We all have seen,(or should have) the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack a Hessian garrison in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day in 1777. Not many understand why he chose this day for a stunning feat of arms that saw the Continental Army defeat a Hessian Regiment in a short battle that killed and wounded one-hundred and ten Hessians and captured a thousand more with all their equipment, arms, provisions, and ammunition.
The Hessian Rent-a Armies of Hesse-Cassel in Germany.
It’s important to know something about the Hessians in this case. King George III, hired some 30,000 German troops to fight for the crown during the American revolution, believing they would fight better than his own troops when it came to shooting the rebellious colonists who were English in language and customs. Germany at that time was not a unified country but a collection of small states with their own Kings and the rental of armies was a common practice. The kingdom is most well known for Rent-a-Armies was Hesse-Cassel which provided the bulk of the troops that King George hired. This is where the Hessians got their name. It was pretty good business too. The fee that Prince Landgraf Friedrich II charged King George was equivalent to thirteen years of tax revenue that he could spend on public works and other things that kept his people happy.
In Hesse-Cassel you registered for the draft at age seven and presented yourself for military service at age sixteen. If you had a job or were in school still you were generally exempt, but if you were unemployed, a school dropout out or any other kind of “idler” into the army you would go. Discipline was harsh along with the training, but the officers were said to be of high quality. Their equipment and uniforms were also very good and these expendable men serving in the regiments were given a sense of purpose and a place in society. Morale among these troops was very high. Their pay was tax-exempt, and more than one earned working in the fields. They could sell captured “Booty” comprised of captured military equipment to the British and were also allowed to keep plundered goods seized from civilians during campaigns. Supposedly plunder was forbidden by regulations but officers wanting their own cut of the spoils of war tended to look the other way. This appetite for plunder was one of the reasons the Hessians(named as mercenaries) are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence as one of the causes of our separation from England.
They were also mostly Lutheran or Catholic in their practice of religion and took the Christmas holiday very seriously. It was generally a day off with leisure, feasts, and of course alcohol. This is important to the story. Christmas was also celebrated by the Anglican church that most of the British soldiers were members of as well.
This is where you may be wondering what that has to do with anything. Well, most of Washington’s troops were American Presbyterians who not only didn’t celebrate Christmas, but they were also actively hostile to it as a pagan holiday.
Yeah, you read that right. Washington’s Army didn’t take Christmas off, it was like any other day of the year to them.
In The New England Colonies They Had Banned Christmas
In the 17th century, Christmas celebrations were pretty much banned by law in most of New England. The Calvinist Puritans and other Protestant churches saw it as either pagan or part of the Catholic faith which they abhorred as Popism. We are talking about laws that go back to 1659 in some case that fined people for observance of Christmas by even reading the book fo prayer on that day.
Get caught playing music on Christmas Day?
Pay a fine.
Making a mincemeat pie?
These anti-Christmas laws were only repealed in the early eighteenth century.
Wish someone in New England a “Merry Christmas” in 1776 and you would get back either a hostile glare or a blank non-comprehending stare.
So Were The Hessians Really Caught In Their Beds With Hangovers?
This is why Washington chose Christmas Day to cross the Delaware River and to attack early in the morning of the 26th. He wasn’t going to attack them in the middle of eating Christmas dinner because doing so would have been a stain on his honor as a Christian and it would likely enrage the British and Hessians to be attacked on their most holy day of the year.
He waited for the morning after Christmas, knowing that the Hessians would have been up late, eating, drinking, singing, and having a good time. They would be waking up a bit hungover.
A colonist who fought in the battle, John Greenwood stated after the battle that the Hessians had not touched a drop of alcohol of even a bite of bread and other historians have said that while the Germans were tired and dazed they were not hungover from celebrating the night before.
I would ask readers to consider the following.
Washington had won a great victory that would have been diminished by the disclosure that he caught the Hessians in bed with hangovers that morning, rather than awake, alert, and ready for a fight.
The attack began at 0800 hours that morning and caught most of the Hessians still in their beds.
At eight in the morning?
The commander of the Rahl Regiment had to be woken up by his adjutant as the Continentals were advancing into the middle of Trenton town. This was about 0900 hrs.
The Hessians troops themselves came spilling out of their barracks in various states of being dressed and trying to get into their uniforms and equipment even as the battle took place. And they did not fight like the professional, trained soldiers they were said to be. Three regiments of them surrendered comprising almost one thousand troops after losing twenty-two killed and about one hundred wounded. And they threw down their arms in the face of an undersupplied army dressed in rags, many of whom were marching barefoot in winter.
That Washington expected to find the Hessians still in bed and hungover is reinforced by the writing of one of his own staff officers who wrote, “They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow[sic] morning.” More than anything, this tells you what was in Washington’s mind from an officer on his own planning staff.
It’s self-contradicting to imagine Hessian regiments being so disciplined that they would forgo a traditional Christmas celebration of feasting and drinking but would still sleep in well past dawn the day after Christmas. Hessian commander Rahl was at a dinner and had intelligence passed to him that the Americans were nearby on Christmas night, but took no action and just put the piece of paper in his pocket where it was found on his dead body the next day. A commander that would forbid his troops a festive meal and alcohol to make sure a Christmas celebration would not be taken advantage of by an enemy would have gone on alert since he was being proven right in his suspicions about being attacked.
In closing, we often think of Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas in terms of the soldiers of his army having to give up their Christmas to fight a battle and imagining their morale being pretty low given the day, but that just wasn’t the case. In Washington’s Army, Christmas wasn’t celebrated, and he exploited it to win a great victory not just at Trenton but also at Princeton a few days later.
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