Summary of Washington Crossing the Delaware River
After retreating through New Jersey, General George Washington crossed his army over the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania. The situation was bleak for both Washington and his army. His officers were questioning his ability to lead, and the soldiers were short on food, supplies, and clothing — some of them had no shoes. However, British forces that had chased after him through New Jersey stopped and did not cross the river. Then, on December 13, General William Howe, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, decided to end the pursuit and ordered his men to take shelter for the winter. Howe established a line of outposts along the river, including Trenton. Soon after, the mood in the American camp changed. Reinforcements arrived, boosting Washington’s confidence, and the men were inspired by Thomas Paine’s “Crisis No. 1,” which started with the legendary words, “These are the times that try men’s souls…” On December 24, Washington and his officers finalized a bold plan to attack Hessian forces at Trenton. However, they would need to cross the treacherous Delaware River on Christmas Night, at three different places along the river. That night, as American forces moved into position, a brutal snowstorm started, which made the situation even more dangerous. There were three columns of men that were supposed to cross the river, but only Washington and his men were successful. The others were stopped by the poor weather and lack of experience navigating rough waters. Luckily for Washington, he had John Glover and his Marblehead Men, who were able to navigate the rough waters and move Washington’s army to the New Jersey side of the river, about nine miles above Trenton. Due to the weather, the “Crossing of the Delaware” took much longer than expected, but there was still hope. After executing what is widely seen as one of the most significant feats in American history, Washington and his men rested for an hour. Around 4:00 in the morning, the Americans started the march to Trenton, hoping they would still be able to surprise the Hessian garrison and strike a victorious blow for the Patriot Cause.
Quick Facts About Washington Crossing the Delaware
- Washington needed to make a move, because the enlistments for most of the men in his army expired on December 31. After that, the men would be free to return to their homes.
- The purpose of the crossing was to attack the Hessian outpost at Trenton. If the attack was successful, Washington intended to continue on and attack Princeton and Brunswick.
- Seven brigades and seven artillery companies, along with equipment and horses, were transported across the river.
- Colonel John Glover and his regiment, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, were primarily the ones in charge of piloting the boats across the river.
- It is estimated that 2,400-2,500 men were moved. Henry Knox, in a letter to his wife, wrote, “about 2500 or three thousand pass’d the River.”
- The officers fixed a piece of white paper on their hats, so the men could identify them in the storm.
- Each of the soldiers was given three days of cooked rations and 40 rounds of artillery.
- Washington likely crossed over around 7:00 with Captain William Blackler of the Glover’s Regiment with Private John Russell as one of the men who helped move the boat across the river. No one knows what kind of boat Washington was on when he crossed.
- The crossing started around 6:00 p.m. and, according to Washington, was completed around 3:00 a.m. Overall, it took 9-10 hours to complete — at least three hours longer than Washington had planned.
- During the crossing, the temperature ranged from the 20s to just above freezing, about 33 degrees. There was a strong wind from the northeast that likely made it much colder for the men.
- The password — or countersign — given to the men for the operation was “Victory or Death.”
History of Washington Crossing the Delaware
The American Revolutionary War officially started on the morning of April 19, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. After the events at Concord, militia forces from the towns and villages in Massachusetts followed British farces back to Boston. A series of smaller battles took place during the British retreat, and the Massachusetts Militia forces grew in number. By the end of the day, the British were trapped in Boston. For nearly a year, the Siege of Boston continued, until the British finally evacuated the city on March 17, 1776. General George Washington sent some of the forces from the new Continental Army to New York City to prepare the city for an attack by the British.
