The Declaration of Independence was barely six months old, but the American experiment with liberty and representative government seemed on the verge of collapse. George Washington and his Continental Army had been decisively defeated at the Battle of Long Island and then forced to retreat across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Now the army was shrinking before Washington’s eyes as the Continental regiments were coming to the end of their enlistments and choosing to go home. Thomas Pane worried that Americans might see the army’s reversals as “proceeding from a natural inability to support it’s cause against the enemy, and might have sunk under the despondency of this misconceived idea.”
Washington seized upon a daring plan to change the momentum. He proposed to lead a large force across the Delaware River on the night of December 25 and stage a surprise dawn attack on the garrison at Trenton on the 26th.
The crossing would be challenging. The Delaware near Trenton was dangerously rapid and choked with ice. To transport his soldiers across the river, Washington turned to Col. John Glover’s 14th Continental Regiment, a unit made up of mariners from the Massachusetts fishing village of Marblehead and nearby towns.
One third of the regiment’s men were listed on the muster rolls as “dark complexioned.” White, Black, and Native American, they had come together before the war, fishing the North Atlantic where skin color did not matter in a storm.
Washington, a Virginia planter whose land was worked by hundreds of enslaved African Americans, resisted admitting Black men into the army. But the Marblehead regiment had nautical skills and a reputation for discipline and teamwork. The previous summer at Long Island, when the army was trapped with its back against the East River and facing annihilation, Glover’s regiment had manned the boats that allowed the Continentals to escape. It was an American Dunkirk.
Now the regiment was being called on to make another crossing as consequential but more treacherous than at Long Island. Around 6:00 PM on Christmas night, they began shuttling soldiers, artillery, and horses across the Delaware. By that time a howling nor’easter had struck with full force. The blinding snow turned to sleet and the swollen river surged with ice floes that threatened the heavily laden wooden boats.
The crossing continued until early morning. When it ended 2,400 Continental soldiers stood on the far shore. Among them were the Marbleheaders, now serving as infantrymen instead of sailors. Later that morning they reached Trenton where, after a brief fight, the garrison surrendered. The victory was not the turning point of the war––that would come at Saratoga––but American morale was reinvigorated. The fight for the cause would continue.
For Thomas Paine, the cause went beyond winning Amercan independence. He saw it as a struggle for “the republicanizing and democratizing of the world.”
Without the victory at Trenton the American cause may well have been lost. It was a victory won in no small part because a multiethnic regiment transported George Washington and his Continentals across the Delaware River against all odds.
It was not a white man’s victory. Nor was it a victory of the native-born. It was an American victory.
© 2021 Ron Koehler