Christmas week, 1776 Near Trenton, New Jersey
George Washington and his beleaguered Continental Army are spending a grim holiday season on the road. Four long months of harassment and battle with the British Army have left the 6,000 rebels tired, footsore and hungry. To make matters worse for Washington, he can expect more than half of his volunteers to drift home by the New Year, their enlistments up.
An evaporating army is just the latest in a long string of misfortunes to beset Washington. Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July, American forces have been mostly on their heels. The sobering sight of a huge British fleet in New York harbor in the wake of the celebration was the first indication that the road to American independence would be no promenade for the Continentals.
Washington and his troops were subsequently swept off Long Island, and chased the length of Manhattan. The disaster in New York was capped by American defeats at Forts Washington and Lee on the Hudson. The Continental Army has subsequently limped through New Jersey, on the road to its present encampment here on the Delaware River, close to nearby Trenton (see map, above), and a brigade of Hessians garrisoned there.
Through all of this, Washington supporters could be forgiven for wondering what Congress has been doing to relieve the abject condition of the army. While much criticism has been levelled at Washington's pitiful defense of New York, the general's friends insist that the current state of the army would be dramatically improved if Congress would put aside its bickering over the pros and cons of a standing army and find a way to keep the Continentals in the field.
Meanwhile observers are speculating that Washington will have to shelve his dream of a "European-style" army disciplined enough to effectively engage the British regulars in field combat. Already the sense is that new tactics are evolving. "Unless we are absolutely forced into," Washington wrote recently, "we shall avoid a large battle. With the fate of America at stake, our job is to prolong this war as much as possible."
Inspiration for the cause was recently provided by the brilliant pampleteerist Thomas Paine. Paine, who's essay "Common Sense" helped inspire the colonials to independence a year ago, recently penned another essay, "The Crisis," which Washington subsequently ordered read to his troops. Said to have been written on a drumhead, Paine's opening refrain has a stirring beat of its own: "These are the times that try men's souls. . ."
It is doubtful, however, whether Paine's words alone will be enough to invigorate the American cause. The sense here is that Washington needs to take a gamble. He desperately needs a victory to hold his troops together, and to keep the hopes of the revolution alive.
Meanwhile, the Hessian force across the Delaware is preparing a sumptuous Christmas feast . . .