Retreat Through New York
The British sailed from Boston to Nova Scotia and prepared to launch their attack on New York. General William Howe, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, wanted to take control of the city and end the war. Howe assembled a massive invasion force that included nearly 32,000 men and a fleet of warships. The British started to land men near Staten Island on August 21. A few days later, they advanced on American defenses on Long Island and forced the Americans to retreat to Manhattan. Over the next two months, the British pushed Washington and his army off of Manhattan Island, and north to White Plains. On October 28, the Battle of White Plains took place and Washington was forced to retreat further north. Instead of continuing the pursuit of Washington, Howe turned his army and returned to Manhattan Island where he attacked Fort Washington on November 16 and won a resounding victory. Nearly 3,000 American soldiers were captured in the battle, and the British took control of the fort. Four days later, Howe sent General Charles Cornwallis to attack Fort Lee in New Jersey. The Americans were unprepared and were forced to evacuate without putting up a fight. Washington and General Nathanael Greene led the men to Hackensack, New Jersey.
Retreat Across New Jersey — The First Crossing of the Delaware River
In the aftermath of the capture of Fort Lee, Howe ordered Cornwallis to continue the pursuit of Washington and his men into New Jersey. By then, Washington had divided the army, so he did not have the full strength of the Continental Army with him in New Jersey. As he retreated from Hackensack to Newark to Brunswick and, finally, to Trenton, he pleaded with General Charles Lee, his second-in-command, the Continental Congress, and Governor William Livingston of New Jersey to send reinforcements. The response was slow, which forced Washington to continue to fall back, even though he wanted to make a stand in New Jersey against Cornwallis. Although some reinforcements arrived while he was at Trenton, Washington was left with no choice but to retreat into Pennsylvania, so he ordered his men to cross the Delaware River. The last men, including Washington, made the crossing on December 8.
Victory or Death
The British were in control of both New York and New Jersey, and were in a position to launch a final, decisive attack on Philadelphia. Washington fully expected the British to attack him in Pennsylvania and then march to Philadelphia as soon as possible. However, Howe ordered his men to take shelter for the winter, ending the campaign. Around the same time, Washington started to develop a plan to launch an attack on the British outpost at Trenton, which was garrisoned by Hessian troops.
On December 20, General John Sullivan arrived at the American camp with 2,000 men, which gave Washington enough men to implement his plan. Soon after, Washington met with his commanding officers and they developed the plan to attack Trenton. On the 23rd, orders were issued to begin preparations for the attack and Washington wrote a letter to Adjutant General Joseph Reed. He told him, “Christmas day at night, one hour before day is the time fixed upon for our attempt on Trenton.” Washington also scribbled a phrase on a piece of paper that would be used as the password for his men to use during the operation — “Victory or Death.”
Dec. 23 — Washington has just given the counter sign, “Victory or Death.”…He intends to cross the river, make a ten-mile march to Trenton, and attack Rail just before daybreak…— From the Diary of an Unkown Officer on Washington’s Staff
The Plan of Attack on Trenton
On the 24th, Washington and his officers met one last time at Greene’s headquarters. The officers who were not at previous meetings were informed of the plan, including Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe. In total, there were about 8,000 men in the American camp, but only 6,000 were able to fight. The basic outline of the plan was as follows:
- It would be an offensive movement, instead of a defensive move, which is what the army had been doing since the British invaded New York.
- They would cross the Delaware River in three different places.
- Colonel John Cadwalader would cross and attack Mount Holly, Black Horse, and Bordentown. Cadwalader was made a General for the operation.
- General James Ewing would cross at Trenton Ferry and take positions at Assunpink Creek to block the escape to Pennsylvania and von Donop’s path to Trenton.
- Washington would cross at McConkey’s Ferry, divide his forces, approach Trenton from the North, and make a direct attack on the town.
- If the attack on Trenton was successful, the three columns would unite and march on to attack Princeton and Brunswick.
Organization of Washington’s Army for the Attack On Trenton
On December 25, Washington issued orders to his brigade commanders and provided the details on how the army was organized.
- Washington divided his army into two columns, led by General Nathanael Greene and General John Sullivan. Washington accompanied Greene.
