he colonial militia had fought over the decades, including in the French and Indian War, to protect their families during crises. So Whigs and patriots, constituting about one third of the colonial population, believed that sheer determination to protect their homes and freedom was sufficient to win a war against the professional Redcoats. By December 1776, it was obvious that grit alone could not overcome inadequacies in training, tactics, weaponry, and equipment. Even worse was the deficiency in leadership, both militarily and politically, of this bold new experiment in self-government.
Washington was never given the resources necessary to wage war against such a powerful enemy. The Continental Army lacked money, ammunition, entrenching tools necessary for survival, tents, blankets, cooking utensils, shoes, and clothing. In the face of harsh winter conditions, many soldiers were dressed in thin rags or were even “naked” according to Washington, with some having broken or no shoes at all.
Many of the Continental Army were wounded, sick, and demoralized by the severe losses to the British. Many were deserting, and enlistment terms would be up on December 30, leaving only 1,400.
On Dec. 18, General Washington wrote in a private letter, “I think the game is pretty nearly up, owing, in a great measure, to the insidious arts of the enemy, and disaffection of the Colonies before mentioned [New York and New Jersey, who particularly did not send the militia when Washington called upon the governors], but principally to the ruinous policy of short enlistments, and placing too great a dependence on the Militia[.]”
New York City; Newport, Rhode Island; and most of New Jersey had already fallen to the enemy. The next target was the republic’s capital of Philadelphia.
When General William Howe offered “a free and general pardon” to all who would return to “their just allegiance” and take a loyalty oath to England, large numbers of dispirited New Jersey fair-weather “patriots” jumped off the ship of American liberty.
Theses turncoats were followed by Philadelphians who fled to the countryside in droves. A cowardly Congress fled from Philadelphia to Baltimore, Maryland, dumping total control of the operations of the army onto the shoulders of General Washington.
Washington was undercut and thwarted at every turn by one of his own generals. General Charles Lee whispered to Washington’s staff and generals that he had no confidence in the commander-in-chief’s abilities. Fortunately for the revolution, Lee was captured, and the loyal and capable General John Sullivan took over Lee’s troops.
Believing the game to be “pretty nearly up,” Washington decided to take drastic action. He planned a mission that was tactically simple but a huge gamble. He would personally lead a force of just under 2,500 men across the river and then march toward Trenton, where they would wage a dawn attack on the enemy garrisoned in the town.
Washington had several factors in his favor. No one expected the Continental army to cross the icy river and then march several miles in blinding snow, sleet, and hail on bloody, frostbitten feet. The Continental army was considered to be inferior, in numbers and capability, to the British army. And, most certainly, no one expected the -attle weary Americans to attack the Briti….