History of the First American Christmas: 1776


Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze

It is called the first “American” Christmas because the Declaration of Independence was created the previous summer, essentially “divorcing” America from England and declaring our country an independent nation.

Admittedly, the country had not yet created a solid form of government. The Articles of Confederation were not produced until 1781, nor was the subsequent Constitution (1788). But there is no doubt that Americans saw themselves as independent of England… at least most did. But these “Patriots” had to fight for their independence in a War of Independence, a Revolutionary War.


Crossing the Delaware

General George Washington

General George Washington

On Christmas Day of 1776, General George Washington led the American Continental Army across the Delaware River to attack British forces in Trenton, New Jersey.

The Patriots had met with an unsuccessful Fall, experiencing defeats in New York.

  • Supplies and morale were low.
  • The British had overrun Fort Washington in Manhattan, taking 2,000 American prisoners.
  • Ninety percent of the Continental Army soldiers who had served at Long Island were gone.
  • Men had deserted, feeling that the cause for independence was lost.
  • The line between being an American Patriot and being a Loyalist to England was thin, and hard times made it easier to cross that line.


Even the 44-year-old George Washington was discouraged, having written to his cousin in Virginia,

“I think the game is pretty nearly up.”


Trenton, the Turning Point

The Battle of Trenton was a pivotal one during the war. After Washington had crossed the icy Delaware River on Christmas, he marched the main forces of the Continental Army, 2,400 men, for four hours the nine miles south to Trenton against Hessian auxiliaries. Washington planned three separate river crossings using cargo boats and ferries. Still, only one made it across the 300-yard wide river amid snow and sleet that night, enabled by strong New Englanders who were experienced seamen.

Washington chose as his challenge or counter-sign for the crossing,

“Victory or Death.”

The enemy was called Hessians because 65% of these soldiers came from the German states of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau. In total, these auxiliaries comprised a quarter of the British land forces. They were called “auxiliaries” because, unlike mercenaries who voluntarily fight for a foreign government for pay, these were hired out by their own government to whom they remained in service.

The Hessian states received a significant source of income from loaning out highly trained and disciplined fighters like these to the British to the tune of 30,000 total. Indeed, using these foreign fighters was one of the 27 grievances the Colonies had declared as a violation of Colonist’s rights against King George III in the US Declaration of Independence.


Battle of Trenton

Battle of Trenton

Battle of Trenton


Washington did something unusual that turned the tide. Attacking during the bitter winter was not uncommon; it’s been done for centuries before and since, including at the WWII Battle of the Bulge. Nor was the night attack unusual.

On December 23, 1776, General Washington met with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Declaration of Independence signer and amongst the few congressmen who were still in Philadelphia. He confided to Rush a stunning and momentous decision: to launch an unexpected attack on the Hessians.

What was rather remarkable was that Washington made a daring surprise attack on Christmas, a holiday that the German troops observed. The Hessians had lowered their guard in their celebrations and stationed no long-distance outposts or patrols.

He inspired the troops with Thomas Paine‘s “The American Crisis.” They would shout these words as they pressed their attack,

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Caught unprepared, at about 8:00 AM on the cold morning of December 26, the battle was fierce but short against the sleepy 1,400 Hessians stationed there. Within two hours, 900 of the Hessians surrendered, though a third crossed the Assunping Creek to escape, at the cost of only 4 American lives.

A week later, on January 2, 1777, Washington would fight again as he repulsed an attack by British regulars in Trenton under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis at what would be called the Battle of Assunping Creek, located south of Trenton.

The next day, the Americans marched 10 miles south to fight the Battle of Princeton, defeating Cornwallis’ rear guard before retreating to Morristown, NJ, for their winter quarters.

Historical Trivia:

Colonel Alexander Hamilton

Colonel Alexander Hamilton

Future US Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, fired cannons at the British troops in Nassau Hall, the main building of the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton University) where, though he had been declined admittance there three years earlier, he gained permission to take courses at his own pace.

Future US President James Monroe crossed the Delaware and was wounded by a musket ball to his arm at the Battle of Trenton.


American Victory

News of Washington’s initiative raised the spirits of the American Colonists. Washington’s actions enabled the Continental Army to reassert American control of much of New Jersey and significantly improve the morale and unity of the Colonial Army and American militias. Cornwallis would ultimately surrender to Washington on October 19, 1781.

Surrender of Cornwallis

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

But Cornwallis was unwilling to face Washington, so he sent his Brigade General Charles O’Hara, instead to present his sword. Washington, similarly, had his second-in-command, Benjamin Lincoln, accept Cornwallis’ sword.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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