The Battle of Trenton
First off I have to burst some bubbles–any that have survived the past couple of weeks.
The Battle of Trenton did not happen on Christmas Day after a crossing of the partially frozen Delaware on Christmas Eve.
No, it happened the day after Christmas after a crossing begun on Christmas. (Christmas night in modern reckoning versus Christmas Eve(ning) in Biblical reckoning where days started at sunset, not midnight. I’d wager the subtle difference between “eve” and “evening” is where the confusion stems from.)
And we didn’t kill them in their beds. Although we had some surprise on our side, they had time to get out of bed and make several daring attempts to win the battle.
Nevertheless, I have no doubt that, to alter the popular meme, we would be willing to kill agents of tyranny in their beds on Christmas, if we had to.
Speaking of “had to,” the United States absolutely had to win the Battle of Trenton. It would, by most standards and under most circumstances be a very minor battle, hardly worth noting, but it is instead often listed as one of the battles that shaped not just American, but World history.
As of Christmas morning, the Continental Army was getting its ass kicked. And everyone knew it. Morale was at near rock bottom. Washington had been in retreat since the previous summer, having been kicked out of New York and been chased across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. The army was now encamped near Philadelphia, and many of the soldiers’ enlistments would end in January; they could go home, having fulfilled their obligations.
And many of them were certainly planning to go home believing the Revolution to be a lost cause, and in so doing, they would make it so.
Washington himself had yet to really prove himself as a commander, too. His time in the French and Indian War was no triumph (in fact many historians blame his blunders there for helping to trigger the world-wide Seven Year’s War, which qualified as a “world war” in Winston Churchill’s estimation). And, thus far his record in this war was less than stellar. The scorecard of actual battles was less than inspiring.
Fortunately, George Washington was capable of learning from his mistakes. (Which if you think about it, is not as common as it should be.)
And also fortunately, there’s a lot more to being a general than being able to win battles. You have to have the strategic vision, the grasp of the big picture, to know when to fight and when to cut your losses and run, to fight another day.
Earlier this year I chose to highlight the 1812 Overture and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and that was a perfect example. The Russian general there, Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, who had taken command after Napoleon had seized Smolensk, understood one thing: Meeting Napoleon head-to-head would be disastrous. Napoleon was very good at winning battles. But Napoleon had, as it turned out, blundered at a strategic level in invading Russia in the first place. It would only work if he could win quickly. Kutuzov could see that his job was to ensure that Napoleon did not win quickly, to not give him the head-to-head confrontation he needed, after which the Russian winter would take care of things. Not that the Russians engaged in no combat at all; they went after Napoleon’s lengthening supply lines relentlessly, and in what was perhaps the bloodiest one day battle since Hannibal annihilated five Roman legions at Cannae in the third century BCE, bloodied Napoleon at Borodino so badly that, though Napoleon won that battle, it qualified as a Pyrrhic victory. But Kutuzov mostly retreated, trading one thing Russia had in abundance–space–for strategic advantage. They even let Napoleon have Moscow, the old traditional capital of the Russian Empire, but they made sure that it was worse than useless to him.
Kutuzov was widely criticized as a do-nothing commander. And even his sovereign, Alexander I, grandson of Catherine the Great, was in some danger of being taken out in a palace coup.
But Kutuzov was right, as it turned out.
But the War of 1812 (either one) was off in the future.
In 1776, George Washington was right to retreat when he did. He still had a force to use, instead of having been annihilated and us having Queen Elizabeth’s mug on our money today, and the Declaration of Independence being such an obscure footnote in history that one would have to do serious digging on the internet to even find the text–if anyone gave a enough of a damn to even ask what was in it.
Thus the task in December of 1776 was to leverage that tiny force. To win a victory. To show potential allies that we had the stick-to-it-iveness to see this through. For example France, much as it wanted to give England a bloody nose if not a crushed windpipe, wasn’t going to risk its own existence if it thought we would fold quickly and thus allow England to bring the troops home and use them directly against the French.
But the most important reason to win a victory is that without some kind of victory the Continental Army would effectively cease to exist on 1 January 1777. Ninety percent of those who had fought in New York earlier that year were gone. Many were deserting. Washington himself wrote, to his cousin in Virginia, “I think the game is pretty near up.”
The Army was camped at Valley Forge, near Philadelphia, about 2400 men. A detachment of the Hessian Auxiliaries that had helped chase Washington was camped across the river in Trenton. This was about 1400 men in four regiments. It looked like it was a mere matter of waiting for good fighting weather in Spring, and Washington, with his depleted army, could be taken out if he hadn’t already surrendered, and it would be over.
