General George Washington leading the Continental Army on small boats across the Delaware River in the middle of the freezing night, surrounded by chunks of ice, is a popular story and image from early American history. Depicted famously by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze in the painting nearby, this desperate effort was a significant turning point in the war. The daring crossing was an act of desperation and made necessary (and possible) by a long string of events in 1776.
It had not been a good year for Washington’s army, suffering a string of defeats at Brooklyn, Kips Bay, and White Plains. With little hope or troops left, Washington retreated with much of his army across the Delaware around November 7th, expecting the British to soon cross and strike Philadelphia, taking full advantage of their momentum and Washington’s weakness. On November 16, 2,837 Americans surrendered at Fort Washington, after General Washington trusted Nathaniel Greene’s report that the fort could be defended. Another defeat at Fort Lee left Washington with perhaps 3,500 troops after losses and desertions. On top of this, many troops’ commitments were due to expire in early December, reminiscent of when the army had massive turnover during the siege of Boston in 1775.
Desperate to defend Philadelphia (where Congress had been held since the First Continental Congress in 1774), Washington expected General Lee to reinforce him soon with more troops. However, Lee – effectively Washington’s second-in-command – had inexplicably spent the night of December 12th apart from his troops at a tavern. Lee was ratted out and captured in a raid that took less than 15 minutes on the 13th. Things looked bleak, but on the same day, Washington learned that Congress had relocated from Philadelphia to Baltimore for safety.
More importantly, continuing a string of possibly Providential, but certainly weather-assisted, events like a storm that allowed Washington to end the British siege of Boston with minimal bloodshed (see this post), and surprise fog that covered Washington’s overnight escape from Brooklyn (see this one), on December 13th, British General William Howe decided to cease military operations for the winter. Absent this decision, the war may have been over soon, with a British victory, but with this decision, we have the backdrop for the famous crossing of the Delaware.
Seeking opportunity for a decisive move, Washington kept his army as intact as he could manage until the time arrived. With Christmas approaching and the British ceding the initiative, Washington now had about 6,000 troops and intelligence that about 2,000 Hessian mercenaries (the actual number was probably lower, around 1,500) were defending Trenton. After the “Long Retreat,” as the string of defeats above came to be known, the Continental Army needed a victory, and got one. Three separate groups were planned to cross the Delaware, but only Washington’s main force made it. Regardless, Washington caught Hessian commander Johann Rall unprepared, in spite of warnings Rall received and disregarded. After all, the sturdy British had closed down for the winter – why wouldn’t everyone do the same?
Just after 8am on December 26th, Washington’s force attacked, killing 21 Hessians, wounding 90, and capturing 900. 500 escaped over a bridge that was supposed to be defended by one of the two forces unable to make the crossing. Washington went on to another victory at Princeton on January 3, as the British were again caught by surprise, thinking the army was still in Trenton. The momentum had turned, with the central event being the daring crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, in freezing weather surrounded by ice.
 McCullough, David. 1776 (2005). P. 234.
 McCullough, David. 1776 (2005). P. 249.
 McCullough, David. 1776 (2005). P. 264-267.
 McCullough, David. 1776 (2005). P. 270-281.
 McCullough, David. 1776 (2005). P. 288.