- Greene’s column was the left wing of the army, and Sullivan’s the right.
- Greene’s column was four brigades while Sullivan’s was three. Green’s column was four brigades because one of them, under the command of General Adam Stephen, acted as the advance guard, moving ahead of the entire force.
- Two scouts — local men from New Jersey — were assigned to each brigade.
- Each column had four pieces of artillery in front of the first brigade.
- There were to be three pieces of artillery at the front of the first brigade.
- The reserve force for each column had two pieces of artillery.
- Colonel Henry Knox was in command of the artillery batteries.
Major General Nathanael Greene and Washington’s Left Column
The four brigades under Greene were commanded by:
- Brigadier General Adam Stephen
- Brigadier General Hugh Mercer
- Brigadier General William Alexander, Lord Stirling
- Brigadier General Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy
Greene’s column, which Washington referred to as his “2nd division or left wing of the army” was ordered to march into Trenton on Pennington Road, which ran north to south. Greene’s brigades would enter Trenton from the north and march south.
Major General John Sullivan and Washington’s Right Column
The three brigades under Sullivan were commanded by:
- Colonel John Glover
- Colonel Paul Dudley Sargent
- Brigadier General Arthur St. Clair
Sullivan’s column was the “first division of the army, and to form the right wing.” Sullivan and his brigades were ordered to march into Trenton on River Road, which ran along the river, east to west, on the south end of the town.
As soon as the brigade commanders received the order from Washington, they set about preparing their men to execute one of the most famous maneuvers of the American Revolutionary War — the Crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night.
Preparing for the Crossing of the Delaware River
Drilling the men in preparation for the attack, Washington paraded them for several days, always at 2:00. When the drills were finished, the men were dismissed and sent back to their quarters. On Christmas Day, the men were not dismissed. They marched down to McConkey’s Ferry on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and prepared to embark on the boats waiting for them.
Per Washington’s orders, the men would march to within one mile of McConkey’s Ferry. They were ordered to wait there until dark and then march down to the ferry to begin loading onto the boats. Washington intended to cross over with one of the first groups, so he put Colonel Henry Knox in charge of loading the men onto the boats. Knox was a big man with a loud, deep voice. The expectation was that the men would be able to hear him — even if the weather was bad.
While the men stood, waiting for orders to move, the officers read from Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “The American Crisis.” The pamphlet was recently published, and was popular in the American camp, inspiring the troops and giving Washington hope his plan would work. The pamphlet’s first words are:
“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 his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
By 4:30, it was dark enough for the army to start marching to the ferry. Dark enough so the Hessians on the other side of the river would not see them. Around 6:00, the weather did, in fact, turn for the worse when a snowstorm started. Washington planned for the army to march into Trenton before daybreak, around 5:00 a.m. The storm slowed the crossing as strong winds blew large chunks of ice down the river.
Christmas, 6 P.M. — The regiments have had their evening parade, but instead of returning to their quarters are marching toward the ferry. It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow-storm setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty.— From the Diary of an Unkown Officer on Washington’s Staff
Major John Wilkinson noted some men left red spots in the snow behind them from “blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.”
Washington sent John Cadwalader — who was promoted to Brigadier General for the operation — and his men downriver to their designated point to cross the river. Washington told Cadwalader — “I am determined, as the night is favourable, to cross the River.”
Order of Crossing the Delaware River
Washington’s orders were very specific as to how his men were to cross the river.
- General Stephen’s brigade, with the detachment of artillerymen
- General Mercer’s brigade
- General Alexander, Lord Stirling’s brigade
- General Fermoy’s brigade
- St. Clair’s brigade
- Glover’s brigade
- Sargent’s brigade
Crossing the Delaware from Pennsylvania to New Jersey
Washington’s men loaded onto Durham Boats, which were special boats that were designed to move heavy loads of iron ore on the Delaware River. The regular ferry was used to move horses and artillery across.
