4/11/12 - washington crosses the delaware

In today's excerpt - at the very moment of General George Washington's meticulously planned crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Day, 1776, the operation began to unravel. Not only that, but he received correspondence indicating that his main rival for leadership of the American army, General Horatio Gates, was going over his head to criticize his plans. Up to that point, Washington had lost more battles than he had won, while Gates's record in battle was excellent. Therefore Washington's planned surprise attack upon the British across the river at Trenton now had two purposes - to send a message to the British about American resolve, and to send a message to Congress about his own generalship:

"No sooner had [American] forces mustered on Christmas afternoon than Washington's schedule began to come apart. The old army saying that 'no battle plan survives contact with the enemy' is only half correct. Most plans do not survive contact with one's friends. Washington's plan miscarried that way during the first hour of the operation. He had wanted the army to march from their separate camps toward three crossing points on the Delaware River and as­semble away from the water's edge, out of sight from New Jersey. It was urgently important to his plan that the troops should reach their assembly areas before sunset (about 4:41 p.m. that day), so that they could move to the river at nightfall and cross as soon as the sky was dark enough to hide their movements.

"Time was vital to the success of the operation. Washington reck­oned that his Continental troops at the upstream crossing had to march about ten miles in New Jersey from McConkey's Ferry to Tren­ton. To achieve surprise, he wanted to attack the town before dawn, at five o'clock in the morning. The plan would work only if the army began to cross the Delaware just after dark and assembled in New Jersey ready to march no later than midnight, a very tight schedule. To that end, he ordered the army to parade in Pennsylvania 'pre­cisely at four in the afternoon.'

"The schedule failed even before the march began. John Green­wood recalled that his regiment did not leave camp until after four o'clock, about a half hour before sunset. ...

The same delays happened up and down the river. ...

"As if that were not trouble enough, a travel-stained officer rode up to George Washington just as he was leaving his quarters for the river and handed him a dispatch. The courier was Major James Wilk­inson, who had ridden all day on treacherous roads from Philadel­phia. Wilkinson remembered the moment when he reached the commander-in-chief. 'I found him alone with his whip in his hand, prepared to mount his horse,' he recalled. The major delivered a sealed letter, and the general was not happy to receive it. 'What a time is this to hand me letters!' he said. Wilkinson apologized and explained that he was acting on orders from General Gates.

"General Gates!" Washington said. "Where is he?"

"I left him this morning in Philadelphia," Wilkinson replied.

"What was he doing there?"

"I understood him that he was on his way to Congress."

" 'On his way to Congress,' the general said, as he opened the letter. The messenger departed hastily. 'I made my bow,' Wilkinson remembered, and he went quickly toward the river to join the cross­ing as a volunteer. The young major knew what was in the dispatch, and he preferred the wrath of the enemy to the fury of his com­mander-in-chief.

"The letter he brought from Horatio Gates has not survived, but Wilkinson remembered that Gates had 'appeared much depressed in mind, and frequently expressed an opinion that while General Washington was watching the enemy above Trenton, [the enemy] would privately construct batteaux, pass the Delaware in his rear and take possession of Philadelphia.' Wilkinson also heard Gates say that 'General Washington ought to retire to the South of the Susque­hanna, and there form an army; he said it was his intention to pro­pose the measure to Congress at Baltimore.' He asked Wilkinson to come with him, but the major wisely refused and made his way to George Washington.

"In the past several days, Horatio Gates had grown distant from Washington, even to the edge of insubordination. Just before Christ­mas, Washington had asked him to take a command in the Trenton operation. Gates begged off, pleading illness, and asked permis­sion to go to Philadelphia on account of his health. Washington agreed but urged him to stop at Bristol on his way and help sort out some 'uneasiness of command' between Hitchcock's Continentals and Cadwalader's militia there. Gates refused again, openly defy­ing his commander-in-chief. He claimed he was too ill to stop at Bristol, but he was well enough to ride another hundred miles to Baltimore and seek out the president of Congress. Horatio Gates was going over the head of his commander-in-chief, seeking to per­suade Congress to overrule Washington's plan of operations, and perhaps hoping to replace him. All this came to a head just at the moment when the army was crossing the Delaware. Washington was thunderstruck, and Wilkinson witnessed a flash of his formidable temper. But the general did not permit himself the luxury of rage against a wayward subordinate. With his iron self-discipline, Wash­ington returned to the task at hand, which was to get his army across the Delaware."


David Hackett Fischer


Washington's Crossing


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2004 by David Hackett Fischer


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