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Shippen and his assistants from the hospital at Bethlehem, with orders to accompany the march, and be close at hand when the firing began. The pass-word for the ensuing evening was “Victory or Death"; and there was hardly a soldier in the ranks who did not understand why that phrase had been chosen.
The weather was frightful. Intense cold set in on the twentieth of December; and the Delaware, from bank to bank, swam thick with frozen blocks, which were already piled into a mass lower down the river where the stream was affected by the tides. Ewing found himself unable to cross at Trenton Ferry. Cadwalader tried first above Bristol, and then below; but he encountered a solid field of ice, three hundred feet in breadth, between the open water and the Jersey shore; and though, by dint of great exertions, he at length landed a part of his infantry, they came too late, and the event was decided without him. Washington's own difficulties were somewhat less, and he had more perfect appliances wherewith to surmount them; but the task which awaited him was rude enough. At two in the afternoon on Christmas day his little battalions stepped off from their quarters; and before sunset the whole force was assembled on the shore in front of McKenky's Ferry. Those who were behind time could easily trace the route which their comrades had followed; "for the snow was tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.” It had confidently been hoped that the troops would have been transported across the river by midnight, so that they might have the rest of the darkness for their march to Trenton, and be in a position for commencing an attack with the earliest gleam of dawn. But the Delaware ran high and strong; the cold was sharp to the point of torture; and about eleven o'clock a bewildering tempest of sleet and hail was hurled athwart the channel on a fierce, bitter wind. Huge jagged cakes of ice, troublesome from the first, were a more dangerous obstacle at each successive crossing. During
nine mortal hours the Marblehead fishermen contended with the gale and the flood. Captain Blunt of Portsmouth saw the boat-loads off, timed the journeys to and fro, and instructed the steersmen as to the allowance which should be made for the force of the current. Colonel Knox shouted directions to the troops in stentorian accents, which were heard through the roaring of the storm, and never left his station on the Pennsylvanian bank until he had assured himself that not an ammunition cart or an artillery horse remained on the wrong side of the river. Even at that unnatural hour, and in those inclement surroundings, the Americans found a hearty welcome on the Jersey shore. The township of Hopewell, in that province, was one of the two districts which had suffered most cruelly from the devastations of the Hessians. A hint had got abroad that Washington was expected; and all the able-bodied men turned out from their ransacked homes to meet him. They hauled up the great Durham boats through the shallow water; they helped to coax the horses, and turn the spokes of the cannon-wheels, down extemporised bridges which gave access from the vessels to the shore; and every one of them either accompanied or preceded the army to the field of action. Some were guides. Others went on ahead, secure from suspicion in their farming clothes, to spy out, and report upon, the amount of vigilance displayed by the outlying Hessian pickets. One, an old miller, — whom the Germans had imprisoned, but who escaped, costumed as a woodsman with an axe on his shoulder, after having been under the same roof as Colonel Rall, — brought to Washington the very latest news from the interior of Trenton.
As the storm increased, - and as the night, with its priceless advantages for an assailant, slipped away, — the American commander sate, tranquil and silent, amid an anxious and despondent group of generals. It was not till four o'clock on the Thursday morning that the army was formed up for the march upon Trenton.
The scene was cheerless, more especially for the younger privates, who were already very near the end of the small stock of vital energy which a long campaign had left them. Dead-beat and footsore, they slipped and stumbled amid the frozen slush, drenched through and through by the merciless hail. Their officers walked among them, teaching them, by precept and example, to cover the locks of their muskets in their blankets, or beneath their coat-skirts; reminding them of worse times; and promising them a fair and speedy chance to retrieve their past defeats. Half-way to Trenton a halt was called, and the soldiers took a hasty meal, while Washington breakfasted in the saddle. When the order was given to re-form the ranks, many were already asleep at the road side, and could with difficulty be got once more upon their feet. The two divisions pursued separate routes. Sullivan led three brigades along the lower road, nearest to the river; and Greene, with four brigades, came by the Pennington highway. A detachment of artillerymen went with the advanced parties, carrying spikes and hammers to disable, and drag-ropes to secure, the enemy's cannon. On both roads four field-pieces travelled in front of the infantry, and the others followed at intervals, well forward in the line of march. Colonel Knox had brought all his guns for use, even at the risk of losing some few of them by capture. Washington rode along on his chestnut-sorrel charger, sunk in thought, but from time to time calling to his men, “Press on; press on, boys." The first signs of daylight now began to appear; and all hope of surprising the Hessians in their beds was perforce abandoned. The boldest felt that they had better make the most of that sunrise, as they might never see another. No one was sanguine
1 The American regimental officers carried fusees; and some, who knew that they could use a rifle with advantage, had provided themselves with that weapon.
