Based upon real events at Bensalem, Pennsylvania, on a night of destiny, December 24, 1776.
The freezing night wind had given birth to a wailing blizzard that drove stinging sleet and snow horizontally into the faces of the soldiers. It was the worst snowstorm since this Pennsylvania colony was founded less than a hundred years ago.
Poorly trained colonial militiaman, Thomas Bonsall, and almost two thousand, other muffled shapes struggled on the dark snowy path through 40 acres of woods. Thomas’ eyes flicked around looking for—he didn’t know what.
He was scared—expecting a British lead ball fired in a bloom of hellish red smoke, from the dark trees, into his chest.
This area was supposed to be secure, but that was impossible in the heart of Tory sympathizers—spy infested Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Despite the king’s tyrannous rule, propagandized true believers were everywhere.
Duncan Williams’ ferry, below, was supposed to get the men across the vast Delaware River, but it couldn’t because ice jams blocked the crossing into New Jersey. Duncan’s great flat-bottomed boat seemed powerless to surmount the floes.
Fire pots were supposed to covertly light this path leading from the dirt road of the King’s Highway down to the ferry crossing, but they blew out.
Thomas was thinking, This is doomsday. Everything’s gone wrong of it. This weather is the final blot on a doomed enterprise.
Thomas Bonsall stopped walking. He hunched his aching back against the pelt of wind-torn sleet, struggling with frozen hands to grip the twelve pound musket. He pulled his hat down tight over red hair dull with ice.
Thomas shifted the heavy smoothbore to the crook of his left arm, squinting against the stinging swirl of wind and ice, as his stiff hands adjusted the waxed cloth that protected the long-gun’s pan.
He needed to be ready. The powder primer must be dry when called upon to ignite the charge and propel a .75 caliber ball down range to kill a Hessian mercenary. One shot, and then the laborious reload.
Thomas knew he was kidding himself. He was just a Colonial militiaman. At best, he could fire only one round per minute. But a Hessian—a British-hired super soldier—could fire four or five rounds. Thomas was scared.
No. He was terrified.
The ill-equipped, mostly starving Colonial militiamen all around Thomas often broke and ran at first sight of the enemy. It wasn’t their fault that they were badly trained, undisciplined, and unreliable. There was no collective military tradition. No single mindedness. They had poor sense of standing together to fight. They were often slaughtered like pigs as they ran away. Or they were captured to die in filthy, rotting prison barges. Thomas felt lost in dire company.
Thomas squinted into the darkness of the blizzard and swore. Only mixed snow and rain had fallen at first. It had soaked a little under the fringed collar of his worn linen coat. But now it was freezing solid on him and made his arms and body stiff. He heard ice crack off of him as he moved.
Bundled up forms shuffled past him on the dark lane—other men, cold, grim, all making their way down to the ferry. Nobody spoke; there were only the creak of leather, an occasional wrangle of brass and steel, the brush of frozen linen, and the kick of snow.
Somewhere nearby a grown man cried out several times in pain, but it was too dark to see, and everyone kept moving. Agonized-sounding curses and lonely weeping pierced the howl of the blizzard.
Thomas had noted more than one set of bloody footprints in the snow. After months and seasons of marching and fighting the British in all sorts of weather and rough terrain all over the colonies—on hills, in ditches, rivers, fields, and woods—many of the men had completely worn out their clothing and shoes.
Some were literally barefoot. Some had no shirts or stockings but were wrapped in the remnant of blankets, or rags. And, yet, they marched on.
Thomas wondered what would go wrong next. Some of the men were so hungry they’d already eaten their food allotment for this special, three day operation.
And there was the problem of crossing the Delaware River itself, in this storm. And the complicated plan to march north to Trenton and attack the Hessians.
There was a hopeful rumor that the Hessians would be drunk in bed this coming Christmas morning attack.
But that was not true at all. Crack Hessian Colonel Johann Rall, had ordered his ruthless unit to stay alert, dressed, and armed. He had set pickets all around the Trenton Garrison. The Hessians lusted for the blood of Americans and took no prisoners unless ordered.
If the poorly trained and inexperienced colonial militiamen dared attack, the Hessians would be more than ready.
Thomas knew none of this. His level of comprehension was that of a line infantryman. His main concern was putting one foot in front of the other and struggling onward. Yet, he was terrified. The Hessians were professional killers. He was just a farmer.
He and some of the others were from here, in Bensalem. But most of the other men around him now had just quick-marched down from Bristol, five miles to the north. And they’d been pulled in for this operation from forces all over the colonies. They’d marched long and fast just to reach Bristol, before marching down here, and were now already exhausted.
Thomas felt frozen in place. Not by weather. Not by lack of courage. But by uncertainty. Yet, he didn’t complain. The speeches made by his officers had been rousing and the cause seemed just. He’d fight all right. “For freedom, boys! Freedom, and America!”