The Durham Boats were piloted and steered by Colonel John Glover and his Marblehead Regiment. Despite the terrible conditions, Glover had assured Washington that his men would be able to navigate the river and move the army across. Although it took longer than Washington planned, Glover and his men were ultimately successful.
After General Stephen and his men crossed the river and secured the landing point, Washington himself crossed the river around 7 p.m. He watched as the men were transported across the river, likely frustrated at the delay the weather was causing. Nearly all accounts of Washington’s Crossing indicate that the storm grew even worse around 11:00 when heavy snow started to fall.
Dec. 26, 3 A.M. — I am writing in the ferry house. The troops are all over, and the boats have gone back for the artillery. We are three hours behind the set time. Glover’s men have had a hard time to force the boats through the floating ice with the snow drifting in their faces. I never have seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet, and cuts like a knife. The last cannon is being landed, and we are ready to mount our horses.— From the Diary of an Unkown Officer on Washington’s Staff
After the crossing was complete, Washington rested the men for an hour, even though the operation was four hours behind schedule. It was 4:00 in the morning of December 26 when Washington’s army started the march down to Trenton — in a snowstorm. Due to the delay, Washington would not march into Trenton until after daylight. It was a huge risk because the Hessians might see them coming, but there was no turning back. Washington’s crossing was complete.
Ewing and Cadwalader Fail to Cross the Delaware
Neither Ewing nor Cadwalader completed their crossing. Washington had no knowledge of this until after the fight in Trenton ended.
Ewing did not even attempt to cross the river, due to the storm and ice floes on the river. He did not have experienced boatmen like Washington did.
Cadwalader marched his men to Bristol, where there was heavy ice in the river. He decided to march from Neshaminy Ferry down to Dunk’s Ferry. When he arrived, he started to cross the river around 8:00 p.m. He sent the advance force over to secure the landing area. Captain Thomas Rodney, the brother of Caesar Rodney, was part of the advance force.
The advance force was able to cross the river, but the boats were not able to make it all the way to the New Jersey shore. The men were forced to disembark and wade through the cold, shallow water.
At 9:00 p.m., Cadwalader tried to move the artillery across the river. Again, the boats were not able to clear the river. Believing he could not successfully move the artillery across, Cadwalader stopped his crossing and ordered his men to return to the Pennsylvania shore.
Thomas Rodney and the men who crossed were furious. He wrote to his brother and said, “…the troops that had crossed the River…proposed making at attack without both the Generals and the artillery.”
The weather certainly played a factor in Rodney and the others deciding to re-cross the river. He wrote, “We had to stand six hours under arms — first to cover the landing, and till all the rest had retreated again; and by this time, the storm of wind, hail, rain and snow was so bad that some of the Infantry could not get back until the next day.”
Aftermath of Washington Crossing the Delaware
General Stephen and his men went out ahead of the army, followed by two companies that were under orders to secure the roads in and out of Trenton. The two companies were under the command of Captain William Washington and Captain John Flahaven. Each company had 40 men.
At Birmingham, four miles from Trenton, Washington stopped the army. The officers gathered and set their watches according to Washington’s. Then the army divided into the two columns and started the final approach to Trenton.
Washington received a message from General Sullivan, informing him the storm was making the muskets and ammunition wet. They would be unusable if they were wet. Washington sent a message back to Sullivan — “…use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”
Washington did his best to encourage his men as they continued the march. Private Elisha Bostwick wrote, “our march began…the torches of our field pieces…sparkled and blazed in the storm all night and about day light a halt was made, at which time his Excellency…came near to front on the side of the path where the soldiers stood…he was…speaking to and encourageing the soldiers. The words he spoke as he passed by where I stood and in my hearing were these…’Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God’s sake, keep by your officers!‘ Spoke in a deep and solemn voice…Our horses were then unharnessed and the artillery men prepared. We marched on and it was not long before we heard the out Gentries of the enemy both on the road we were in and the eastern road, and their out gards retreated fireing, and our army, then with a quick step…entered the town.”
