Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The characters a seem straight out of a big screen military blockbuster: the protagonist, a distinguished squire turned military commander, appearing outwardly controlled, yet besieged by internal doubts; his antagonist, a general whose redeeming qualities are negated by his arrogance and complacency; a comely widow; heroes, cads, and a supporting cast of thousands. The plot is also quintessential cinema fare full of bloody combat, intrigue, harsh weather, infighting, psychological gamesmanship, even a love interest or two. As the dramatic tension mounts, it’s clear that the action reaches a turning point. If he prevails in his efforts, the protagonist will change the course of history; liberty for his rebels and those they represent will be the result. If he fails, he and his cause will be remembered only as a footnote to history. The odds are against him. His forces are outnumbered, under-trained, and poorly equipped. His record so far is poor, with loss after agonizing loss. And yet he does not give up, but tries a bold last­-ditch effort that, somehow, some way, succeeds.

It sends chills up the spine to realize that this is not a Hollywood concoction but the true story of Christmas night, 1776, when General George Washington (1732-1799) crossed the ice-choked Delaware River on his way to success at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, where he stopped the British from crushing the American Revolution and restored the colonists’ dream that independence could be achieved. Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) in Bucks County, a five hun­dred-acre site administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), commemorates this momentous event, opening visitors’ eyes to just how extraordinary – and how significant – the American victory was.

By mid-1776, the flood of passion for independence that had begun with resistance to the Stamp Act of 1765, grown during such flash points as the Boston Massacre, and maintained its momentum from the opening battles at Lexington and Concord, on April 19, 1775, through the enthusiastic days of the Declaration of Independence, had greatly dwindled. For the first time, the colonists faced the cold reality of war’s carnage. Virginian George Washington, appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army by the Continental Congress, had his hands full coping with desertion, disobedience, and the deplorable conditions under which his army existed. Congress failed to provide adequate artillery, uniforms, and even the most basic of supplies. Most of these fellows were not experienced in military life; they were farmers, merchants, mechanics, carpenters, and tradesmen. When they enlisted, most had only signed on for six months.

In contrast, by July 1776 the British Commander in Chief, Sir William Howe (1729-1814), landed on Staten Island with nine thousand professional troops. The following month, his army of British and Hessians (German mercenaries hired into the service of British King George III) had swelled to more than thirty thousand. This well-trained force had dealt the colonials one defeat after another in New York: August 27, at the Battle of Long Island; October 28, at the Battle of White Plains; and the Novem­ber 16 debacle at Fort Washington on the east side of the Hudson River.

The Americans had been positioned advantageously inside Fort Washington, although the redcoats heavily outnum­bered them. Washington, camped at Fort Lee in New Jersey directly across the river, reluctantly allowed Brigadier General Nathanael Greene to try to hold Fort Washington. The results were disastrous. The fort with more than twenty-eight hundred troops surrendered, and four days later the British crossed to New Jersey and attacked Fort Lee, forcing Washington’s remaining army to flee westward, first to the Hackensack River and then to the Passaic.

Although the American forces were vulnerable to being trapped between the two rivers, the British suddenly slowed down. Both Howe and the field com­mander for the New Jersey campaign, General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805), hoped that a negotiated peace could be achieved with the colonies. The rebels continued to retreat, and the British
followed, although not always in close pursuit. Washington’s force soon fell to five thousand, and the enlistment periods for two thousand of these expired at the end of November. For weeks he had been exhorting Major General Charles Lee, commander of a body of seven thousand American troops, to merge their forces in western New Jersey. General Lee, who scorned Washington, felt that he himself would be a better commander in chief, and he ignored Washington’s orders.

The civilian population was losing confidence. The British now offered amnesty and protection to New Jersey citizens who would renew their alle­giance to the king. As the rebel army withdrew toward the Delaware, about three thousand New Jersey residents made these pledges.

Washington’s soldiers were hungry, inadequately clothed, and many had bleeding feet. According to Private John Howland, quoted in William M. Dwyer’s chronicle The Day is Ours!, “many of our men … whose shoes were worn out, repaired to the butcher’s yard, and cut out a piece of raw hide, which they laced with strips of the same skin about their feet. … as soon as my moccasins became frozen, they chafed my toes till they bled.”