He stood there, listening to the snow.
Other men—shuffling fellows all around—they bumped him back into motion and he walked.
Snow and ice chaffed in his woolen leg wraps as he trudged. The leggings barely reached buttoned knees of his breeches and were already frozen. What of tonight’s coming action? How much colder and wetter could he get? Would he sicken and die from cold? Disease was a raging fire in the ranks—thousands were dead from long illness.
Or would he blessedly just die quickly in the assault?
Men coughed with fever in the darkness. How long would they live if this weather went on? Death was everywhere. It was in the air, the dirt, it hovered over those it had already killed, waiting for more life to suck away—and it seemed to spring from everywhere—even from dark roots and trees themselves.
T’is like witchery—black magic. A curse. How long can we live?
Who knew? Thomas thought. Who knew? It almost didn’t even matter to him anymore.
Thomas slogged his worn shoes through the snow. From the river below, the shatter and Crack! of grinding ice-floes crashing into each other was frightening. Shouts—heavy oars and poles clunked against thick wood, “Pull, boys, pull—aye!” Came the shouts. A familiar sound, that. He thought, Likely it’s Durham heavy cargo boats.
So, that’s how we’ll cross.
The massive, sixty-six foot Durham boats were of old, scarred, dark wood, and sharp like knives at both ends. They could carry more than fifteen tons each, or forty men standing, and were built to cut through any river.
But the terrible current and ice floes had even swept some of these stout boats away. Including men, horses, and artillery. They’d disappeared in this cursed blizzard, toward the south, toward Philadelphia, where they’d be useless.
Unless they’d sunk with all hands. And horses. And then they would feed fish.
Suddenly—A blast and red flare of musket lit the woods—FffftBoom! A rolling bloom of hellish, bloody-looking smoke!
“Sniper!” Came the shouts, “Take cover, boys!”
“Wounded? Anybody wounded? Take cover!”
A smell of gunpowder burned on the wind. Thomas had instinctively hunched down— The hell?
Others fell to at his side and all around. “Wounded? Any wounded? Anybody hit?”
There were sudden thuds of galloping horses—shod hooves kicking clods of dirt and snow into the air—charging like hell amid shouted curses, “On nie żyje, chłopcy! On nie żyje, chłopcy!”
Polish Major Rasumovski—a Colonial Militia mercenary with mounted dragoons. They galloped down the narrow path, his riding crop lashing his horse, Crak! Crak!
And then they swerved into the woods—long sabers clattering against hip—firing short carbines, Boom! Boom! and braces of pistols and ball, Boom! Boom! Boom, Boom, Boom! Boom!
The woods flared and lit like fireworks. A stunned and frightened Thomas implored the dark shapes hunched in the snow beside him, “Boys, can you tell me what’s happened? Are we discovered? Are we killed?”
A steadying hand like steel gripped his shoulder and shook him, but the frail voice said, “Stay calm, mate. Stay still and be quiet and nothing will come to you. T’is nothing. T’will pass, soon.”
Thomas heard the man’s teeth knocking with cold. He couldn’t make out any features but blasts from the woods revealed a bundled, crushed-looking shape.
Thomas suddenly realized, “My God, man, you’re half frozen to death—you’re wearing but rags and patches.” He reached out as the man collapsed into the snow, and caught him, hands telling him the man’s lethal secret—“My God, you have no shirt, even—you’re half naked. You’ll die here!”
Thomas called for help but nobody moved from cover, as guns kept up a strobing red fire in the woods. Thomas tore off his coat and wrapped it around the fallen man, who whispered hoarsely, “You’ll freeze, giving me your coat.”
“I…I have a spare buckskin shirt,” Thomas said, remembering he’d shoved extra clothing into his pack. It was a hunting shirt with reinforced shoulders and elbows. He could wear that and a spare linen and it would be all right, he thought. “Keep this coat, friend, I’ll be fine. Here, take this hat, too,” Thomas said, pulling his own hat down carefully on the freezing man’s wet head. “Don’t protest. And don’t fight me. Just take the hat. I’ve another.”
There was a burst of fire from the woods and in the red flashes, the shape of the freezing man moved and said, “Thank you…thank you. I cannot see you clearly…but what’s your name?”
“Thomas. I’m Thomas Bonsall.”
“I’m Nathan Pastorious. Nate. Thank you,” he said, shaking Thomas’ rough hand in the dark. “Thank you, Thomas Bonsall.”
Major Rasumovski and dragoons burst from the woods—horses plunging through the snow and foaming at the bit. “On nie żyje! We got him!”
Rasumovski and his dragoons reined in.
They walked steaming horses slowly among the militiamen—the quiet thud of hooves, and tack jingling—and waved off any danger of spies.
