Code Victory or Death: The Christmas Miracle that Reignited the Flame of American Freedom

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. But he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” – Thomas Paine

On Christmas Eve 1776, the American War for Independence was all but over. The Americans had lost. General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army, was out of alternatives. His army, down to only a few thousand men, was in retreat after losing substantial battles against the British forces. Withdrawing to the Delaware River, Washington’s troops settled in for the winter awaiting the end. Meanwhile, the British had 33,000 soldiers and more than 100 ships in New York City harbor preparing for the final surrender of the rebels.

In March 1776, the cause of American freedom started with a significant victory over the British when they evacuated their troops out of Boston. But only a few months later, British General William Howe landed his troops on Long Island. After that, the Battle of Long Island and defense of New York City had gone very badly for the patriots. The British general pushed Washington’s army completely out of New York by mid-November. After losing Fort Washington and Fort Lee along the Hudson River, the Continental Army retreated across New Jersey to the relative safety of Pennsylvania. Those losses placed a heavy toll on the Americans. When they evacuated the forts, they left behind critical military supplies and equipment.

As the harsh Pennsylvania winter set in, the morale of the Continental Army was very low. Many soldiers had already been killed or taken prisoner by the British. Those who had escaped capture were forced to survive with a lack of food and warm clothing. Most had lost hope that the British could ever be defeated. The enlistments of half of Washington’s army, 1,500 men, were up that week and they were going home. Many more soldiers were on the verge of deserting, having lost confidence in Washington’s leadership. General Washington knew that if he didn’t win a victory soon his entire army would be gone.

General Washington decided on one final offensive: His bold plan was to cross the Delaware River at night, march to the nearby town of Trenton, New Jersey, and attack the British garrison held by the Hessians, German mercenaries hired to fight against the rebels. Washington set the date for the river crossing for Christmas night.

On the morning of December 25, 1776, General Washington ordered his 2,400 troops to assemble near McKonkey’s Ferry, nine miles north of Trenton, on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. All of the men marshaled at the point of embarkment by 3:00 p.m. As the troops gathered at the landing, they were given the password for the campaign: “Victory or Death.” At nightfall, Washington and his men starting boarding flat-bottom Durham boats – large ferries used for moving horses and artillery. Washington and a party of Virginia soldiers crossed over first to secure the landing site. The condition of the river made the operation slow and difficult, due to a sleet/hailstorm that had broken out early in the crossing; strong winds were blowing from the north and the river was full of ice flows.

The original plan called for the entire army to disembark on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River by midnight. But it was not until 3:00 a.m. that the army completed the crossing. It took another hour to get the troops organized for an attack. By 4:00 a.m. the army was ready to advance. Because of the change in the weather, General Washington’s plans for the march were delayed four hours. And yet, as a sign of Divine Providence, the blinding snowstorm served as cover for the crossing and approach, and quickly pushed the army southward towards Trenton.

On the morning of December 26, at approximately 8:00 a.m., General Washington and his army reached the outskirts of Trenton and descended on the Hessians. The German soldiers were not prepared for such an attack. Because they did not expect the rebel forces to cross the Delaware River in the middle of winter when the river was full of ice and wild currents, none of their soldiers were patrolling the riverbanks. Washington’s men quickly overwhelmed the German defenses, and by 9:30 a.m. the town was surrounded and the Hessians soon surrendered. The casualties were low on both sides with the Hessians suffering 22 deaths and 83 injuries and the Americans two deaths and five injuries. Nearly 1,000 Hessians were captured, along with their cannon and supplies. That same day, the army crossed the river back to Pennsylvania, this time carrying prisoners and military stores taken during the battle.

A week later, on January 2, 1777, Washington’s army crossed the Delaware River a third time and defeated British reinforcements at Trenton under the command of Lord Cornwallis. The next day, January 3, Washington attacked the British rear guard at Princeton. Riding his horse between the lines of fire, General Washington miraculously remained unscathed as both armies volleyed. His troops rallied for a final charge and won another victory sending the British regulars into retreat.

The three victories at Trenton and Princeton greatly improved the troops’ morale and changed the course of history. The soldiers celebrated the victories and as the news spread, hope in the providence of God reinvigorated the American colonists. Almost all of the soldiers re-enlisted and within two weeks 15,000 new volunteers appeared and Washington began driving the British back across New Jersey.

Although it would be five more years before the British conceded final defeat, the Battle of Trenton was a major turning point in the War for Independence. The daring and miraculous feat led by General George Washington, the man who would become the young nation’s first president, reignited the cause of freedom and gave new life to the American Revolution.