Last week we took an honest look at the state of the Revolutionary War on Christmas Eve, 1776, and saw that our battle for freedom was virtually over; but I left high school under the false impression that our eventual victory was never in doubt, that all it took was the time needed for it to happen. You may have graduated with the same idea, fostered by history books, which gloss over the facts.
As the sources of the time clearly show, however, 1777 might easily have seen the failure of a great struggle. Just six months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, our army had been driven off Long Island, had lost three pitched battles on Manhattan, had lost 2,900 men in a desperate stand at Fort Washington, and had retreated across the Hudson to New Jersey. The British then crossed the Hudson, attacked Fort Lee and almost trapped Washington’s forces between the Hudson and Hackensack rivers. Only by abandoning Fort Lee, with all its cannon, ammunition, and precious food supplies, did we escape.
By the middle of December, General Howe firmly believed that the American Army, unable to win battles or to even feed itself in bitter winter weather, would soon fall apart. Everything seemed to confirm that opinion as he posted detachments of his 26,000 men at various points, and thousands of colonists flooded in to accept amnesty. Washington himself sent a warning note to the members of the Continental Congress; one saying that they were not safe because Philadelphia was most likely Howe’s next target.
Only a bare 6,000 of the original American force remained. Washington himself had a mere 2,400 in his camp near the Delaware River; and — sadly — the flow of volunteers that had once quickly filled the gaps in our ranks had at first slowed to a trickle and had then ended.
A lesser man might either have concluded that the great struggle for liberty and equality was over, or might simply have fought bravely on until that struggle ended in defeat. But George Washington was not just any man. He was that one man in a million who is able to step back, consider what’s happening, truly understand it, and find a way to perform a miracle.
One thing Washington faced straightforwardly was the fact that use of the conventional tactics of the day had failed and would continue to fail. Why? Because those tactics could not prevail when used against a larger, better equipped and better trained enemy that had only to use the same tactics in order to win.
Was there any way to change that simple truth? No! And Washington, accepting that fact, abandoned conventional tactics for tactics that saved the revolution. He knew that if he could somehow equalize the odds against him, the brave men under him, men who were fighting for their freedom, would do the rest. In a stroke of genius, realizing that British General Howe had chosen to divide his forces into detachments, Washington overwhelmed the British with mobility, taking them on one detachment at a time.
Beginning on Dec. 25, 1776 he gave all Americans the best Christmas present we ever received. He crossed the ice-choked Delaware in icy rain and sleet and defeated the Hessian soldiers in Trenton. Just eight days later a second one at Princeton followed the victory at Trenton, and America was at long last able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.