The Battle of Trenton — a turning point in the American Revolutionary War that likely saved the United States from defeat — had begun.
Significance of Washington Crossing the Delaware
Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night in 1776 is important to the history of the United States because it led to the American victory at the Battle of Trenton. The successful crossing started a 10-day period — referred to as the “10 Crucial Days in New Jersey” — that turned the tide of the war — at least temporarily — in favor of Washington and the Continental Army.
Key People Involved in Crossing the Delaware
General George Washington — Washington was the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. At the time, his reputation suffered — his judgment and ability to lead were under question by some of Congress, along with men and officers in his army. The successful Crossing of the Delaware River helped save the Continental Army and the fledgling United States of America. Washington went on to be elected as the first President of the United States and is known as the “Father of His Country.”
Colonel Henry Knox — Knox oversaw the operation on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. He had already played a significant role in the war, having led an expedition from Boston to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve artillery. The artillery was placed on Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston Harbor, which contributed to the British evacuating Boston in 1776. Knox established a school for artillery training and was with Washington at the decisive Battle of Yorktown. After the United States Constitution was ratified, Knox was appointed as the first Secretary of War.
General Adam Stephen — Stephen and his men were the first to cross the river. He served under George Washington during the French and Indian War and was part of the disastrous Braddock Expedition. He served under Washington during the American Revolutionary War, and during the campaigns of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. At the Battle of Germantown, he was accused of being drunk during the battle. He was court-martialed and stripped of command. He was the only General in the Continental Army that was court-martialed and dismissed during the war. Afterward, Stephen went into politics and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. He participated in the Virginia Ratifying Convention and supported the ratification of the United States Consitution.
Colonel John Glover — Glover was from Massachusetts and Lieutenant Colonel of the 21st Massachusetts Regiment from Marblehead. After the Siege of Boston started, he marched his regiment to Boston. Known as “Glover’s Regiment” and the “Marblehead Men,” it became the 14th Continental Regiment. After the Battle of Long Island, Glover and his men rowed Washington’s army across the East River to escape British forces. Soon after, he led his men at the Battle of Pell’s Point. Although he was forced to retreat, he delayed the British long enough to allow Washington to plan his escape to White Plains. Glover and his men piloted the Durham Boats during the Crossing of the Delaware River and then fought at Trenton. Glover’s Regiment was disbanded on December 31, 1776, when their enlistments expired. Glover went home to tend to his sick wife, but later rejoined the war effort and commanded Massachusetts troops during the Saratoga Campaign and the Battle of Rhode Island.
Important Facts About Crossing the Delaware
- The contemporary accounts of the crossing, written by the men who were there, usually mention the terrible weather, the snowstorm, and the condition of the men. However, none of them discuss the actual movement of the men and boats across the river.
- Washington’s army crossed about 10 miles upriver from Trenton, so it would be uncontested by the Hessian forces.
- At the point of the crossing, the Delaware River is about 1,000 feet wide and the depth of the water ranges from 5 ½ to 7 ½ feet.
- The ferry on the Pennsylvania side of the river was McConkey’s Ferry. On the New Jersey side, it was Johnson’s Ferry.
- The ferry boats were 40-50 feet long and as wide as 12 feet. The bottoms were flat, and they were propelled across the river by men pulling on a series of cables that stretched across the water and poles that were used to push the ferries along.
- Durham Boats were used to transport the American troops.
- A letter from General Nathanael Greene to General James Ewing indicated 16 Durham Boats and 4 ferry flatboats were used to cross the Delaware River.
- Although John Glover and his men are usually given credit for transporting Washington’s army, Major Ezra Putnam and the 27th Continental Infantry and Captain Joseph Moulder and his artillery company from Philadelphia may have contributed.
- The artillery was moved on the ferry flatboats.
