On Christmas Day, George Washington ordered that The American Crisis by Thomas Paine, published as a pamphlet only two days earlier, be read to the troops. I told the story of that momentous Christmas of 1776 in the “…the acts and choices of ordinary people…”
Sergeant R. described what happened almost a week later on December 31.
Three or four days after the victory at Trenton, the American army re-crossed the Delaware into New Jersey. At this time our troops were in a destitute and deplorable condition. The horses attached to our cannon were without shoes, and when passing over the ice they would slide in every direction and could advance only by the assistance of the soldiers. Our men, too, were without shoes or other comfortable clothing; and as traces of our march towards Princeton, the ground was literally marked with the blood of the soldiers’ feet. Though my own feet did not bleed, they were so sore that their condition was little better.
While we were at Trenton, on the last of December, 1776, the time for which I and most of my regiment had enlisted expired. At this trying time General Washington, having now but a little handful of men and many of them new recruits in which he could place but little confidence, ordered our regiment to be paraded, and personally addressed us, urging that we should stay a month longer. He alluded to our recent victory at Trenton; told us that our services were greatly needed, and that we could now do more for our country than we ever could at any future period; and in the most affectionate manner entreated us to stay. The drums beat for volunteers, but not a man turned out. The soldiers, worn down with fatigue and privations, had their hearts fixed on home and the comforts of the domestic circle, and it was hard to forego the anticipated pleasures of the society of our dearest friends.
The General wheeled his horse about, rode in front of the regiment and addressing us again said, “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances. The present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny.”
The drums beat the second time. The soldiers felt the force of the appeal. One said to another, “I will remain if you will.”
Others remarked, “We cannot go home under such circumstances.”
A few stepped forth, and their example was immediately followed by nearly all who were fit for duty in the regiment, amounting to about two hundred volunteers.
An officer enquired of the General if these men should be enrolled. He replied: “No! men who will volunteer in such a case as this need no enrollment to keep them to their duty.”1
On January 3, 1777 Washington and his men and the forces of those generals under him captured the British garrison at Princeton.
At that point, some of Colonel Cadwalader’s troops came up over Orchard Hill, but the more experienced British pushed them back too, leaving bayonet-pierced bodies in their wake. A rout of the Americans seemed to be in the offing, but then their commander suddenly appeared on the scene. While Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene rallied and reorganized his troops, Washington advanced to within 30 yards of the British line. A round was fired, and suddenly the Redcoats loosed a full volley of musket balls. When the smoke cleared, however, still atop his fine horse was the tall, lean figure of General Washington. ‘Charge!’ he ordered, ‘Charge them! Pull up! Pull up!’
The Patriots regrouped, and soon it was the Redcoats who fell back. Remembering the enemy bugler’s call on Harlem Heights, Washington pressed forward, crying out, ‘It’s a fine fox hunt, boys!’2
One of the officers wrote a few days later:
Our army love their General very much, but they have one thing against him, which is the little care he takes of himself in any action. His personal bravery, and the desire he has of animating his troops by example, make him fearless of danger. This occasions us much uneasiness. But Heaven, which has hitherto been his shield, I hope will still continue to guard so valuable a life.3
David McCullough said:
Washington wasn’t chosen by his fellow members of the Continental Congress because he was a great military leader. He was chosen because they knew him; they knew the kind of man he was; they knew his character, his integrity. . . .
Washington was not, as were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton, a learned man. He was not an intellectual. Nor was he a powerful speaker like his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry. What Washington was, above all, was a leader. He was a man people would follow. And as events would prove, he was a man whom some—a few—would follow through hell.
Don’t get the idea that all of those who marched off to serve under Washington were heroes. They deserted the army by the hundreds, by the thousands as time went on. When their enlistments came up, they would up and go home just as readily as can be, feeling they had served sufficiently and they needed to be back home to support their families, who in many cases were suffering tremendously for lack of income or even food. But those who stayed with him stayed because they would not abandon this good man, as some of them said.
What Washington had, it seems to me, is phenomenal courage—physical courage and moral courage. He had high intelligence; if he was not an intellectual or an educated man, he was very intelligent. He was a quick learner—and a quick learner from his mistakes. He made dreadful mistakes, particularly in the year 1776. They were almost inexcusable, inexplicable mistakes, but he always learned from them. And he never forgot what the fight was about—“the glorious cause of America,” as they called it. Washington would not give up; he would not quit.4
We stand again in an American Crisis. Whatever men may say, it is a crisis not of finance, but at root a crisis of character and faith in God. The question to ask ourselves is not whether we have contributed to the ruination of our country’s finances, but whether we have contributed to the ruination of the American soul. Cynicism and contempt for our fellow citizens is also one of the paths to the bankruptcy of our nation.
Over the last few years as I have written numerous posts on fortitude and perseverance with the purpose of encouraging others, I have done so at a time when my family has had no home of our own and has been forsaken or scorned by both friends and relatives, and I have noted with irony the wallowing in the luxury of pessimism by some in circumstances of ease. We all have our moments of discouragement and even despair when we need the help of others, but what is the overall pattern and thrust of your days? Of your words? Of your deeds? The day of small things will lead to the day of larger things, only if we encourage and influence others to act rightly even as we do the same.
THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
To stand by our country today means to fall to our knees before Almighty God in humility and repentance, praying mercy not only for ourselves, but for all. It is no coincidence that Mel Bradford found that of the 150 to 200 principal Founders, almost all were “ordinary Christians . . . members in good standing of the various Christian communions found in early America.”5 The key to their perseverance of character was not in their circumstances or background, but in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So I ask you, as we live in these times that try our souls, how does your soul fare? Do you act in righteousness, love kindness and walk humbly with God?
Those men of 1776 did not know the future. Neither do we. Pray God in Him mercy to raise up leaders like Washington. Pray God in His mercy to enable you to honor Him with your words and your deeds whatever the outcome of events.
…as traces of our march towards Princeton, the ground was literally marked with the blood of the soldiers’ feet.
Paine wrote of times “in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive.” Summer and sun never try men’s souls—only the cold and dark of December and January nights. Those men marked the snow with the character of their soul. With what are the traces of your march towards your battles marked?
General George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton, William Ranney: Public Domain.
1Sergeant R——, “Battle of Princeton,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 20 (1896), 515–16. The Sergeant also wrote, “(About half of these volunteers were killed in the battle of Princeton or died of the small pox soon after.)”
Source: Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants (Edison, 2002), 519-20.
2Battle of Princeton, history.net
3The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, The American Revolution, 1776, 1777, January 5, 1777.
44David McCullough, “THE GLORIOUS CAUSE OF AMERICA,” BYU Magazine, Winter 2006.
5M. E. Bradford, “Religion and the Framers: The Biographical Evidence,” Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution.
Original Content Copyright © 2012 I. N. Carpenter