Although inwardly discouraged, Washington’s actions were not those of a man who had given up. On December 2, when he reached Trenton, his depleted force began to ferry their equipment across the thousand-foot-wide Delaware River to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, using Beatty’s Ferry above the falls of the Delaware and the Trenton Ferry below, and pressing everything from rowboats to ferries into service. The general also ordered that anything remaining that could float be removed from the New Jersey side to prevent the British from following him into Pennsyl­vania. Just as the Americans’ last boat landed in Pennsylvania, the vanguard of the British army appeared on the river’s eastern banks. At first the British hoped to reach Philadelphia by Christmas, but they could not find a single boat. If they wanted to cross the river, they would need to wait for it to freeze over or until barges could be constructed.

General Howe decided that there would be no assault on Philadelphia before the New Year. The British would establish winter quarters in western New Jersey. General Howe at first named a Hessian German, Colonel Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop, as commander of the troops to occupy Trenton, Bordentown, and Burlington. However, Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, another Hessian, talked Howe into giving him the Trenton command instead. Donop, wary of surprise attacks by the patriots, ordered Rall to build earthen redoubts around Trenton, but the complacent Rall refused.

Fifty-year-old Rall, known as “The Lion,” was a career soldier who had performed brilliantly at Fort Washing­ton. By all accounts, the enlisted men worshipped him. But Rall’s officers complained of his cruel refusal to ask the British Army for warm winter clothes for his common soldiers. Rall did not have to worry about keeping himself warm. He quartered in the home of a wealthy Trentonian, enjoying the comfort that affluence accorded while his soldiers endured cold, cramped conditions.

General Lee finally entered New Jersey on December 2-3, but rather than joining Washington he began to maneu­ver against Cornwallis’s troops. If he could force them out he stood a good chance of replacing Washington as commander in chief. His career was mined ten days later, on December 13, when he was taken prisoner at Mrs. White’s tavern in Basking Ridge by a roving detachment of British cavalry. General John Sullivan then led the remainder of Lee’s command to Wash­ington’s encampment in Bucks County.

Washington knew the game was almost up. If he did not act, the War for Independence would be over. He decided that one bold stroke might stem the tide, so he planned a surprise assault on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Washington’s force was camped on the Delaware at McKonkey’s Ferry­ encompassed now by Washington. Crossing Historic Park-where a supply of boats was assembled. He decided to attack before daylight on Thursday, December 26, gambling that the Hes­sians would not be very alert because they traditionally celebrated for several days at Christmas.

While Washington planned, Colonel von Donop heard that New Jersey’s Colonel Samuel Griffin had gathered eight hundred patriots at Mount Holly, eighteen miles south of Trenton. Donop marched there and pushed Griffin’s small force back toward Moorestown. In Mount Holly that night, Donop became smitten by a young widow and decided to linger. He remained there to celebrate the holiday season, making help unavailable to Rall in Trenton.

In Trenton, Colonel Rall ignored every suggestion of a rebel attack. He underestimated Washington and his men, a fatal mistake. As a bitter north­east wind blew on Christmas Day, twenty-four hundred Continental soldiers began assembling at McKonkey’s Ferry, eight miles up the Delaware from Trenton. Beginning at sundown, Colonel John Glover’s Fourteenth Massachusetts Continental Regiment­ – the Marbleheaders – began to ferry troops, horses, and eighteen cannon across the icy river in an ever-worsening storm of sleet and snow. The forty to sixty-foot, black Durham boats, designed to carry iron ore and pig iron, could hold up to fifteen tons each, perfect for transporting artillery (see “Unconven­tional Patriot: An Interview with Ann Hawkes Hutton” by Brent D. Glass, in the Winter 1996 issue). Washington knew that they would need the large guns, since muskets malfunctioned when wet. The firing mechanism of a cannon, on the other hand, could be kept dry if reasonable precautions were observed.

As the stormy night dragged on, it was clear that the element of complete surprise Washington had hoped for on the march to Trenton had been lost because it took so long to ferry everyone across the river and the operation had been noisy and conspicuous. On the other hand, the accelerating storm effectively obscured the troops’ advance as much as darkness and complete silence might have. The plan had been to have all the men and munitions across by midnight, but it was nearly four o’clock in the morning before the units were assembled on the New Jersey side, ready to march eight miles south to Trenton. The exhausting physical effort, especially on the part of the Marblehead soldier-boatsmen, poling and steering the Durham boats amidst the floating blocks of ice, was notable. The booming voice of the three-hundred-pound giant, Colonel Henry Knox, was heard every­where, providing organizational stability. Washington himself eventually took a position on the New Jersey side to oversee the landing of his units. By the time the march began the wind was blowing toward the south, supporting the marchers and hurling snow and ice into the faces of enemy sentries.

