Thursday, December 25, 2008

In the Spirit of Christmas Past

It is no secret that I am a firm believer in celebrating the Incarnation, when the God-Man was born into into time. It was an event which forever changed history, showing that the long reign of sin and death was about to end.

But I would also like to remember another event that happened on this day, two hundred thirty two years ago. On the evening of December 25th, 1776, George Washington and his tiny band of rag-tag Continentals were not sitting around the fire celebrating with their families. In fact, the cynic would say there was rather little to celebrate in those dark days. After the glorious patriot victories at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill in 1775, the reality of facing the world's most powerful military force had begun to sink in during the following year. In August Washington had been resoundingly defeated trying to defend New York. It is doubtful anyone in his position could have held the city: he was outnumbered, with poorly trained, ill-disciplined soldiers and no navy. The autumn had been characterized by a fighting withdrawal, as Washington's army dwindled, with the British ever at his heels. By the time he crossed from New Jersey into Pennsylvania in early December, the force of 28,000 he had commanded at the beginning of August had been reduced to fewer than 2,000 men. On December 31st the enlistments of many of his men would end, further reducing his tattered force.

But by a stroke of luck - or, dare we say, blessing? - Gen. John Sullivan arrived in mid-December with several regiments of reinforcements. These, combined with several hundred Pennsylvania militia men, swelled Washington's ranks to nearly 6,000. It wasn't much, but Washington decided it was enough. On Christmas night he deployed his men in three columns, aiming to cross the icy Delaware River back into New Jersey. Conditions were so bad only one of the three columns managed to get across the river, with the last men arriving in New Jersey at 3:00am. With the 2,400 men he had, Washington pressed on toward the enemy position at Trenton, manned primarily by Hessian mercenaries.

In the folk tales told afterwards, the Hessians had been up far too late on Christmas evening and were all drunk or hung over as dawn rose on December 26th. In fact, most of them were quite sober. They were, nevertheless, caught surprised and ill-prepared. Expecting the rebels to stay on their side of the river for the duration of winter, no fortifications had been erected at Trenton; appalling weather prevented British reinforcements from arriving from nearby garrisons. Of a British/Hessian force of 1,600, Washington's Continentals inflicted 100 casualties and captured 900 enemy soldiers (at the cost of only two dead and five wounded on the American side). It was a resounding success for the young Republic.

Washington quickly crossed back into Pennsylvania before the British could organize to meet his attack, but on December 30th he again crossed into New Jersey, clashing with Lord Cornwallis at Assunpink Creek. At the end of the first day of the battle, Cornwallis was confident the following morning would bring him victory. Instead, Washington left his campfires burning through the night and slipped away, to fight another day. And fight he did. The very next morning he intercepted a British brigade at Princeton, smashing it in another astonishing American victory.

As 1776 gave way to the new year of 1777, the war was by no means won. Indeed, it had really only begun. Many long years, and many defeats for Washington and his Continentals, still lay ahead. But the small band of Americans who crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, had breathed new life into a dying cause.

So as you honor the Christ Child, Whose birth brought new life to a fallen world, remember to also raise a glass to George Washington, whose tenacity and dedication on Christmas Day may have saved the Republic.
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