- Founding Fathers James Monroe and Alexander Hamilton were part of Washington’s force that crossed the river.
Washington thought it was necessary to cross the Delaware River and attack the British outposts along the river, because the enlistments for most of the men in his army expired on December 31. After that, the men would be free to return to their homes. On January 1, 1776, he would have no army.
Washington crossed the Delaware River at McConkey’s Ferry, about 10 miles upriver from the town of Trenton. McConkey’s Ferry was on the Pennsylvania side of the river. Washington’s men crossed over to Johnson’s Ferry, on the New Jersey side of the river.
It is estimated that somewhere in the range of 2,400-2,500 men crossed over the river. Henry Knox, in a letter to his wife, wrote, “about 2500 or three thousand pass’d the River.”
It took 9-10 hours for Washington to cross the Delaware. The crossing started around 6:00 p.m. and, according to Washington, was completed around 3:00 a.m. It took at least three hours longer than Washington had planned, due to the terrible weather.
There were supposed to be three crossings that night — led by Washington, General James Ewing, and General John Cadwalader. Ewing was supposed to cross at Trenton and Cadwalader was supposed to cross new Burlington. Washington was the only one to successfully cross the river.
Although they did not know the exact plan of attack, they were warned by a spy from the American camp that an attack was imminent. The only way to launch an attack on the outposts along the river was to cross the river. However, none of the British or Hessian commanding officers believed that Washington’s army was in any condition to launch a full-scale attack.
Yes, Washington considered calling off the attack on Trenton in part because of how long it took to complete the crossing. His army still had to march 10 miles to Trenton and would arrive after daylight, so there was a chance the Hessians would see it coming. On December 27, Washington wrote a letter to Congress, explaining “This made me despair of surprising the Town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke, but as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events.”
Washington Crossing the Delaware AP US History Study Guide
Use the following links and videos to study Washington Crossing the Delaware River, the key people involved, and the New York-New Jersey Campaign for the AP US History Exam.
What was Washington Crossing the Delaware River?
The definition of Washington Crossing the River for the AP US History exam is a bold operation undertaken by George Washington on the night of December 25, 1776, in which the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River in order to launch an attack on the town of Trenton. The crossing was made during a snowstorm and took somewhere between 9-10 hours to complete. It is considered to be one of the most important military maneuvers of the American Revolutionary War.
American History Central Resources and Related Topics
- Battle of Long Island
- Battle of Pell’s Point
- Battle of White Plains
- Battle of Fort Washington
- Washington’s Retreat Through New Jersey
- Battle of Trenton
- Second Battle of Trenton
- Battle of Princeton
Washington Crossing the Delaware Video
This video from Crossroads of the American Revolution provides an overview of Washington crossing the Delaware.
Suggested Books About Washington Crossing the Delaware
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The Winter Soldiers is the story of the Continental Army, held together by George Washington, in the face of disaster and hopelessness, desperately needing a miracle to save both the army and the nation. In the fall of 1776, the British delivered a crushing blow to the Revolutionary War efforts. New York fell and the anguished retreat through New Jersey followed. Winter came with a vengeance, bringing what Thomas Paine called “the times that try men’s souls.” Richard Ketchum tells the tale of unimaginable hardship and suffering that culminated in the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Without these triumphs, the American Revolution that had begun so bravely could not have gone on.
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The Marblehead Regiment, led by John Glover, became truly indispensable to General George Washington and the American Cause. Marbleheaders battled at Lexington and on Bunker Hill and formed the elite Guard that protected George Washington. Then, at the most crucial time in the war, the special operations–like regiment, against all odds, conveyed 2,400 of Washington’s men across the ice-filled Delaware River on Christmas night 1776, delivering a momentum-shifting surprise attack on Trenton. Later, Marblehead doctor Nathaniel Bond inoculated the Continental Army against a deadly virus, helping change the course of history.