More ominous was news that came from Bristol, twenty miles downstream. Washington’s master plan had included coordinated minor crossings of revolu­tionary forces at Trenton Ferry and Bristol. Brigadier General James Ewing’s six hundred Pennsylvania militiamen were to cross from Trenton Ferry to block any retreat of Hessians at the Assunpink Creek, south of Trenton. Colonel John Cadwalader’s battalion of Philadelphia Associators was to cross from Bristol to engage the Hessian garrison at Bordentown so that it could not reinforce Trenton. But the weather allowed only a few of Cadwalader’s men to cross, and none of Ewing’s force embarked at Trenton Ferry. Washington did not learn that both Ewing’s and Cadwalader’s operations had failed until the following morning.

Washington was determined to risk everything to carry out his major objective. By six o’clock, the rebels were in Birmingham, less than five miles from Trenton, where they split into two columns. General Greene led the northern attack, accompanied by Washington and by Knox, who com­manded the artillery. General John Sullivan commanded the right wing, which moved along the river road, seized the lower sections of the city, and established itself on its western edge, along the Assunpink Creek, to catch fleeing Hessians. From the north, Knox’s batteries hurled their rounds down the streets, and soon Washington was enthralled to hear Sullivan’s cannon joining in from the south. The dryness of the artillery firing chambers proved crucial. As the storm drove needles of sleet into the faces of the enemy, the Continentals fired grapeshot, round shot, and exploding shells. Musket fire was mostly limited to those soldiers who could load and discharge from the shelter of the town’s largely deserted houses.

The Hessians, surprised and disori­ented, could not form in ranks because of the sweeping fire of Knox’s guns. Both their small arms and artillery were drenched and inoperable. Bayonets were useless because the Americans did not close in. The Hessians were surrounded, and surrendered after an hour and a half. The Continental Army had done the seemingly impossible: it captured nearly nine hundred Hessians, killed or wounded more than one hundred, and seized six field pieces, a thousand muskets, a complete set of band instru­ments, and forty hogsheads of rum. There are conflicting reports of Ameri­can casualties, but no report lists more than a half dozen dead and wounded.

Colonel Rall, sleeping off the effects of a late-night card game and plentiful spirits, had been slow to respond to an equally sluggish call to arms. When at last dressed, he attempted to lead a counterattack on horseback. Wounded twice, the languishing martinet received a visit from General Washington, who took his parole (a promise not to take up arms if released) and assured him that the captured Hessians would not be treated cruelly. Rall died the following day. Many of his officers had harsh words for him, putting the blame for the disaster squarely on his shoulders.

This surprising victory roused the soldiers as nothing else could have. The words of the propagandist Thomas Paine, who had been in the ranks of the soldiers who had retreated from Fort Washington and had visited the encampment in Bucks County, eloquent­ly described the sacrifice and courage of the patriots. “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of men and women.” A new enthusiasm for the American Revolution surged from the army to the general population. In many communi­ties, late in 1776, red tags had been placed by residents on their front doors to indicate that the householders were Tory sympathizers. Many now began to disappear.

What of the troops themselves – the boys and men who had endured so much suffering and discomfort – who had been away from home for so long, and whose enlistments would expire when the New Year began? Would they re-enlist? At their camps and garrison posts, the troops were paraded and their officers made speeches imploring them to stay on. One by one, most of the veterans re-enlisted. The Revolution was alive!

In 1917, on the eve of the United States’ entry in World War I, Washington Crossing Historic Park was established to preserve the site from which the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River. History is interpreted at the Park through tours, exhibits, and special events. A copy of Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” is displayed in the Visitors Center, where an interpretive film is shown regularly. The Park contains thirteen historic buildings which, over the years, have been restored to their original condition. The eighteenth-century McKonkey’s Ferry Inn and the Thompson-Neely House were both used by Washington and his officers in December 1776, and figure prominently in the Park’s interpretation of the Continental Army encampment and the crossing. According to tradition, the inn is where Washington and his aides ate their Christmas dinner before the river crossing.

