Beer Versus Confidence – Washington Triumphs in Battle of Trenton
Whether it be the bottle of whiskey kept for celebrations or memorial toasts, military officer traditions like ‘dining in’ or O Club happy hours, the world’s fighting men have always had a healthy relationship with alcohol. A fact General George Washington exploited during Christmas 1776.
Just 6 months after declaring independence from King George and England, the Continental Army led by General Washington was little more than a rag tag assemblage of farmers and craftsmen without military training. Many had no prior firearm training, even more had no winter coats nor even shoes.
Washington knew the rapidly formed Continental Army was failing. Having been defeated in the battles for New York City, General George Washington and the remnants of the Continental Army retreated across New Jersey in the late fall of 1776. Vigorously pursued by the British forces under Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, the American commander sought to gain the protection of the Delaware River.
In a stroke of luck for Washington, General Sir William Howe, the overall British commander, ordered a halt to the pursuit on December 14 and directed his army to enter winter quarters. In doing so, they established a series of outposts across northern New Jersey.
Morale among the farmer-soldiers of the Continental Army was at an all time low. Washington knew his army needed a jolt of confidence to rekindle the American pride felt just 6 months earlier on July 4, 1776. Reinforced with 2700 men on December 20th, Washington formed a plan to attack.
In the pre-industrial Germany of 1776, Germans were renown for one thing, fighting. Of German fighters, the Hessians were the best. Hessian mercenaries were leased by the British to help defeat the rebellious colonists.
If the Continental soldiers feared the British regulars, the Hessians terrified the farmer-soldiers. It was the Hessians, General Washington planned to attack at Trenton, New Jersey.
Exploiting the enemy’s weakness is key to achieving success in battle. The Hessians were ferocious fighters. But hardened warriors, also play hard. With Christmas coming and knowing the German fondness for beer and partying, Washington and his staff planned to attack the early morn of December 26th. Washington hoped to catch the Hessians off guard nursing hangovers from their Christmas revelry.
Washington hypothesized that on Christmas night the garrison would be more interested in enjoying the readily available American beer than maintaining combat readiness. Given the German propensity for drinking beer, an officer on Washington’s staff is reported to have said,
“They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy tomorrow morning.”
Battle of Trenton – A Swift Victory
Combating rain, sleet, and snow, Washington’s army reached the river at McKonkey’s Ferry on the evening of December 25.
Sending out advance parties, the army moved south together until reaching Birmingham. Here Major General Nathanael Greene‘s division turned inland to attack Trenton from the north while Major Generl John Sullivan’s division moved along the river road to strike from the west and south. Both columns approached the outskirts of Trenton shortly before 8:00 AM on December 26.
The surprise attack worked, driving in the Hessian pickets. Greene’s men opened the attack and drew enemy troops north from the river road, then blocked the escape routes to Princeton.
Driving the enemy back into a nearby orchard, Washington surrounded the survivors and forced their surrender. The third Hessian formation, the Knyphausen Regiment, attempted to escape over the Assunpink Creek bridge. Finding it blocked by the Americans, they were quickly surrounded by Sullivan’s men. Following a failed breakout attempt, they surrendered.
When the smoke cleared in the Battle of Trenton, Washington lost four men with eight wounded while the Hessians suffered 22 killed and 918 captured.
The Rest of the Story
Key to Washington’s battle plan was catching the Hessian mercenaries in a drunken stupor after a hard night of drinking. But when taking stock of their German captives, each was completely sober. The hard fighting Hessians were also disciplined soldiers. The previous night’s Christmas celebration did not incapacitate the Hessians. Washington’s battle plan was based on a false assumption.
The farmer-soldiers of the Continental Army had defeated the feared Hessians using surprise, mobility, and decisive & directed firepower.
National pride swells around a rallying cry. In the Spanish-American War it was ‘Remember the Maine, To Hell with Spain’. For World War I, ‘Food Will Win the War!’ The sneak attack at Pearl Harbor had young men and women lining up to enlist early Monday morning after the attack.
Who can forget President Bush standing atop the rubble of the towers with the bull horn saying,
“I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Having the confidence to succeed is key to success. Even if that confidence is based on a false assumption, believing in victory is half the battle. Belief and confidence may not always be enough to prevail, but believing victory is unachievable guarantees defeat every time.
For the farmer-soldiers of the Continental Army, Washington’s victory over the feared Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, spread through the ranks. It was the ‘shot in the arm’ needed to rekindle the pride and fighting spirit of the farmer-soldiers.
That confidence ultimately defeated the British Army and began the American experiment in self-government that continues today.