Based upon real events in a blizzard at Bensalem, Pennsylvania, Christmas Eve, December 24, 1776, and the diary of Captain Thomas Rodney, who was there. I was there in a blizzard, too—But, 238 years later—so I could see for myself….
By Jeffrey A. Friedberg
Thomas Bonsall, Colonial militiaman, slogged though a blizzard toward the Delaware River. He’d cross with the others and attack Trenton from the rear in a military pincers movement.
Speeches made by his officers had been rousing and the cause was just. He’d fight, they’d called out, “For freedom, boys! For freedom, and America!”
It sleeted in the faces of the colonists, the worst snowstorm since this colony was founded. Thomas Bonsall, militiaman, and almost two thousand, other muffled shapes struggled toward the Delaware River on a dark 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 from the night and trees.
This area was supposedly secure. But, he thought, that was impossible here in the heartland of Tory sympathizers—spy infested Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Propagandized true believers were everywhere.
Fire pots were supposed to have lighted this dark path leading from the dirt King’s Highway down to the ferry crossing, but they had blown out.
Duncan Williams’ Ferry, below, was supposed to get the men across the river, but couldn’t because ice jams blocked the crossing into New Jersey at that exact curve in the river. Duncan’s hand-powered, flat-bottomed barges could not surmount the floes.
Thomas was thinking, “This is doomsday. Everything’s gone wrong of it. This weather is the final blot.”
Feeling untrained and awkward, Thomas Bonsall stopped walking and hunched his back against the sleet. Struggling with frozen hands to grip his issued twelve pound musket, he removed the heavy bayonet and secured it in his belt.
He pulled his hat down tight over hair dull with ice. Keeping an eye on the dark woods, Thomas shifted the smoothbore to the crook of his left arm, stiff hands automatically making adjustments to waxed cloth that wrapped the long-gun’s firing-pan.
He needed to stay ready. The powder primer must be dry when called upon to ignite the charge and propel a .75 caliber ball down range. One shot, and then the reload.
Thomas knew he was kidding himself. He was just a half-trained farmer. At best, he could fire only one round per minute. But a Hessian mercenary—a British-hired super soldier—could fire four or even five rounds.
Thomas was terrified. The ill-equipped, mostly starving militiamen all around him were no comfort. They 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. It was a foreign concept. They were often slaughtered like pigs as they ran away. Or they were captured to die in filthy, rotting prison barges. Thomas felt lost.
He squinted into the darkness. Only mixed snow and rain had fallen at first. It had soaked a little under the fringed collar of his old linen. 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 and a wrangle steel.
Wait—what was that? Thomas halted, dropped, and listened. A man cried out in pain, but it was too dark to see. Others around him just kept moving. Curses and more pain pierced the howl of the blizzard.
From his place down in the snow Thomas noted more than one set of bloody footprints. After months and seasons of marching and fighting in all sorts of weather and rough terrain—on hills, in ditches, rivers, fields, and woods—many 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 marveled. He wondered what would go wrong next. As they had marched, some had eaten their advance food allotment for this covert, three day operation. And there was the problem of crossing the Delaware River itself. And then the complicated plan to march north to Trenton and attack the Hessians from the rear. It was complicated, Thomas thought, and doomed.
There was a rumor the Hessians would be drunk in bed this coming Christmas morning attack. Thomas didn’t know, but that was not completely true. The Hessian Colonel Johann Rall, had ordered his unit to stay alert, dressed, and armed. He had set pickets all around the Trenton Garrison. The Hessians generally wanted the blood of Americans and took no prisoners. If the Americans attacked, some of the Hessians would be more than ready.
Thomas knew nothing of Rall’s trap. He was just an infantryman. His main concern was putting one foot in front of the other and moving onward. Yet, he was already terrified. The Hessians were professional killers. Supermen. He was just a farmer.
He and some of the others were from here, Bensalem. But most of the others around him had just quick-marched down from Bristol, five miles to the north. And they’d been pulled in special for this operation from forces all over the colonies. They’d marched long and fast just to reach Bristol, before marching down here. They were now already exhausted. How were they supposed to recover their strength in this blizzard of freezing sleet—no fire. They could not.
Thomas moved as quietly as he could, snow hissing against his gaiters.
Suddenly—A musket blast and red flare lit the woods—FffftBoom!
“Sniper!” Came the shouts, “Take cover, boys!”
“Wounded? Anybody wounded? Who’s shot? Take cover!” A smell of gunpowder on the wind. Thomas had dropped for cover and hunched down— The hell? Others hit the ground at his side and all around. “Wounded? Any wounded?”
Sudden thuds of galloping horses—hooves kicking up clods of dirt and snow—charging in amid shouts, “On nie żyje, chłopcy! On nie żyje, chłopcy!” The Polish Major Rasumovski—a colonial mercenary with mounted dragoons. They galloped down the narrow path, riding crops lashing horses, Crak! Crak! As they swerved into the woods—sabers clattering—firing short carbines and braces of pistols, Boom! Boom! Boom, Boom, Boom!! The woods flared like fireworks.
Thomas tried to dig deeper into the snow, and implored dark shapes hunched beside him, “Boys, can you tell me what’s happened? Are we discovered? Are we killed?” A steadying hand gripped his shoulder and shook him—a gravelly voice coughed and said, “Stay calm, mate. Stay still and be quiet and nothing will come to you. T’is nothing. T’will pass, very soon.”
Thomas heard the man’s teeth knocking with cold. He couldn’t make out any features. Flaring 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 fire. He tore off his coat and wrapped it around the fallen man, who whispered, “No, mate, you’ll freeze, giving me your coat.”