2 Stryker's Trenton and Princeton. His account of the passage over the Delaware, and of the night march, is excellent throughout.
enough to anticipate, what was indeed the case, that the hardest, and even the most perilous, section of their enterprise had already been accomplished.
The preliminary arrangements for the expedition, though made with all possible secrecy and circumspection, had been elaborate and comprehensive. They embraced a large extent of country, and inevitably challenged the observation of hostile eyes. Colonel Rall had not been at the pains to send spies into the American lines; but two deserters from the Continental army informed him that the Philadelphian militia were assembling, and that Washington's soldiers were employed in cooking enough rations for several days. A Tory farmer from Pennsylvania brought word that Trenton would certainly be attacked at an early moment; and on the twenty-fourth of December General Grant wrote from Brunswick that he had “got into a good line of intelligence," and had learned enough to assure himself that the Hessians ought at once to put themselves on their guard. German officers, who had very good reasons for avoiding the possible contingency of having the packages and bundles in their private waggons overhauled by an American victor, suggested to Colonel Rall that the baggage might be transferred to a place of safety; but he replied that whoever could capture him, and his brigade, might take the baggage as well. If the rebels, (he said,) came across the Delaware, the best they could hope for was a good retreat. And so the Germans set themselves down to enjoy their Christmas; with kindly thoughts, doubtless, of those whom they had left behind them in Franconia and Westphalia ; but with no pity or compunction for the cold hearths, and bare larders, of many a New Jersey family. About seven in the evening on Christmas day a noise of firing
1 A great deal has been written about the drunken revels of the Hessians; but all the evidence goes to show that they were badly off for liquor that Christmas. The officers were distressed about the price of Madeira, which was three and sixpence a bottle. Rall exerted himself
suddenly broke out on the north of the town, and all the three regiments were mustered for battle. It was little more than a false alarm. An American scouting party had surprised the outposts, and had wounded half a dozen Hessians without any loss to themselves. Rall came to the conclusion that this was the aggressive movement with reference to which General Grant had cautioned him. The troops were dismissed, and returned to their merry-making; and he himself repaired as guest to a jovial supper, where he stopped over his cards and wine until the late winter morning had nearly come.
In the course of that night, a Loyalist from across the river knocked at the door of the house where the festival was in progress, and asked to see the Colonel. Refused admittance, he wrote a few lines, and gave injunctions that they should at once be delivered to Rall, who slipped the note into his pocket unread. Not many hours afterwards when, as a dying man, he had been undressed for the last time, this scrap of paper was found in his clothes; and he learned the nature of the neglected warning with resignation and contrition.
On the evening of Christmas day, when the alarm had subsided, but before the brigade was dispersed to quarters, Major von Dechow earnestly adjured his commanding officer to send out strong patrols along all the roads, and as far as the ferries; but Rall answered that morning would be time enough. A half troop of English Light Dragoons had been attached to his command, and some of them were usually employed in reconnoitring the vicinity; but on the twenty-sixth of December that precaution was omitted. Three infantry privates only went off to scout; and, after walking a short distance into the country, they returned long before daybreak with the report that nothing was stirring. One company of the Von Lossberg regiment
to procure spruce-beer, or small beer, for his soldiers, but not very successfully; and, at the best, those beverages were poor drink for the countrymen of King Gambrinus.