Prelude – December 14-25, 1776

After punishing defeats in New York and a desperate retreat across New Jersey, General Washington’s freezing men camped on the west bank of the Delaware River, many without tents. Fewer than three thousand when they arrived, more straggled in: nearby militias, then Continentals formerly led by General Charles Lee, captured by the British due to what Washington called “folly and imprudence.” Without a new army, Washington wrote, “the game is pretty near up.” Congress abandoned Philadelphia for Baltimore, calling over its shoulder for new enlistments as it fled. Tories collaborated with British and Hessian forces. General Nathanael Greene called it “the dark part of the night,” adding hopefully, “which is generally just before the day.” The American soldiers shivering on the riverbank largely stood alone.

To raise the spirit of the army, and of the people, Washington had to conjure a victory. The enemy was nestled into winter quarters in widely separated posts in New Jersey. Harassment by militia kept them isolated. At a council of war on December 22, Washington suggested that the ragtag Americans attack across the river. Late that night, the decision was made to chance everything on that single throw of the dice.

Widely read by the soldiers the next day, Tom Paine’s The American Crisis appealed to the cause of liberty in “times that try men’s souls.” To anyone who shrank from the fight, Paine declared that their children “will curse his cowardice [when] a little might have saved the whole.” The true course, Paine added, was not to seek peace, but to say, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.” Brave words could not conceal the peril. For December 24, the commander-in-chief chose the passwords, “Victory or Death.” ~ David O. Stewart, author of THE SUMMER OF 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution. www.davidostewart.com.