A prosperous fool is a grievous burden. — Aeschylus

Story of the Thirteen Colonies - Helene Guerber

Christmas Eve

While retreating before Cornwallis, Washington kept sending stern orders to Lee to hasten and join him, so that their combined forces could be used against the British. But Lee did not obey, and came on very slowly. Indeed, he said freely that he did not consider Washington a good general, and often boasted that if he were only at the head of the army the war would soon be over.

Lee was in a little inn in New Jersey, writing a letter to General Gates expressing his opinion of Washington, when he was suddenly surrounded by the British and made a prisoner. Without giving him time to change his dressing-gown and slippers, or get into his uniform, the British bore him off in triumph, thinking they had taken the most clever of all the American generals. But Lee was really no loss, and his army, having fortunately gone on ahead, joined Washington sooner without a general than it would have done had Lee been there.

Many of the Americans now fancied, like the British, that since Lee was a prisoner their mainstay was gone. Besides, the British began to threaten to ill-treat Lee, and as the Americans held no British generals as prisoners, they could not offer an exchange. Knowing this, a Rhode Island officer named Barton made a bold plan.

He had heard that the British General Prescott was quartered on the seashore not very far from Newport. Taking a party of forty brave seamen and soldiers, he rowed with muffled oars right through the British fleet, one dark night. Then a sentinel was noiselessly killed, and the small force surrounded the house where Prescott lay asleep. A moment later the Americans burst into his bedroom, bore him off half clothed to their boats, and, rowing away in safety, sent word to the British that Prescott should receive just the same treatment that they gave Lee. Nine months later an exchange was made, and Lee and Prescott went back to their posts (1778).

In the meantime Washington still avoided a battle, and retreated to the Delaware. There, having cleverly secured every boat within a hundred miles, he took his army over the river. When the British came up, not a single boat was to be had; so they camped near the stream, thinking it would soon freeze hard enough to allow them to cross on the ice and seize Philadelphia.

This was a time of great trial for the Americans, and Washington was the only man who did not despair. Still, the British had set a price upon his head, and were loudly boasting that they would soon hang him. Speaking of this, Washington once told his friend Joseph Reed: "My neck does not feel as though it were made for a halter." Then he added that if things came to the worst they would have to retreat into Virginia, or even over the Alleghanies, but that they must never give up the struggle they had begun.

Congress, fearing the British would carry out their plan and seize Philadelphia, now hastily withdrew to Baltimore. But before leaving, Samuel Adams wrote: "Let America exert her own strength, and He who cannot be indifferent to her righteous cause will even work miracles, if necessary, to establish her feet upon a rock."

Washington, as we have seen, was very prudent; but he was not lacking in courage. Seeing that the British forces were scattered, he now thought it a fine chance to win a victory, which would rekindle the ardor of his men and give new courage to all the nation.

Washington crossing the Delaware

He therefore planned to surprise the Hessians at Trenton by crossing the river, in spite of huge cakes of floating ice which nearly blocked it. Marblehead fishermen were put in charge of the boats, and such was their skill and daring that they took twenty-four hundred men safely over. This crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Right (1776) was one of the most daring feats ever performed. Besides, the men were only half clad, and so badly shod that they left bloody footprints in the snow; and the cold was so intense that night, that two of their number were actually frozen to death.

In spite of drifting snow and driving wind, Washington's force marched bravely on, and surprised the Hessians at Trenton. The wounded commander, Rahl, was forced to surrender, and his whole army was seized. We are told that the Hessian soldiers had been so busy keeping Christmas that they were all half drunk, and that Rahl himself was too absorbed in a game of cards to read a note sent to warn him of his peril. Thinking it a matter of no importance, he thrust it into his pocket unread, and thus he and his men fell into Washington's hands.

The news of the victory of Trenton filled the hearts of the Americans with great joy, but it proved a bitter disappointment to Cornwallis. Fancying the war all over, he had packed his trunks and gone on board a vessel to return to England. But now General Howe sent him back in haste to Trenton to fight Washington. Hedged in between a river full of floating ice and a large army, it now seemed as if Washington could not escape.

One evening, therefore, Cornwallis gleefully told one of his officers that they would "bag the old fox "on the next day. The officer suggested that it might be better not to postpone it till the morrow; but Cornwallis answered that this time the Americans could not escape. That same night, however, Washington took advantage of the fact that the roads froze hard enough to enable him to remove his cannon, and slipped away by back roads, leaving his camp fires burning brightly so as to deceive the enemy. When the British awoke the next morning, the "old fox" was gone, and sounds of firing in the direction of Princeton soon convinced them that a battle must be going on there.

Running into Cornwallis's tent, an officer roused him, crying: "To arms, general! Washington has outgeneraled us. Let us fly to the rescue of Princeton!" But, notwithstanding all their haste, they reached Princeton only after the battle—on the present college grounds was all over, and the victorious Washington had safely advanced to Morristown Heights. This campaign, in the dead of winter, was so wonderful that it won for Washington the title of "Savior of his Country," and Frederick the Great of Prussia once said that it was the most brilliant piece of generalship in the pages of history.


Front Matter

Our Country Long Ago
The Barbarous Indians
The Mounds
Where the Northmen Went
The Northmen in America
Queer Ideas
Prince Henry the Navigator
Youth of Columbus
Columbus and the Queen
"Land! Land!"
Columbus and the Savages
Home Again
Columbus Ill-treated
Death of Columbus
How America Got its Name
The Fountain of Youth
"The Father of Waters"
The French in Canada
French and Spanish Quarrels
The Sky City
Around the World
Nothing but Smoke
Smith's Adventures
The Jamestown Men
Smith Wounded
Pocahontas Visits England
Hudson and the Indians
The Mayflower
Plymouth Rock
The First Thanksgiving
Snake Skin and Bullets
The Beginning of Boston
Stories of Two Ministers
Williams and the Indians
The Quakers
The King-Killers
King Phillip's War
The Beginning of New York
Penn and the Indians
The Catholics in Maryland
The Old Dominion
Bacon's Rebellion
A Journey Inland
The Carolina Pirates
Charter Oak
Salem Witches
Down the Mississippi
La Salle's Adventures
Indians on the Warpath
Two Wars with the French
Washington's Boyhood
Washington's Journey
Washington's First Battle
Stories of Franklin
Braddock's Defeat
Wolfe at Quebec
England and her Colonies
The Stamp Tax
The Anger of the Colonies
The Boston Tea Party
The Minutemen
The Battle of Lexington
Bunker Hill
The Boston Boys
The British leave Boston
Declaration of Independence
A Lady's Way of Helping
Christmas Eve
The Fight at Bennington
Burgoyne's Surrender
Winter at Valley Forge
The Quaker Woman
Putnam's Adventures
Indian Cruelty
Boone in Kentucky
Famous Sea Fights
The "Swamp Fox"
The Poor Soldiers
The Spy
A Traitor's Death
Two Unselfish Women
Surrender of Cornwallis
British Flag hauled down
Washington's Farewell