In fact it could happen before that; Washington expected General Howe, with yet other troops, to cross the river to finish him off, once the river completely froze over.
But what if we could pull off a sneak attack? The Hessians weren’t expecting anyone to want to fight in this brutally cold weather. But they were professionals; they’d stand and fight and clobber the amateur Continental army if there were any warning at all. But caught off guard with their figurative pants down they could perhaps be beaten, proving to the world but most importantly to our own men, that we could win.
The first part of this was “intel” or intelligence gathering. One thing that we had going for us throughout the entire war was better intel than the British, and this time was no exception. I’ll just quote Wikipedia here:
George Washington had stationed a spy named John Honeyman, posing as a Tory, in Trenton. Honeyman had served with Major General James Wolfe in Quebec at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759, and had no trouble establishing his credentials as a Tory. Honeyman was a butcher and bartender, who traded with the British and Hessians. This enabled him to gather intelligence and to convince the Hessians that the Continental Army was in such a low state of morale that they would not attack Trenton. Shortly before Christmas, he arranged to be captured by the Continental Army, who had orders to bring him to Washington unharmed. After being questioned by Washington, he was imprisoned in a hut to be tried as a Tory in the morning, but a small fire broke out nearby, enabling him to “escape”.Wikipdia, Battle of Trenton
The actual plan of battle was to attack Trenton from three directions; the main force would cross the Delaware well north of Trenton and split into two forces commanded by Sullivan and Greene, while another force under Ewing would cross to the south, seize the bridge at Assunpink (another battle would be fought there a few months later) to cut off any Hessian retreat. Yet a third group under Cadwalader would launch a diversionary attack on a British garrison at Bordentown, to cut off any reinforcements.
This battle plan was not conceived overnight; Washington had been working this for weeks. He had ordered raids harassing the Hessians, and the Brits even got some indication he was planning something, they just didn’t know when. Colonel Rall, in command of the Hessians, was no dummy, he had asked for permission to place units strategically to thwart a move against his force, but his request was denied.
So it was Christmas night (as opposed to Christmas eve) that we struck.
Any movement would have to be done as stealthily as possible, which today means shut off all the electronics and move at night and hope the enemy doesn’t have night vision, but back then simply meant to move at night and hope no one noticed.
Because it would be dark, our forces needed a password in case they blundered into each other in the dark. The one chosen was “Victory or Death.”
The actual crossing of the river had mixed results. It went too slowly, in fact it didn’t end until 3AM, when the plan called for it to be done by midnight. Washington had to give up hope of a pre-dawn attack. Worse, both Cadwalader, who was supposed to attack potential British reinforcements at Bordentown, and Ewing, who was supposed to secure the Assunpink bridge, were unable to do anything on account of weather.
It looked like a mess.
Washington, however, had no choice but to press on.
I’ll quote Wikipoo again:
At 4:00 am, the soldiers began to march towards Trenton. Along the way, several civilians joined as volunteers and led as guides (such as John Mott) because of their knowledge of the terrain. After marching 1.5 miles (2.4 km) through winding roads into the wind, they reached Bear Tavern, where they turned right. The ground was slippery, but it was level, making it easier for the horses and artillery. They began to make better time. They soon reached Jacobs Creek, where, with difficulty, the Americans made it across. The two groups stayed together until they reached Birmingham, where they split apart. Soon after, they reached the house of Benjamin Moore, where the family offered food and drink to Washington. At this point, the first signs of daylight began to appear. Many of the troops did not have boots, so they were forced to wear rags around their feet. Some of the men’s feet bled, turning the snow to a dark red. Two men died on the march.
As they marched, Washington rode up and down the line, encouraging the men to continue. General Sullivan sent a courier to tell Washington that the weather was wetting his men’s gunpowder. Washington replied, “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”
About 2 miles (3 km) outside the town, the main columns reunited with the advance parties. They were startled by the sudden appearance of 50 armed men, but they were American. Led by Adam Stephen, they had not known about the plan to attack Trenton and had attacked a Hessian outpost. Washington feared the Hessians would have been put on guard, and shouted at Stephen, “You sir! You Sir, may have ruined all my plans by having them put on their guard.” Despite this, Washington ordered the advance continue to Trenton. In the event, Rall thought the first raid was the attack which Grant had warned him about, and that there would be no further action that day.
Sheer dumb luck. Rall had actually been lulled, not alerted, by the mistaken raid, imagining that was all that Washington had planned to do. But “sheer dumb luck” often turns history, in good directions as well as bad directions.