“I…I have a spare hunting shirt for myself,” Thomas said, remembering he’d shoved extra clothing into his pack. It had double-layered shoulders and elbows. He could wear that and a spare linen and it would be all right, he thought. He said, “Keep this coat, friend, I’ll be fine. Here, take this hat, too,” Thomas pulled his own hat down 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 final 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… what’s your name?”
“Thomas. I’m Thomas.”
“I’m Nathan. Thank you,” he said, shaking Thomas’ hand in the dark. “Thank you, Thomas.”
Major Rasumovski and his dragoons burst from the woods—horses plunging through the snow and foaming at the bit. “On nie żyje! We got him!” They reined in, and walked steaming horses slowly among the militiamen—the thud of hooves, and tack jingling. “What a brave show you made, boys—it gladded the eye, how brave! That spy he will never tell another secretz! Onward! Victory!”
The hunched file of men stirred, 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 Nathan, and moved off toward the river, hatless and wet. He didn’t really have an extra cap. He tied a square rag from his pack over his head.
Thomas Bonsall was only one of some 2000 colonists—militiamen trying to secretly cross the Delaware—in constant danger—against all odds and possibilities. A sneak attack from the rear, into Hessian controlled New Jersey, from this Pennsylvania side. A military pincers movement that could work….
But, unknown to the colonists, Hessian mercenaries were ready for them. If the colonists attacked, many farmers would die. Many already had died—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 Hessian 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 standard ball—big as an olive.
And 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. Not necessary,” it would be, “Unprofessionell. Nicht notwendig.”
The Americans were completely outclassed and outnumbered by the well-fed and supplied Hessians. British generals were the world’s best. The Hessians were limitlessly supplied and equipped by the vast wealth of the king. 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 flawless military might for hire.
There would be no “secret” attack. This could be a slaughter.
The fact was, everyone knew both armies in this war were all over the board, like a game of checkers. They literally fought and raided each other, and plundered, and whored each other, and sneaked throughout the counties and colonies, almost at will. They all seemed to somehow know each other’s movements well ahead of time. It seemed a dance. A game.
And, inexplicably, Thomas thought—a dozen times the British General Howe clearly had 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. What did it mean? 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 they frightened him. He had no idea where such ideas came from. They seemed unholy; unChristian. Unlike him.
His mind suddenly seemed to open. Strange ideas made his eyes wide. Revelation: 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…some ploy? Had Howe been behind that one, too?
He shook his head to clear it, My God, he thought, Such odd, evil, un-Christian thoughts…oh, I am cursed. But, is this truly a war for independence? Or is it some game on a board-—played out by fools, and golden idols?
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 stars. His ways were set and orderly. This disorderly 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, patriotic, and perfect; so perfectly made.
War means peace. Killing means freedom.
So—in all this excitement—had Colonial Major Rasumovski and his dragoons just rescued this surprise, rear attack on Trenton, by taking out a sniper and spy in the woods back there?
Or was it all just some cruel international game of theater? Were there yet more hidden enemies—planted, and waiting to kill honest militiamen, to carry informing tales back to some golden Master? Were there confederates engaged in some weirding, international subterfuge—some incredible lie serving some god of gold or force? Or something even darker—with false flags raised and snapping in a fouled wind?
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 last, desperate assault, on Trenton, from the north, south, and west.
It was set up in complicated, onionskin layers. General Ewing, nearby in the west at Morrisville, Pennsylvania, was to have crossed over with yet another force and blocked the Hessian retreat to the south from Trenton, as Thomas’ unit attacked from the south, and Washington attacked from the north.
This was another of Washington’s typically brilliant but overthought and overdone maneuvers. If it worked right, all of the American forces would coordinatedly attack fromthe north, west, and south at the same time. If it failed, they would all surely die in the assault or be captured and killed.
But Thomas Bonsall’s worst convictions came true that night. He and many of the militia would not make it across the Delaware. Men, horses, and cannon were lost to the sweeping current and ice. Some made it over in heavy river-boats, yes, but it was too late to fight. They wanted a march to Trenton, but sensible officers forced them back to Bensalem, where they could, “live to fight another day.”
So, they didn’t die in battle that Christmas Eve.
General George Washington had, anyhow, been careful to protect security of his planned assault. He’d gone out of his way to be discreet—risked himself in weeks of preparing this clandestine operation.
He’d traveled 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 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 of destiny 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. As if the part had been especially written just for him. Almost as if he’d been chosen.
So, instead of only 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 had secretly removed to a position near Jericho Hill, on the 14th, which 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—a completely desperate Washington feared blistering defeat. In these last moments he severely doubted himself and his poor army. He felt he knew that the war and moral of the army were in fact already lost. There was almost no reason to go 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 hearth were two hunting dogs, Midas and Waltharius. They rested chins on paws, staring at this stranger in their commandeered home.
General George Washington contemplated the future: an impossible attack on Trenton, and failure.
It could never work.
He ran both hands over his haggard face.
But it had to work—he prayed—in a last, doomed, desperate ploy to save American morale and the revolution itself.
Shaken, Washington gazed upward at sturdy, adzed beams of the smoke-darkened, wood ceiling. A rough structure but strong, he thought—was that like America?
The only sound in the room was the crackle of fire and quiet ticking from his watch pocket. The French-made timepiece suddenly 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.
Loyalty, obligation, freedom, and honor were mountains crushing his sagging shoulders.
George Washington knew he needed this victory at Trenton to save America. To save freedom. To save the world.
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 final purpose on Earth—in what remained of life and liberty. “Victory or Death.”
Victory, or death.
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.
A Conservative, Political, Supernatural THRILLER—by Jeffrey A. Friedberg, author of this article.
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