Neal Carruth/NPR News
Historian David Hackett Fischer in front of several Durham boats along the Delaware River.
Cover of 'Washington's Crossing' by David Hackett Fischer.
In December of 1776, a young America's Continental Army seemed all but defeated in the rain, snow and sleet of northern New Jersey. A force of 30,000 had been reduced to 3,000, and Gen. George Washington himself had doubts about his troops' capacity to carry on.
But carry on they did. NPR's Liane Hansen and historian David Hackett Fischer, author of the upcoming book Washington's Crossing, went to the banks of the Delaware River to review the details of Washington's dramatic crossing and subsequent surprise attack on England's garrison of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton.
On Christmas night, Washington and his men boarded flat-bottom Durham boats; larger ferries were used for horses and artillery. After hours of icy agony, one of the four launches finally succeeded in landing on the opposite shore.
The arduous crossing left the troops with precious little time to take the Hessian garrison in darkness. But with help from another Continental Army regiment that had also crossed the river — and from artillery batteries positioned on the cliffs above Trenton — Washington and his men prevailed. The Continentals captured almost 900 Hessians, more than half the total force at Trenton.
Although it would be five more years before the British conceded defeat, the battle at Trenton is often cited as a major turning point in the war.
Fischer says that American independence was literally defined by the performance of the soldiers who fought under Washington at Trenton. "Every generation in America goes to war. How we go about that says much about who we are... and what these men did was to set an example."