Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, via Wikimedia Commons
The Revolutionary Winter of 1776-77

You can’t always get what you want,

But if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.

— Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, 1969

It’s time for the annual gathering around the Festivus Pole here at Your Favorite Periodical, to toast with a hot toddy or two, exchange tales of valor and exotic shades of orange, and to present our annual seasonal nugget until next we meet in the new year.

We begin in the best 21st-century tradition of self-obsessed ecofriendliness: regifting. Today’s column will be fun if you just go ahead and dive in, but it will be truly meaningful if you return to September’s edition regarding Our Declaration, Danielle Allen ’93’s challenging analysis of the Declaration of Independence, which said more in 1,337 words than $1 billion did in the 2016 presidential campaigns.

Today’s adventure — the Battle of Princeton — takes place only six months later, on Jan. 3, 1777, and without the Declaration might never have occurred at all.

Things had not been going well for George Washington’s itinerant forces since their early successes in the Boston area in 1775, and in truth they had been embarrassingly outmaneuvered and outfought in a retreat through New York the following year, until they came to rest in relative safety in Pennsylvania, west of the Delaware River, at the tail end of 1776. The 4,000 or so Colonials remaining in December faced the certainty of Gen. William Howe’s British army of more than 30,000 descending from New York the next spring to sweep through New Jersey (then filled with Tory sympathizers) and on to Philadelphia to seize the seat of the nascent U.S. government.

But that never happened. Instead, by January Washington was dug in at Morristown, N.J.; the British had withdrawn to New Brunswick, N.J., and New York City; revolutionary councils and militia enlistments all over New Jersey were rampant; and the fame of Washington as a great tactical general had spread to Philadelphia, throughout the Colonies, to London, and to the other capitals of Europe, notably Paris, where Benjamin Franklin had arrived to seek the further involvement of the French. This all was set in motion by two swift, surgical strokes by the Continentals: the diabolically clever Dec. 26 overwhelming of the Hessian barracks at Trenton (you know, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”), and the brilliantly conceived Battle of Princeton on Jan. 3 (actually, Washington Crossing the Delaware again). Combined, these two engagements that changed world history took about eight hours.

Which I won’t re-enact for another eight hours here (relief abounds at the Festivus Pole). If you’d like a good, solid retelling of the military campaign with a Princeton flavor, you can read here the fine PAW article from December 1976 by Virginia Kays Creesy.

What we will do is look at extraordinary factors that were in motion in this exotic corner of the globe — to Parisians, New Jersey was maybe the Sri Lanka of the day — conspiring to create the first constitutional democracy in history. And by extension, how the lack or failure of any of these might well have snuffed it out at first light.

Princeton College. The College, unlike many other Colonial institutions, actively supported the revolution, as we’ve noted here before. President Witherspoon, the trustees, and a large portion of the student and alumni bodies backed the revolt, which was otherwise rather tenuous in militarily strategic New Jersey before Washington’s victory. They essentially bet the College on it, even before the war itself engulfed Nassau Hall and drove its classes into exile for most of the war years. In the still-early days of the war in December 1776, when Princeton had perhaps 600 living alumni, the college had already lost three of them to the struggle: Caleb Barnum 1757, chaplain to the Western army, had died of illness earlier in the year; Philip Johnston 1759, a colonel in the New Jersey militia, died in the Battle of Long Island Aug. 27; and Philip Vickers Fithian 1772, chaplain of the New Jersey state militia, died at Fort Washington, N.Y., Oct. 8. A fourth, John Rosbrugh 1761, chaplain to Washington’s ragtag forces, died Jan. 2 at the Assunpink Bridge in Trenton, the crucial staging area from which Washington executed the audacious secret flanking attack that won the Battle of Princeton the following day. Six more alumni would die during the war.

