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Education Reporter

The Second Greatest Christmas in History

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By Michael Gerardi

Did you learn this Christmas story in American History class? Chances are you did not, but it is an inspiring account of how early American courage, resilience, and determination laid the foundation for the greatest nation on earth.

In December of 1776, the cause of American independence was on the verge of collapse. The American army had yet to achieve a decisive victory. Philadelphia was laid bare to the British army, forcing Congress to adjourn and flee for safety. One-fifth of General George Washington's army of 7,500 was unfit for combat due to sickness, and hundreds more were suffering through the brutal winter without adequate clothing. Worst of all, American enlistments were due to expire on January 1,1777, and few soldiers would renew their contracts without some hope of victory to mitigate their suffering. "Our affairs are hastening fast to ruin," Joseph Reed wrote to General Washington on December 22nd, "if we do not retrieve them by some happy event."

To bring about a "happy event," Washington planned an attack on Trenton, New Jersey, where 2,000 Hessian mercenaries were headquartered. The offensive was scheduled for Christmas night, with three groups of Americans crossing the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, converging on Trenton from north and south. Washington himself would lead the primary force of 2,400 troops stationed north of Trenton near McKonkey's Ferry, PA. The password that night was "Victory or Death."

Washington's troops reached the river at sunset on Christmas day. The high water level and large chunks of ice in the river complicated the crossing. At 11 PM, a winter storm blew in, so vicious that two men froze to death before they reached Trenton. Washington was three hours behind schedule when the crossing was completed at 3 a.m. Unbeknownst to him, the smaller groups of American forces to the south of him had suspended their attacks because of excessive ice in the river. Washington pressed on; he and his young nation had reached a point of no return.

Washington's men arrived at Trenton at 8 AM. Despite the snags in the plan, the Americans had achieved complete tactical surprise. The Hessians had expected a possible American offensive, but they mistook an earlier incursion for the attack, and assumed Washington would not risk attacking in the middle of a northeaster. The Americans quickly seized the high ground of the city and took control of the battle with artillery fire.

The Americans fought tenaciously with the Hessians from house to house in spite of the grueling march the night before. In 45 minutes, the battle was over; 21 Hessians were killed, 90 wounded, and 900 taken prisoner. Not a single American died in the fighting, and only four were wounded. Against all odds, a "happy event" had come to pass.

News of the victory spread quickly through the states via newspapers and word of mouth. Washington had hoped that a "lucky blow" would "rouse the spirits of the people," but even he could not have anticipated the effect of his unexpected triumph. The victory at Trenton convinced Americans, and the rest of the world, that their struggle was not in vain. George Washington's Christmas present was the birth of a free nation.

Michael J. Gerardi is a senior electrical engineering major at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana). He writes about film and other cultural topics for his web blog, "Just an Amateur" (http://justanamateur.blogspot.com). He may be contacted by e-mail at mgerardi@nd.edu.

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