“What a brave show you made, mine boys—it gladded the eye, how brave! That spy he will never tell another secretz! Onward! And to Victory!”
Others, bumped and pushed Thomas forward, and he made some haste to get moving. If it even looked like he was resisting or about to flee, he’d be run through by a sword on the spot—executed for desertion. He became separated from Nate Pastorious, and moved off toward the river, hatless and wet. He didn’t really have an extra cap.
Thomas was only one of some 2000, terrified Colonial militiamen trying to secretly cross the Delaware—in constant danger—against all odds and possibilities, on Christmas Eve, 1776. The mission was a sneak attack into Hessian controlled New Jersey, from this Pennsylvania side.
But, unknown to the colonials, the Hessian mercenaries were ready for them. If the colonials attacked, many would die. Many had already died horribly—torn apart by cannon balls, or cut to ribbons in fusillades of ball and shot so thick it had been like running into a lead wall.
—And there was the dread bayonet charge. When powder was wet, scarce, or bad, the bayonet never failed. A soldier could be disembowled or killed by a bayonet as surely as if he was shot at point blank with .75 caliber ball the size of a grape.
The Hessian bayonet charge left no man alive. They were experts at carnage; the Hessians—they were experts at dealing death, and hated to take prisoners.
Some said the Hessians rubbed their bayonets with poison. But the Hessians laughed at that; they said it would be, “Unprofessional; unnecessary.”
“Unprofessionell. Nicht notwendig.”
The colonial Americans were completely outclassed and outnumbered by the well-fed and supplied Hessians. British generals were the world’s best. The British soldiers were limitlessly supplied and equipped by the vast wealth of the king. The Hessian mercenaries were like the near-mythic Spartans, trained practically from birth. Their military families and traditions even went back many generations past.
The demonic combination seemed unbeatable: a Kings’ limitless wealth; and perfected, military might for hire.
This could be a slaughter. There could be no “secret” attack.
The fact was, everyone already knew that both armies in this war were all over the board, like checkers. They literally fought and raided each other, and plundered, and whored, and sneaked throughout the counties and colonies, almost at will. Almost like a frantic game. They all seemed to somehow know each other’s movements well ahead of time. It seemed a dance.
And, inexplicably, Thomas thought—a dozen times had the British General Howe clearly allowed colonial General Washington to escape. Why?
It was almost unimaginable to Thomas, but Howe seemed to want Washington free. Howe had allowed Washington and his American armies to run away or elude the British soldiers so many times that the idea of it had become a nightmare for Thomas.
It could go the other way any time. Is he playing with us? Why would Howe let our general run free and escape so many times? He thought. It makes no sense. And that’s plain as pie.
Disturbing questions boiled from Thomas’ mind so frequently now that they had come to frighten him. He had no idea where such ideas came from. They seemed unholy; unChristian. Unlike him.
From my mother’s unholy witch blood, they come…from the other side….
His spine seemed to bristle with hair and his testicles to rise with fear. Is it witchcraft? Have the old tales and ghosts come alive?
Thomas’ mind seem to widen. Strange ideas ran like liquid fire and made his eyes wide. His nervous hand flew to his throat.
My God! My God! Had there even really been a spy at all?
Or was that shot in the woods a miss on purpose? Something for someone to somehow use…to play…a demonic ploy?
He shook his head to clear it, My God, he thought, Such odd, evil, un-Christian thoughts…oh, I am cursed by my mum’s own blood—the second sight….
Thomas felt suddenly weak. My God! Is this truly a war for independence? Or is it some game on a bewitched board of destiny-—played out by fools, warlocks, demons, and golden gods?
Thomas, and others like him, were simple farmers. Thomas’ life was ruled by the precession of Earth—the seasons—the weather, and the courses of sun, moon, and the eternal stars. His ways were set and orderly. This war seemed crazy to him.
And yet it had been framed to him reasonably in ways that did make sense. It was presented in ways with solutions that seemed necessary and right, traditional, and noble. It all seemed so perfectly thought out. So clear, precise, rousing, and perfect; so perfectly made.
War is peace. Killing is freedom.
So—in all this excitement—had Colonial Major Rasumovski and his dragoons just rescued the surprise attack on Trenton by taking out a sniper and spy in the woods back there?
Or was it just some cruel international game of theater? Were there yet more hidden enemies—planted, grinning, waiting to kill honest militiamen and carry informing tales back to some leering golden Master?
Were there snickering confederates engaged in some weirding, international subterfuge—some incredible lie serving some thee-eyed god of gold or force, or something even darker—with false flags raised snapping in a fouled wind?
Thomas and this doomed militia force were stuck in Pennsylvania, some twenty miles south of the target, Trenton, New Jersey. He felt exposed like a bug stuck on a needle.
