Gates v. Washington

I think most Americans today fail to realize how close this country came to dying right after its birth.  After the disastrous New York campaign, the Continental Army was reduced to a few thousand ill-fed, ill-trained and ill-uniformed men under Washington.  As the year of 1776 was coming to an end, many Americans thought the cause of American independence was also coming to an end, but not George Washington.  He realized that for the war to continue he had to come up with some masterstroke that would rouse American morale and convince his troops that they stood a chance to win this lop-sided conflict.

Horatio Gates, the American general criticizing the plan in the film clip above from the movie The Crossing, was an experienced British officer before casting his lot with the Americans.  The criticisms he makes in the film were sound, other than his snide statement that Americans could not stand against European troops.  Washington’s plan was a roll of the dice.  Historically Gates did speak out against  the plan, arguing that the Army should continue to retreat.  Although militarily sensible this plan would have probably destroyed the morale of the Americans and may well have led to the collapse of the Revolution during the winter of 1776-1777.  The film dramatizes his opposition, but Gates did refuse to take part in the Trenton attack, claiming illness.  Gates would go on to glory in 1777, leading the  American Northern army at Saratoga, and to ignominy in 1780, leading the American Southern army that was shattered at Camden in 1780.  The opposition of Gates to his Trenton plan had no impact on Washington. 

Instead, Washington carried out the Trenton attack  which was an incredible success.

Here is the report that Washington wrote to Congress on the Trenton victory:

27 December 1776


I have the pleasure of congratulating you upon the success of an enterprise which I had formed against a detachment of the enemy lying in Trenton, and which was executed yesterday morning. The evening of the 25th I ordered the troops intended for this service to parade back of McKonkey’s Ferry, that they might begin to pass as soon s it grew dark, imagining we should be able to throw them all over, with the necessary artillery, by twelve o’clock, and that we might easily arrive at Trenton by five in the morning, the distance being about nine miles. But the quantity of ice, made that night, impeded the passage of the boats so much, that it was three o’clock before the artillery could all be got over; and near four before the troops took up their line of march. This made me despair of surprising the town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke. But as I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered and harassed on repassing the river, I determined to push on at all events. I formed my detachment into two divisions, one to march by the lower or river road the other by the upper or Pennington road. As the divisions had nearly the same distance to march, I ordered each of them, immediately upon forcing the out-guards to push directly into the town, that they might charge the enemy before they had time to form.

The upper division arrive at the enemy’s advanced post exactly at eight o’clock; and in three minutes after, I found, from the fire on the lower road, that the division had also got up. The out-guards made but small opposition, though, for their numbers, they behaved very well, keeping up a constant retreating fire from behind houses. We presently saw their main body formed; but, from their motions, they seemed undetermined how to act. Being hard pressed by our troops, who had already got possession of their artillery, they attempted to file off by a road on their right, leading to Princeton. But, perceiving their intention, I threw a body of troops in their way, which immediately checked them. Finding from our disposition, that they were surrounded and that they must inevitably be cut to pieces if they made any further resistance, they agreed to lay down their arms. The number that submitted in this manner was twenty-three officers and eight hundred and eighty-six men. Colonel Rahl, the commanding officer, and seven others, were found wounded in the town. I do not exactly know how many were killed; but I fancy not above twenty or thirty, as they never made any regular stand. Our loss is very trifling indeed, only two officers and one or two privates wounded.

I find that the detachment of the enemy consisted of the three Hessian regiments of Anspach, Kniphausen and Rahl, amounting to about fifteen hundred men, and a troop of British light-horse; who were not killed or taken, pushed directly down the road towards Bordentown. These would likewise have fallen into our hand, could my plan have been completely carried into execution. General Ewing was to have crossed before day at Trento Ferry, and taken possession of the bridge leading out of town; but the quantity of ice was so great, that, though he did everything in his power to effect it, he could not get over, This difficulty also hindered General Cadwalader from crossing with the Pennsylvania militia from Bristol. He got part of his foot over; but, finding it impossible to embark his artillery, he was obliged to desist. I am fully confident, that, could the troops under Generals Ewing and Cadwalader have passed the river, I should have been able with their assistance to drive the enemy from all their posts below Trenton. But the numbers I had with me being inferior to theirs below me and a strong battalion of light infantry being at Princeton above, I thought it most prudent to return the same evening with the prisoners and the artillery we had taken. We found no stores of any consequence in the town.

In justice to the officer and men, I must add, that their behaviour upon this occasion reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the river in a very severe night, and their march through a violent storm of snow and hail, did not in the least abate their ardor; but when they came to the charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward and were I to give a preference to any particular corps, I should do an injustice to the others.

Colonel Baylor, my first aide-de- camp, will have the honor of delivering this to you; and from him you ma be made acquainted with many other particulars. His spirited behaviour upon every occasion requires me to recommend him to your particular notice.

I have the honor to be, &c.

Go. Washington

When Cornwallis marched against him with a larger army after Trenton, Washington went around it in a daring night march and defeated a British detachment at Princeton.  American morale soared, and patriots rose up throughout New Jersey, causing the British to withdraw from most of that state.  Many Tories, appalled by British excesses during the fighting in 1776, and heartened by the victories of Trenton and Princeton, came over to the patriot side.  George Washington saved the American Revolution and earned the title Father of his country.

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  1. Truth. Read David McCulloch’s 1776 and Barnet Schechter’s The Battle of New York. God Almighty and Washington held it together in face of serial, disastrous defeats at the hands of a numerically and professionally far superior army of British regulars and Hessian mercenaries.

    The United States of America came into existence only through Divine Assistance and George Washington: the father of his country. “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

  2. Washington agreed with you T.Shaw that divine assistance was essential to American victory:

    “A contemplation of the compleat attainment (at a period earlier than could have been expected) of the object for which we contended against so formidable a power cannot but inspire us with astonishment and gratitude. The disadvantageous circumstances on our part, under which the war was undertaken, can never be forgotten. The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving; while the unparalleled perseverance of the Armies of the U States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle.”

    George Washington

  3. I receive (I have been in on his tours of Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery – Washington’s MLR during the Battle of Brooklyn Hts) emails from author Barnet Shecter. Latest:

    “My new book, George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps, is a top seller on Amazon in several categories, including #1 in cartography. Below are some links to reviews and other articles. You can also hear a 15-minute NPR interview by Robin Young on “Here and Now,” WBUR-FM, Boston:

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