As we enter this wintry season, one remarkable Christmas story comes to mind that I believe every American should remember.
It was a different Christmas. A wartime Christmas. A Christmas when secrecy was the wrapping paper, and the gift was yet unknown.
This Christmas story is written by the frostbit fingers of stalwart revolutionary soldiers marching to Trenton in toe-numbing cold on the evening of December 25, 1776.
The War of Independence had not gone well the past six months. General Washington had no battle victories, and General Gates was petitioning the Continental Congress to remove him. The only savor in many of the soldiers’ hearts was that their commissions would be ending in a week.
Being tired, sickly, and broken, they were eager to return to their homes. Additionally, the locals were suffering for lack of food due to British blockades. It was not a happy Christmas for liberty-seeking Americans. The price for freedom was not yet fully paid.
Only the enemy was content. The British had hired German mercenaries, Hessians, who had fought ferociously for them. They celebrated Christmas that day in warm cabins just nine miles south from General Washington’s soldiers, on the opposite bank of the Delaware River.
Washington’s army did not celebrate Christmas; they were preparing cannons and packs for departure that evening.
Inside the General’s tent every detail was being secretly discussed with his commanding officers: Sullivan, Greene, Stephen, Glover, Sargent, St. Clair, Mercer, Stirling, Fermoy, and Knox. These men had been hardened in many engagements with the British and disgraced by numerous retreats. They had grown a fire of repudiation in their hearts for their enemy.
General Washington had trained them well.
Though much of his army were sick, the ones remaining wanted to revenge their humiliations over the course of the year. Though beaten, they had in fact been forged by brutal determination. And this time, they were consumed by the thought of only one outcome: Victory. No other option was discussed.
The General knew this moment presented a unique and critical opportunity. If they waited out another winter, the momentum of their cause could be lost and might cripple their nerve as a fledgling nation. The Declaration of Independence could become stillborn.
He was putting everything on the block. To take the British by surprise tomorrow morning, secrecy was crucial. The password revealed Washington’s resolve: “Victory or Death.” Albeit a strange Christmas greeting, it steeled the heart for this final earnest effort. The cause of the entire nation rested here.
When your cause is higher than that of your enemies’, you have the capacity to out-survive them.
And when you’re fighting your own war and not someone else’s, your relentlessness remains unmatched. General Washington knew this. His officers had had enough of the British. His men had much more to lose, a much greater cause, and thus an unfearing drive in their hearts to win this time.
They had to, because Washington’s plan to capture the British and Hessian camp at Trenton was implacable. Unreasonable. Once they crossed that river, there was no escape.
A victory would remove a strategic winter stronghold from the enemy and provide a powerful stimulus to raise his troops’ faltering morale, and more so give confidence to every victory-starved citizen throughout the colonies.
They couldn’t be any more painfully motivated, and yet they were about to enter the worst test of it. The weather outside had turned uncomfortably cold and the rain into sleet.
First, the army had to cross the dangerously high, fast-flowing Delaware River in the black of night to avoid being noticed by anyone. Eighteen large cannons, horses, supplies, and 2400 men had to be ferried in strict silence.
Next, they had to immediately march nine miles through a snowstorm pounding the eastern coastline.
Then in the final mile, they discovered that their flintlocks were frozen and the extra gunpowder given the soldiers was wettened by the march. General Washington without hesitating, with a calm command, gave the order, “Secure your bayonets.” His resolve undaunted.
Many of the men were without shoes, even jackets, their extremities getting frostbit. They had marched all night ducking and shucking away sleep. These were true American heroes. We must never forget what they did for us on their Christmas.
After their extraordinary victory the next morning, many of them died later due to the frostbite incurred during that march. The price paid for liberty was not only given to us but gathered up by a Higher Power still. It was a joint resolve by these doggedly determined American revolutionary soldiers and the wind of Providence behind them. Together Americans won.
That particular Christmas was certainly different. It was a fighting Christmas. A secret password Christmas. A do-or-die Christmas.
General Washington and his troops at Trenton gave America a Christmas gift worth more than all the flags waving and fireworks booming ever since the first Independence Day itself. This gift was their determination to win freedom for us at any cost.
Eugene Harnett has raised five children in Eagle River, owns his own business here, and has been involved in local and state affairs since 1988. To reach Eugene, email firstname.lastname@example.org