Friday, December 23, 2011

George Washington's Christmas Day decision ...

In December 1776, George Washington’s Continental Army was in bad shape, but that changed a bit for the better on Christmas Day, thanks in large measure to a quick decision he made in the face of an extreme challenge on that very day.

As 1776 neared its end, Washington and his men had been driven out of New York and westward across much of New Jersey by British forces. The American fighting force faced mounting problems as soldiers’ enlistment periods expired, food and supplies were in short supply, and desertions increased. But these desperate times gave birth to one of the key American victories in the war – the crossing of the Delaware and subsequent defeat of British-hired Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton on December 25, 1776.

As the river-crossing plan was put into play, almost everything went wrong. Preparations for the crossing, to be carried out by American forces at three points along the Delaware, ran hours behind schedule. The weather turned worse, with an strong wind accompanied by sleet and snow. Floating chunks of ice and ice jams threatened the boats, and several inches of water in most of them made the soldiers they carried even colder and wetter. Some men fell overboard, into the icy water.

Under those conditions, only one of the three American crossings – the one that happened to carry Washington – was successful. In despair, Washington came close to calling off the entire operation, and probably would have done so had going back been even more dangerous for his men than pushing on. In his 2006 book Washington's Crossing, historian David Hackett Fischer described the scene:

“On the Jersey shore Washington wrapped himself in his cloak, sat on a wooden box that had once been a beehive, and brooded over the demise of his plan. The operation was now three hours behind schedule. Later he wrote that the delay ‘made me despair of surprising the Town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke.’ … But desperate as the mission had become, he decided that it might become more difficult to abandon it. Washington wrote, ‘As I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed upon repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events.’”

So in a single moment, one man's simple, on-the-spot decision -- to go or not to go --gave American patriots a badly needed victory, one without which the American Revolution might have fizzled.

No comments: