December 1776 was a desperate time for George Washington and the American Revolution. Morale was low, hope for winning the war was diminishing, and the Continental Army led by George Washington was thinning in numbers after many battles lost to the British. December began with lots of rain and muddy travel conditions for the men which did not help with their spirits. After retreating through New Jersey, they set up camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania where the army was met with very cold weather that led to plenty of ice on the Delaware River. All in all, things were not looking good for Washington's army.
However, George Washington devised a plan that would change the course of the war and the history of our nation. With only a week before his soldiers' enlistments expired, Washington had to do something fast. He decided he would attack Trenton, New Jersey, which the Hessians (German soldiers fighting with the British) controlled. He planned to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Day and invade Trenton before sunrise on December 26th. Washington thought this action could catch the Hessians off guard and create a better possibility of victory, thereby boosting the morale of his army.
So the day came, Christmas 1776. The weather was actually quite tranquil for most of the day. The morning started off with a mixture of sun and clouds, very cold temperatures in the upper teens, and light northerly winds. By the afternoon, clouds started to increase with temperatures now peaking in the upper 20’s. These clouds were associated with a powerful nor’easter that was rapidly strengthening off the coast. This storm brought increasing winds and freezing rain to the Delaware Valley that then changed to sleet and snow.
The crossing of the river began at 5 PM on the 25th with temperatures in the upper 20’s. As the 2,400 soldiers, 18 cannons, and 75-100 horses crossed the Delaware about 9 miles north of Trenton, they had to deal with the icy river conditions. During the crossing, one of the soldiers described the weather conditions as a “violent storm of rain, hail, and snow [the nor’easter] coupled with the ice flows and high winds, slowed operations.” Meanwhile, George Washington patiently watched his soldiers implementing his dramatic plan in these extreme conditions. One of his officers wrote, “He [Washington] stands on the bank of the stream, 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.”
All the men finished crossing the river at 3 AM on the 26th, 3 hours behind schedule due to the weather and sheets of ice on the river. The plans to attack under cover of darkness were ruined, but Washington and his men marched to Trenton anyway, many without shoes and undeterred by the conditions.
Temperatures were now in the low 20’s with wind driven snow and sleet coming down as the march continued to Trenton. Many soldiers were suffering and one even froze to death during the 9 mile trek. At 8 am, hidden by heavy snow, the surprise attack on the Hessians began. Although the sleet and snow provided cover, it also made many of the muskets misfire, so cannons and bayonets were used by Washington’s forces. Washington’s plan had worked and the American army captured 900 Hessians with only a few revolutionary troop casualties. Trenton had been taken and the fight for Independence would survive.
In the end, Washington and his army endured the extreme weather conditions and the weather conditions helped with the surprise attack since the Hessians did not expect an assault in such weather. News of the American victory spread rapidly through the colonies reinvigorating the failing spirit of the Revolution. The battle's outcome also gave Washington and his officers the confidence to mount another campaign. On December 30 they again crossed the Delaware, attacked and won another victory at Trenton on January 2, and then pushed on to Princeton defeating the British there on January 3. The Battle of Trenton on December 25-26, 1776 is now thought of by many as the turning point in the American Revolution and another example of how weather influenced history.
Meteorologist Paul Dorian