(Sheer dumb luck gives writers of alternate history novels all sorts of job opportunities. One such, who writes under the name of Harry Turtledove, has written books predicated on the assumption we lost the Revolutionary War early, and England had nevertheless learned a lesson and given us autonomy, like they would do in Canada, Australia and South Africa, and books based on the Union not finding the Confederacy’s battle plans before Antietam–wrapped around some cigars a Confederate had dropped.)
There were skirmishes at 8 AM and the element of surprise would soon be lost. Washington sent a detachment to block the road to Princeton; when it arrived it attacked a Hessian unit, and the commander of that unit, Wierderholdt, realized what was going on; this wasn’t some dinky raid. This. Was. It.
Meanwhile at Trenton we had entered the town and the Hessians were awake and forming up. Our artillery still on the other side of the river opened up to great effect, as did the few cannon that had been brought across. The Hessians tried to take the cannon, but failed; they may have been in Trenton, but they already had lost control of the town. They made a number of attempts to take it back, all failing.
In the end, the Hessians lost 22 men killed in action, one of them Rall, who had been mortally wounded. Another 89 were wounded. Including those wounded, 896 Hessians were captured.
On our side, two men had died on the march (not the combat itself), and five wounded (no deaths) in the battle, including a near fatal wound to the wound of a soldier named James Monroe. (Yes, that Monroe, whose last name is mistakenly thought to be “Doctrine,” the last president from among the Founders.)
However, we lost enough men during the subsequent days, from exhaustion, illness, and exposure, that in reality we may have lost more men than did the Hessians.
This was, nevertheless, a tactical triumph, and that is what we needed, strategically, to stay in the war, to go on to ultimately break the British in the northern United States at Saratoga, bring the French and their navy into the war, and ultimately trap the British at Yorktown.
However many died following Trenton, their deaths were certainly not in vain, and as a result no earlier Patriot deaths were, either.
And Queen Elizabeth does not appear on our money. But George Washington, head of our military effort, and Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence that Washington and his men were fighting to make stick, do.
I could spend some time drawing parallels between our situation today and this situation back then, but I’ll just point the criticality of the situation, how there would (will) be no Summer of 1777 (or election of 2024) for America without a victory now.
It has been my custom for a number of years to deliberately fly the Betsy Ross flag overnight on this one night, December 25/26, to commemorate this event. Yes, it’s technically illegal to do so without illuminating it, and the Betsy Ross “thirteen stars in a circle” flag is probably a myth anyway, but there it is.
This year, and in this crisis, I’ve been flying Old Glory (50 stars) 24/7 with a Trump flag, and it will remain that way until this is resolved, one way or another. I’ve thus missed doing a special flag “thing” for such eminent holidays as the USMC birthday (November 10), Veteran’s Day (November 11), Pearl Harbor Day (Dec. 7), Bill of Rights Day (Dec. 15), and the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party (Dec. 16). [For this alone, Biden’s future grave deserves to be pissed on.]
But I did take down the 50 star old glory and raise Betsy Ross in its place, this time. And I got to inspect my flags in so doing. The US flag is a high quality item but is definitely fraying on the lower fly. I’ll need a new one January 21. (If Joe Biden has his way, though, I might not bother, as I’d have a strong urge to fly it upside down in distress.) The Trump flag is a cheap print, and has been disintegrating fly-hoistwards, most of the P is gone and it’s a TRUMI flag, soon to be a TRUM flag as even most of the vertical is gone.
Justice Must Be done.
Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American People...Our campaign represents a true existential threat, like they’ve never seen before.Then-Candidate Donald J. Trump
Lawyer Appeasement Section
OK now for the fine print.
This is the WQTH Daily Thread. You know the drill. There’s no Poltical correctness, but civility is a requirement. There are Important Guidelines, here, with an addendum on 20191110.
We have a new board – called The U Tree – where people can take each other to the woodshed without fear of censorship or moderation.
And remember Wheatie’s Rules:
1. No food fights
2. No running with scissors.
3. If you bring snacks, bring enough for everyone.
4. Zeroth rule of gun safety: Don’t let the government get your guns.
5. Rule one of gun safety: The gun is always loaded.
5a. If you actually want the gun to be loaded, like because you’re checking out a bump in the night, then it’s empty.
6. Rule two of gun safety: Never point the gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy.
7. Rule three: Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to fire.
8. Rule the fourth: Be sure of your target and what is behind it.
(Hmm a few extras seem to have crept in.)