They were to cross, and attack toward Trenton at dawn. It was a crazy, complicated plan, he thought.
This covert crossing maneuver, launched by General Washington, but played out by men like Thomas, was to be in support of a desperate assault on Trenton, from the north. Set up in layers, General Ewing, nearby at Morrisville, Pennsylvania, was to have crossed over with yet another force and blocked the Hessian retreat to the south from Trenton. This was another of Washington’s typically brilliant but overthought and complicated maneuvers.
If it worked right, all of the militia forces would coordinatedly attack from both the north and south at the same time. A classic pincer movement.
If it failed, they would all surely die in the assault or be captured and killed.
But, General George Washington had risked himself in weeks of preparing this clandestine operation; traveling incognito, carefully holding hushed meetings in windowless rooms, and personally suffering cold, raw hardship, long rides, dangerous trails, hazardous river crossings, British and Hessian ball and shot, cannon fire, and a lot more.
Washington inspired men by example. By his fearlessness, grace, dedication, and calm. By his eloquence in speeches made directly to them from gallant seat upon his prancing white charger at the front lines. He spoke calmly to his men out at the front itself, utterly contemptuous of cannon fire, shot and ball all around—some of which had even pierced the edges of his clothing.
At 44 years of age, George Washington was a standout; almost 6 feet 6 inches tall, where the average recruit was about 5 foot seven inches. He wore size thirteen riding boots. It was said he had prodigious strength—and could hold a loaded musket at arms length in one hand and fire it accurately. He was a natural leader, oblivious of peril. He was gallant to look at; dedicated, gracious, socially masterful, and inspirational.
Washington was no sedentary fop. In late 1776, he had been literally all over the battlefields—in imminent danger, setting up the invasion, ignoring death. This included a clandestine trip to Trenton Falls, on December 13th, where he wrote to Congress, “I shall remove further up the river to be near the main body of my small army.”
Washington didn’t need this war. He was incredibly wealthy, a planter, and could have sworn his allegiance to Britain and just sat out the war.
But there was something incredible about this man. Some ethereal quality that seemed to render him special, inviolate, almost untouchable. Something that set him apart from all others, almost as if he had been the only possible choice for this warlike destiny.
As if the part had been especially written just for him.
As if he’d been chosen for this destiny.
So, instead of just sitting it all out, he swore and pledged his life, liberty, fortune and sacred honor to America and its revolution against England.
A hanging offense.
After staying at the Trenton Falls location to reconnoiter and plan, Washington secretly removed to a position near Jericho Hill, on the 14th, which hill gave him a clear view for signaling up and down the Delaware. He was still at Jericho Hill, on December 15-16, when—consumed by compassion—he wrote that many of his soldiers “are entirely naked, and most so thinly clad as to be unfit for service.”
General Washington was again back at Trenton falls on December 20. He then returned to his headquarters on December 22. He relentlessly traveled again to his camp near Trenton on December 24. And then he went back to his headquarters on December 25. It was there he made his final fatigued preparations for the attack on Trenton, Christmas morning.
But the truth was, that a completely desperate Washington feared blistering defeat. In these last moments he severely doubted himself and his poor army. He knew that the war and moral of the army were in fact already lost at this point.
There was almost no point in going on.
The Americans had been no match for the global juggernaut of mighty Britain.
George Washington leaned back in a hard chair, at a wooden table, in front of a stone fireplace. Lying upon the slate hearth and crackling fire were two keen hunting dogs, Midas and Waltharius, resting chins on paws, staring at this stranger in their commandeered home.
Washington contemplated the future: an impossible attack on Trenton, and failure.
It could never work.
He ran both hands over his haggard face, up into his hair line.
But it had to work—he prayed—in a last, doomed, desperate ploy to save American morale and the revolution itself.
Washington gazed upward at adzed beams of the smoke-darkened, wooden ceiling. A rough structure but strong, he thought, like America.
The only sound in the room was the crackle of the fire and a quiet ticking from his watch pocket.
The French-made, Guillimin timepiece chimed, 2 AM.
The dogs sat up with ears forward.
Waltharius, Washington thought, meaning great warrior; leader of armies. And, Midas, who turned all he touched to gold; meaning freedom from want.
Loyalty. War. Freedom. Sustenance. George Washington knew he needed this victory at Trenton to save America. To save freedom. To save the world. Loyalty, obligation, freedom, and honor were mountains crushing his sagging shoulders.
He pulled parchment, dipped his quill and wrote:
“Victory or Death.”
This became Watchword of the operation. This became Washington’s sole cause. This became his reason to be alive, his only devotion, his purpose on Earth—in what remained of his life and liberty.
And then George Washington wrote, “Christmas-day, at night, one hour before day, is the time fixed upon for our attack on Trenton.”
He would personally lead his men into combat.
And change the world.
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