Several nineteenth-century buildings interpret life along the Delaware River after the Revolutionary War, including the 1816 Mahlon K. Taylor House. Taylor was a Quaker who founded a mercantile and commercial empire by building on the base provided by the old ferry and by an inn his family had purchased in 1777. The surrounding community, Taylorsville, flourished in the mid­-nineteenth century, led by Mahlon and a large number of his Taylor family relatives, who branched out into various businesses. Mahlon Taylor was directly involved in canal shipping, merchandis­ing, a tavern, the bridge over the Delaware, and the post office. Serving as the postmaster for forty years, he also invested in many other ventures and was a director of the Doylestown Bank.

Washington Crossing Historic Park also houses the Durham Boat House, a twentieth-century structure, which has replicas of the sturdy freight boats on which Washington relied heavily to move his men and materiel across the Delaware. Today, the boats are used in the annual re-enactment.

Bowman’s Hill State Wildflower Preserve, part of the park but operated separately in cooperation with the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve Association, is a one-hundred-acre area devoted to the preservation of Pennsyl­vania’s native plants. There are miles of trails, along with a variety of programs, special events, and exhibits. Bowman’s Hill Tower, a one hundred-and-ten-foot observation tower, was built in 1930 to commemorate a Revolutionary War lookout post.

Washington Crossing Historic Park is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.; Sunday, noon to 5 P.M. The historic site closes for holidays, except Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Indepen­dence Day, Labor Day, and Christmas Day. For information write: Washington Crossing Historic Park, P.O. 103, Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania 18977; telephone (215) 493-4076. Picnic pavilions are available for group reservations. Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accom­modation should telephone the historic site in advance of their visit to discuss their needs.

A full schedule of events is planned for the remainder of 1999, leading up to the extremely popular crossing reenactment, on Saturday, December 25, which attracts thousands. Special attractions include “Tavern Night at McKonkey’s Ferry Inn,” on Saturday, September 25; an exhibit entitled “The Art of Gail Bracegirdle,” on view during the month of October; “Fall Festival at the Park,” on Saturday, October 23; Crossing Dress Rehearsal and George Washington Day, on Sunday, December 12; and George Washington Memorial Program, on Tuesday, December 14.

The story of Bucks County is also the story of America, and many historic sites and museums chronicle the history of both state and nation. Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, also administered by the PHMC, is the recreated country house of founder William Penn where the social, cultural, and political ways of life of the Commonwealth’s earliest days are interpreted. Situated on sixty acres known as Green Hills Farm, the Pearl S. Buck House, located in Perkasie, is where the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer lived and worked for nearly forty years. Visitors to Doylestown, the county seat, can enjoy the James A. Michener Art Museum, which features extensive holdings of works by the New Hope School and the Pennsylvania impression­ists. Three of Pennsylvania’s more unusual attractions are also located in the county seat, thanks to a most unusual individual, Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930). These are Fonthill, the Mercer Museum, and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, constructed entirely of reinforced concrete.

Other popular attractions in Bucks County include Andalusia, in Andalusia, an early nineteenth-century Greek Revival-style residence; the stately Parry Mansion in New Hope, and Historic Fallsington, a charming village which includes buildings dating from seven­teenth through the nineteenth centuries.

For more information about visiting these and other historic sites and museums, write: Bucks County Tourist Bureau, 152 Swamp Road, Doylestown, Pennsylvania 18901-2451; telephone (215) 345-4552 or toll-free (800) 836-2825.


For Further Reading

Dwyer, William M. The Day is Ours! An Inside View of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, November 1776 – January 1777. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

Fast, Howard. The Crossing. Newark, N.J.: New Jersey Historical Society, 1971.

Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensable Man. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1974.

Hughes, Rupert. George Washington: The Rebel and the Patriot, 1762-1777. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1927.

Ketchum, Richard J. The Winter Soldiers. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday and Compa­ny, 1973.

Thane, Elswyth. Potomac Squire. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1963.


For their invaluable assistance, the author thanks the following staff members of Washington Crossing Historic Park: Toni Collins, historic site administrator; Maurice (“Pat”) Patrizio, education director; and Karen L. Horvath, guide supervisor.


Sharon Hernes Silverman of West Chester, Chester County, frequently writes for Pennsylvania Heritage. Her most recent feature, “Joseph Priestley: Catalyst of the Enlightenment,” appeared in the Summer 1999 issue.