Saturday, December 26, 2015

The 239th Anniversary of the Battle of Trenton

Today is the 239th anniversary of the Battle of Trenton, a key American victory and a turning point of the Revolutionary War. Led by George Washington, the American army had retreated from New York, through New Jersey and into Philadelphia.  Hessian mercenaries were stationed across the Delaware River at Trenton, awaiting better weather before crossing the Delaware in pursuit. See Gary Hart, James Monroe: The Fifth President 1817-1825, 4-5 (2005). Outnumbered and with desertions mounting, Washington resolved to launch a preemptive assault against the Hessians. Inspired by Thomas Paine's December 23rd essay "The Crisis," Continental soldiers and troops from various state militias began crossing the Delaware late in the evening on Christmas Day, hoping to attack before dawn on December 26th.  Id.  The crossing took longer than expected, however, and hundreds of troops did not make it to Trenton. Many who did complete the crossing reported that their muskets and powder were wet and useless.  Despite these setbacks, Washington "resolved to push forward, and trust to Providence." See Washington Irving, 2 Life of George Washington, 417 (1856). Those without working muskets were ordered to "use the bayonet" instead.  Id.

Lt. James Monroe, recently an 18-year-old student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, participated in the battle.  The young Monroe served in the Third Virginia Regiment, part of Brigadier General Alexander's Brigade, which in turn formed part of Nathaniel Greene's Division. (See here for the Order of Battle at Trenton) Early in the battle Monroe helped lead an assault on two Hessian cannons, taking a musket ball in the shoulder in the process. See Hart, James Monroe: Fifth President, at 6.  A statue of Monroe recently installed at William and Mary and pictured above memorializes the young Lieutenant's role in the battle.  One of eight friezes at the base of the statue depicts a scene from the battle, with Monroe, on the right, charging a Hessian gun emplacement.  The times, as Paine said, "tried men's souls" and caused "summer soldiers and sunshine patriots" to "shrink from the service of their country."  At Trenton, Monroe proved what his soul was made of. He was no "sunshine patriot."