DECEMBER 14, 2014 – Christmas is full of symbolism. It represents victory over an enemy; a pathway to peace, giving, light and so much more. As many Americans celebrate this week, remembering a birth that would change the world unlike any before or since in all of history, there is another story, uniquely ours laced with all the same elements of victory and providential intervention that we often forget. It’s worth retelling in these days, where heroes are not found by the lime light, and men and women weak in character and courage are given power and hailed.
The commissions of a weary, rag tag army under the direction of General George Washington were set to expire on December 31, 1776. Morale was low due to defeat after defeat, food rationings were sparse, and a brutally cold winter had set in. Desertion and sickness had dwindled Washington’s forces to near nothing.
By late December, two things had happened to boost morale and give the men hope that all was not lost, just before their most important battle of the war. The first was the publication on December 19 of Thomas Paine’s, The American Crisis. It began with these well known words:
“These are 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 man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Within a day, General Washington ordered it be read to the troops. Next, reinforcements began to show up. “General Lee’s division of 2,000 arrived in camp under the command of General John Sullivan. General Lee had been captured by the British on December 12, when he had ventured several miles away from his troops in search of more comfortable lodgings. Later that day General Gate’s division, now numbering just 500, arrived in camp.
Soon after, another 1,000 men from Philadelphia under Colonel John Cadwalader joined Washington. As a result of these reinforcements and smaller numbers of volunteers from the local area, Washington now had 6,000 listed as “fit-for-duty.” Of this number, a large portion was detailed to guard the ferries between Bristol and New Hope. Another group was placed to protect supplies at Newtown, Pennsylvania and to guard the sick and wounded who would remain behind, when the army crossed the Delaware River. This left Washington with about 2,400 men able to take offensive action against the Hessian and British troops in Central New Jersey.” (Wikipedia)
On December 24, Washington ordered that each man be provided with three days rations, and that they keep their blankets handy. The Durham boats used to cross were brought down from Malta Island near New Hope and hidden at McKonkey’s Ferry. With all of the General Officers present, Washington outlined plans for the march and attack.
On Christmas Day 1776, a hail and sleet storm broke out, winds were strong and the river was full of ice floes. The troops assembled at the ferry landing and were given the password for the day, “Victory or Death.” Loading of the boats began at nightfall. They disembarked on the New Jersey side of the Delaware at 3:00 a.m.
The weather was so treacherous both General Ewing and Colonel Cadwalader failed to complete the mission. Both crossed later when they received word about Washington’s victory. The frozen army caught the British and Hessian troops off-guard and hung over from a night of Christmas revelry. About nine hundred were taken prisoner and transported back across the frozen Delaware. It was a decisive victory and credited with the boost needed for the Americans to win the Revolutionary War.
Merely one man, yet what a heroic figure and inspiration George Washington has been, to not just Americans, but millions of souls world wide hungry for the freedom represented in this one person of character. Over a century later president Calvin Coolidge would say, “Washington was the directing spirit, without which there would have been no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no republic… We cannot yet estimate him. We can only indicate our reverence for him and thank the Divine Providence which kept him to serve and inspire his fellow man.”
Washington inspired and awed even his most stalwart opponents. In 1770, fifteen years after the battle at the Monongahela, where Washington earned the reputation as being bullet proof; many eye witnesses corroborated stories of seeing him fired upon repeatedly, yet remain standing in battle, the chief whose warriors had been defeated traveled with his entourage to meet with him around a council fire. Through an interpreter, the chief told him:
“I am a chief and ruler over my tribes. My influence extends to the waters of the great lakes and to the far blue mountains. I have traveled a long and weary path, that I might see the young warrior of the great battle. It was on the day when the white man’s blood mixed with the streams of our forest, that I first beheld this chief….Our rifles were leveled, but twas all in vain; a power mightier far than we shielded you. Seeing you were under the special guardianship of the Great Spirit, we immediately ceased to fire at you…
The Great Spirit protects that man, and guides his destinies – he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire. I come to pay homage to the man who is particular favorite of Heaven, and who can never die in battle.”
An eerie prophesy, yet somewhat similar to another prophesy read and re-read by families on Christmas for 2000 years (Luke 2: 26 – 33 NIV):
26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”