The Mandatory Coin
Unlike last week, where I simply couldn’t think of anything, I have a topic in mind.
How did the Continental Congress pay for things?
War was expensive. The materiel wasn’t so bad, not then, especially when soldiers would live off the land. But we had to pay those soldiers, and we had no “real” money of silver or gold to speak of. England had done its best to bleed us dry long before the war happened. The idea of a colony, after all, was to send money home, not have it circulate in the colony and certainly not to have the colony send any money it made to other countries!
The Brits therefore tended not to let the colonies make their own coinage.
So we largely used Spanish money instead, with perhaps some French money in the mix (that latter bit is me speculating). This led to some monetary schizophrenia; the colonists thought in terms of shillings and pence (and very occasionally entire pounds), but much of what circulated here was Spanish reales, eight of which made a crown-sized coin that we called a dollar, from German thaler, which in turn was from Joachimstaler, which in turn was from Joachimsthal, a town with a gigantic silver deposit most conveniently coined into large coins, larger than had been seen before. (Today that town is known as Jachymov, and is in Czechia–and it played a key role in the discoveries that ultimately led to the atomic bomb–so it’s the home of both the Dollar and the Bomb.)
But there just weren’t enough dollars, nor reales, nor shillings, nor pence, to pay for the war effort; the individual states often failed to send anything to the Continental Congress.
So the Congress printed money, hoping someday to be able to redeem the notes with real money.
Thus was born the Continental Currency. And they had to resort to this a lot. To the point where it inflated, and we now have the phrase “not worth a Continental” to remember it by.
It was denominated in dollars, but often today the denominations seem odd. In 1775 we issued one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight dollar notes–as well as a twenty.
The next year we dropped the twenty dollar note in exchange for a thirty dollar note, added a half dollar note…but also a third of a dollar and two thirds of a dollar. And even a sixth of a dollar.
A sixth of a dollar? Really? That’s not even a whole number of cents! But, you see, our forebears didn’t even start dividing dollars into 100 cents until 1792. But this was still odd, because they typically thought of eighths of a dollar, single reales or “bits.”
In 1777, apparently, the inflation began to bite. The smallest denomination issues was $2, and we continued with $3, $4, $6, $7 and $8. (Apparently no $5, but all these other funky numbers.)
In 1778, the lowest denomination was $5, then $6, $7, $8, $20, $30, $40, $50 and even $60. Now if this was actual silver dollars, $60 would be huge sum of money by most people’s standards. But these weren’t, they were continentals, that weren’t worth a continental.
1779 saw the return of the $1 and $2, plus the $5, $20, $30, $35, $40, $45, $55, $60, $65, $70, and $80.
The British counterfeited these notes, in spite of the leaves depicted on them though a process that Benjamin Franklin had invented as a counterfeiting deterrent.
True connoisseurs of such notes will note there are a number of different designs, with notes from the same year often looking similar, and oftentimes the name of the printer contracted to run them off was quite prominent.
I’ll just embed a link to the full table in Wikipedia, rather than muck about with downloading the pics and re-uploading them:
(Or maybe not. I still can’t embed a link properly it seems. Try copying and pasting: https : // en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Continental_currency_banknotes without the spaces.)
Many of these referenced the “United Colonies,” some made no such reference, but all mention the “Congress,” which was the issuing authority. Many 1776 bills issued after July 4 1776 still referenced the “United Colonies.” The first bill to read “United States” was issued in 1777.
Here’s a not atypical example, 1/3 of a dollar from 1776, authorized in February of that year.
These aren’t ruinously expensive, and can be had in presentable condition for well under a thousand dollars. (I don’t know this series at all; for all I know there are denominations/dates that are extremely difficult to find and hence to pay for.)
Standard Disclaimer: These are not my notes. I never show my items, and I very often don’t have examples of the stuff I show. But the important thing for any criminally inclined reading this is to know I don’t keep the stuff I do have, at home.
Obligatory PSAs and Reminders
Just two more things, my standard Public Service Announcements. We don’t want to forget them!!!
How Not To Find Yourself In Contention For The Darwin Award
(Nothing to do with bearded dragons)
It has been pointed out that all of the rioting is nominally on account of criminals who resisted arrest in one form or another, and someone suggested schools ought to teach people not to resist arrest.
Granted an “ass kicking” isn’t the same as being shot, but both can result from the same stupid act. You may ultimately beat the rap, but you aren’t going to avoid the ride.
China is Lower than Whale Shit
Remember Hong Kong!!!
Zhōngguò shì gè hùndàn !!!
China is asshoe !!!