A Place in the Present Where History Meets Fiction

A tale of the glories of Christmases long, long ago...

December 26, 2012

Tags: Christmas, 1776, Washington, Trenton, Delaware, Les Miserables, Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, Trevelyan

Hope you've all had a great Christmas. For us, a wonderful six-day celebration winds down today with lunch and a viewing of LES MISERABLES. But as I sit here on the day after Christmas, five pounds heavier and just about out of holiday energy, I'm thinking of a Christmas song that extols "tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago." And because I have a certain cast of mind that some of you who read this blog will understand, the tale that excites me comes out of American history.
It's eight or nine o'clock on the morning of December 26, 1776. And a miracle has been wrought by a tiny, tired, hungry army of brave men. A garrison of Hessians has been disarmed and gathered in a Trenton orchard. Their leader is mortally wounded. And the American Revolution as taken a new turn.
How did it happen?
Flashback to Christmas Eve... George Washington summons each regiment to hear an officer read from a new pamphlet, written on a drumhead during the terrible march that has brought them to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. It's Thomas Paine's AMERICAN CRISIS: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in ths crisis, shrink from the service of their country. But he that stands it now , deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
Even Washington's soul has been tried. He has written to his brother, "I think the game is pretty near up." But he doesn't quit. He never quits. He makes a plan instead. And if he must attack on a holy day, he will.
So, on Christmas afternoon, the Continentals begin to gather at the snow-covered riverbank. They are cold and hungry, yes. And some actually leave those blody footprints in the snow. (There are primary sources that speak of such things.) But they've been thinking for twenty-four hours about the things that Thomas Paine has written. And they know now that something is up... something big. They board barges that cross the wide river through floes of steer-sized ice chunks that stampede along on the brisk currrent. They cross in the dark because torchlight might alert the enemy. It's brutal going, so they soon fall behind schedule. Then the sleet begins to blow, so they fall even further behind. But there will be no turning back. Washington's watchwords for the night are "Victory... or Death."
Once the men are all assembled on the New Jersey side of the river, they will press on some six miles through the storm. And just after dawn they will attack Trenton and a garrison of besotted Hessians who have been celebrating Christmas and are now sleeping.
The Hessian commander has called the Americans "country clowns." But these country clowns have brought artillery and audacity, and victory it will be for Washngton. And after nearly a year of brutal defeats, supporters of the American cause can look forward with renewed optimism.
I think often of that night and what Washington acomplished with the help of those men. And I think of something that the historian Trevelyan wrote of Washington: "He had learned the innermost secret of the brave, who train themselves in mind to contemplate in mind the worst that can happen and in thought resign themselves - but in action resign themselves never."
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!