How Did Newspapers Report George Washington’s December Triumph in 1776?

Editor’s Note: While many people these past few days celebrated the Christmas miracle of the birth of Jesus, this past weekend was also the anniversary of another Christmas miracle: George Washington crossing the Delaware River with his ragged army for a triumphant assault on the enemy in Trenton, New Jersey, on 26 December 1776.

Introduction: In this article, Jane Hampton searches old newspapers to learn more about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton during the Revolutionary War. Jane is a presidential historian and author of ten books, including her new book Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists & Women’s Battle for the Vote. She is the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. She was the first female White House webmaster (2001-03). Her works can be found at Janecook.com.

Newspaper publisher Thomas Greene of New Haven, Connecticut, had already started printing his 1 January 1777 issue of the Connecticut Journal when he received an express letter from New Jersey or Pennsylvania about an event that took place on 26 December 1776. Filled with relief at finally receiving good news after months of losses by the Continental Army in New York, Greene wanted to immediately notify his readers.

He removed a portion of one of his articles on page two. He then typeset a new block and inserted an extract from the letter he’d received, leaving the other article dangling and incomplete. What news was so powerful and encouraging that Greene had to share it right away?

Illustration: “The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully
Illustration: “The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully, 1819. Credit: Museum of Fine Arts; Wikimedia Commons.

Greene reported the news contained in the express letter:

“That early on the 26th of December General Washington with about 3,000 men crossed the Delaware [River], and at 8 o’clock in the morning engaged the enemy at Trenton, who were about 1,600 in number, and in 35 minutes routed the whole, taking 919 prisoners, exclusive of killed and wounded.”

An article about George Washington crossing the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton during the Revolutionary War, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 1 January 1777
Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 1 January 1777, page 2

Washington’s men had attacked the British position at Trenton, New Jersey, which was held by Hessians (German troops hired by the British). Expecting them to have been drinking and enjoying the Christmas holiday, Washington tapped the element of surprise and caught the enemy both off guard and inebriated. Greene’s article listed the number of officers and soldiers captured by rank, along with pieces of artillery and ammunition.

Receiving a letter from an officer in the American army in Newtown, Pennsylvania, Greene published additional details seven days later. The newest letter said:

“I have the pleasure of giving you an account of an advantageous victory obtained over the Hessians yesterday… Something was necessary to check the progress of the enemy; it was therefore resolved by his Excellency [George Washington] to attack the Hessian army at Trenton; for which purpose everything was in readiness.”

An article about George Washington crossing the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton during the Revolutionary War, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 8 January 1777
Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 8 January 1777, page 3

This officer provided another first draft of history from this momentous event:

“And on Christmas night we marched down to the river with upwards of 2,000 men and 12 pieces of artillery, at McConkey’s ferry, Delaware river, and at half after 3 o’clock began our march to Trenton.”

Emotions followed facts:

“A colder or icier season I never felt. Rain and hail, with high winds – but no difficulties were too much for our worthy commander to surmount at this important crisis.”

Illustration: “Battle of Trenton” by Hugh Charles McBarron Jr.
Illustration: “Battle of Trenton” by Hugh Charles McBarron Jr., 1975. Credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History; Wikimedia Commons.

The officers had divided their men into columns and began their attack at eight in the morning:

“His Excellency commanded in person, and in about three quarters of an hour they surrendered.”

He then described the treacherous conditions of the river, which artists later brought to life in now-famous paintings:

“We intended the attack should have been before daylight but the fatigue of marching and trouble of crossing the Delaware detained us.”

The Hessians had been preparing for a retreat but took their time because “the extremity of the weather made them conclude we were not coming (as they had information) and so all turned in, and thought themselves quite secure.”

This officer also praised his fellow soldiers and General Washington:

“Too much praise cannot be given to our brave troops. His Excellency was pleased at their undoubted courage; not a soul was found cowardly skulking, but was fierce for the battle.”

Journalism is the first draft of history. Centuries later, thanks to collections of old newspapers such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, readers can rediscover stories like these from people who witnessed major events.

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