that he is a Tory. At any rate, he has invited Colonel Rail and his officers to take Christmas supper with him, and they are there, having a merry time, smoking their pipes, drinking wine, and playing cards, with an old negro to wait upon them.

It is not quite day-break, but a Tory has discovered the approach of the Americans, and has sent a man upon the run to Trenton. The messenger, out of breath, brings a note to Colonel Rail. The old negro guards the door.

“I must see Colonel Rail,” says the messenger.

The gen’men can’t be disturbed, sah,” the negro replies.

“Then give that to him, quick!”

“Oh yes, sah.”

The negro enters the parlor; but Colonel Rail is dealing the cards, and can not look at it at that moment. The candles have burned low. There are bottles and glasses upon the table. The officers are puffing their pipes. Colonel Rail puts the note in his pocket. He will examine his hand before reading it. The destiny of a nation has been thrown into the game, but Colonel Rail does not know it. His own life is at stake, but he does not dream of it.

A Hessian picket sees something moving along the road in the dim gray of the morning. Men on horseback and on foot appear. He hears the heavy rumbling of wheels, and the tramp of the army. He fires his gun, and the report goes out over the snow-clad hills and the half-frozen waters of the dark rolling rivers.

“Forward!” It is General Sullivan who shouts it. The soldiers break into a run. The artillery-men whip up their horses. The cannon rumble heavily over the frozen ground. Elijah can hear a hubbub in the village. The Hessian pickets are shouting to one another, and running here and there. They hear a drum beating the long roll, and can see soldiers forming in the street.

“Unlimber!” shout the artillery-men. The cannon are wheeled into position, a cartridge is rammed home; there is a flash, a roar that awakens every sleeper in Trenton.

Colonel Rail hears the drum-beat, the cards drop from his hands—the game unfinished. The deep thunder of that gun, jarring the windows and shaking the earth, brings home to his intellect, beclouded with wine, some sense of the greater game now beginning. The cards, the empty wine-bottles, the half-filled glasses, the pipes and tobacco are still upon the table; the candles are burning low in their sockets. Colonel Rail is leaping into his saddle. Too late! Sullivan has knocked at one door; Washington is about to knock at the other.

The column under Washington is coming down the Pentonville road. It reaches a farm-house, where a farmer is chopping wood.

“Can you tell me where the Hessian pickets are?” Washington asks.

The chopper hesitates.

“It is General Washington who asks you,” says the aid at Washington’s side.

A gleam of joy lights up the chopper’s face as he points to the spot.

And now comes the roar of a cannon. Joyful, soul-thrilling sound! Sullivan is there! “Forward!”

Out from the road, over the fields sweep the shivering men. Shivering no longer now, for that deep and heavy roar has warmed them. There it is again! They hear the rattling of muskets. Moments are ages now.

A little stream, called the Assanpink, comes down through the town, and empties into the Delaware. There is a bridge across the stream, and a mill-dam. Sullivan has seized the bridge. No escape for the Hessians in that direction; and now Washington is coming down from the northwest, in their rear.

It is scarcely five minutes after Sullivan begins the attack before the troops under Washington, Greene, and Stirling make their appearance.

Captain Forrest wheels six cannon into position, to send his shot down King Street. While he is doing it, the Hessians bring two guns into the street. The gunners are ramming down the cartridges, the match-man is lighting his port-fire, but before he can touch them off a company of brave men, under Captain William A. Washington, of Colonel Mercer’s regiment of Virginians, dash up the street, drive the Hessians from their guns, and capture them. In this company is a young lieutenant, James Monroe, destined to be President of the country for whose redemption he is fighting.

Sullivan is pressing nearer, driving the Hessians over against Washington, and Washington is driving them back again. Colonel Rail is riding here and there shouting to them; but the men, just aroused from sleep, know not which way to turn.

The British cavalry have saddled their horses, but are in- confusion. They ride up the Assanpink to a ford above the millpond, spur their horses across the stream, and flee toward Bordentown. Colonel Rail falls from his horse mortally wounded. All is confusion now. Some of the Hessians throw down their arms, while others flee toward Princeton; but Washington has not come so far to leave the Princeton road open for their escape. Colonel Hand and his riflemen, who gave the Hessians such a stirring-up at Flatbush, is there. Surrounded; no chance to escape; the bewildered, panic-stricken men who have not had time to blacken their whiskers with their shoe-brushes this morning rush back to the village, throw down their guns, fall on their knees, hold up their hands, and make doleful cries.

So Stirling’s men, and Sullivan’s, pleaded for life at Brooklyn; but the Hessians and British drove the bayonet home, and crimsoned the ground with blood, and thought it pleasant work and a pretty sight to see the life-blood flow. Little did they think, then, that the time would come when the begging for life would be on the other side. But it has come. Oh, life is so dear, so sweet, now!

Kindness is better than brutality, forgiveness more noble than revenge. No bayonet is plunged remorselessly into the hearts of unresisting foes. Humanity triumphs on this glorious morning. One thousand prisoners are captured, with six cannon, a thousand muskets, and all the baggage. It is the work of twenty minutes.

Washington, in the kindness of his heart, visits the dying Hessian colonel, and does what he can to soothe his last moments on earth.

Cadwalader and Ewing have not been able to cross the river at Bordentown, and it will not be wise for Washington to remain on the New Jersey side. Back to the ferry with the prisoners, with six cannon, with tents and supplies, moves the victorious army. Last night the cause of liberty was dark and gloomy; but now the future is radiant with hope.

Little do those patriots, toiling through the snow, know what they have done for the world. Coming centuries alone will reveal the worth of their morning’s work.

Thus ends the chapter on the Battle of Trenton.

Here is what Henry Knox, who was there, wrote:

The hurry, fright, and confusion of the enemy was not unlike that which will be when the last trump shall sound.”

and also:

Providence seemed to have smiled on every part of the enterprise

It was the victories at Trenton and Princeton that convinced American Colonists to volunteer. As one consternated British gentleman noted:

Volunteer companies are collecting in every county on the continent, and in a few months the rascals will be stronger than ever. Even the parsons, some of them, have turned out as volunteers and pulpit drums–or thunder, which you please to call it–summoning all to arms in this cursed babble. D— them all!”


2 thoughts on “A Christmas Story for Patriots”

  1. What a Christmas celebration! Thank you so much for the travel down our history lane, of those weary but BRAVE men who changed the very course of World history with the absolute Guiding Hand of our Awesome God . Thank you!

    • You’re so welcome. It was fun doing all the research. I have been closely studying the War of Independence and relating it to our current situation, coupled with scriptural insights, etc.


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