Col. Joseph Reed 1757, Washington’s adjutant general, remained in Trenton after the Christmas victory to perform reconnaissance in command of the Philadelphia Light Horse troop, helping Washington plot the flanking attack on Jan. 3. Dr. Benjamin Rush 1760, surgeon general of the Continental Army, was heavily involved in the battle itself, tending the mortally wounded Gen. Hugh Mercer and many others.

Philosophy. We’ve already noted the crucial timing of the Declaration of Independence (signed by Witherspoon and Rush) six months earlier; it was read aloud in the camps of the put-upon Colonial armies, as were such current foundational works as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and most especially his The American Crisis, which might as well have been written for each serving individual:

These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will,

in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country…

Crucially, without these writings Americans would not have been understood by non-British nations we desperately needed as allies, like Franklin’s French. And more immediately, there would literally have been no decisive victory at Princeton on Jan. 3, because the majority of Washington’s forces were under enlistment that expired Dec. 31; they were free to walk away rather than recross the Delaware to face 10,000 British soldiers. The inspiration of Jefferson and Paine and the soldiers’ loyalty to Washington kept them there, and saved the entire revolution from imploding before it really began.

The Visitors. British Gen. William Howe, Lord Cornwallis, and their 30,000 friends — including sizable groups of foreign mercenaries and ex-convicts — behaved like they were here to do a maintenance job, not win a war. They proceeded slowly everywhere, not so much out of caution as a need to wait for their well-provisioned supply trains to keep up. After vainly “chasing” Washington and his virtually destitute army (burdened with few supplies) across New Jersey, they found no boats left on the Delaware with which to follow; instead of building some, they set up outposts and retired to New York for the winter. They heavily defended the road into Princeton from Trenton after the Christmas attack, but left the southern cross-country approach (from the golf course to Nassau Hall today) completely uncovered. Duh.

All the way along they pillaged every local in their path, including the Tory loyalists; this resulted in an instant and vigorous New Jersey spy network for the rebels, and in the spring a flock of new recruits to the Continental army and the militia. The Brits also tended to bayonet prisoners when peeved, even then recognized as a barbarity. Many of the victims — for example, Gen. Mercer, who died at Princeton — became legendary symbols of the Revolution.

The Home Team. Perhaps the most succinct way to highlight the Americans’ austere strengths at this stage of the war is to point out that almost all the outlandish underdog things you’ve heard are actually true. Many of the troops had worn through their footwear months prior and were facing winter in New Jersey with no shoes and no prospects of any; wherever they marched, they left a trail of blood on the frozen ground. The amount of ice in Leutze’s painting of Washington on the Delaware (above) may be apocryphal, but the treacherous ice wasn’t; it had been an early and awful winter already by December. Most of their weapons were brought from home. Washington, with half of his troops green militiamen, repeatedly had to lead from the front to rally them from panicked retreat, and seemed to love doing it, on horseback (his mount Nelson may have been less enthused), despite being a great target. In idle moments, he literally talked most of his men into serving beyond their enlistment to fight, shoeless, against the most vaunted army on earth.

George Washington, Benjamin Rush 1760, Hugh Mercer: Betting the Farm
Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741–1827, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, 1783–84, Oil on canvas, 237 x 145 cm. (93 5/16 x 57 1/16 in.), Princeton University, commissioned by the Trustees.
Because these circumstances aligned, Washington could turn two brilliant ideas — the night crossing of the Delaware on Dec. 25, and the night end-run around the British left flank to Princeton on Jan. 2 — into a global reputation, exactly what the Congress in Philadelphia and Franklin in Paris needed. He did this with guile, good intelligence, and a hungry patchwork force that numbered fewer than today’s Princeton student body. British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan, a century later, opined:

It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.

By the time Washington got to his winter quarters in Morristown on Jan. 6 with a huge pile of captured British supplies, he had congressional approval to raise a new and far stronger army that, five years later in Virginia, would accept the British surrender.

Quite a holiday gift: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Happy 2017, for auld lang syne.