Thomas Paine, personal assistant to General Nathanael Greene, scanned the faces of his companions in the Continental Army on a cold day in December, 1776. The soldiers faced difficulties worse than separation from families and harsh winter conditions. The men were disheartened. How could an army one quarter the size of the British forces win freedom?
Paine understood their discouragement. Recently, three thousand Colonial soldiers bravely stood their ground against a foe of thirteen thousand outside the fort at Washington Heights (Manhattan) until the British threatened them with cannons. One hundred forty-nine Colonial soldiers were killed or wounded. Over twenty-eight hundred at the fort surrendered. The Colonial Army also abandoned another fort, Fort Lee, in New Jersey.
To make matters worse, General Howe’s British troops pursued General Washington’s retreating army across New Jersey. The soldiers marched through the colony for sixteen days until they reached safety across the Delaware River.
The loss of three thousand soldiers struck the struggling army a difficult blow. New York City and all of New Jersey were under British control. Eleven thousand colonial soldiers gave up and returned home between September and December. Army contracts would expire on December 31st.
Paine remembered the impact of his pamphlet, Common Sense. His words, published earlier that year in January, had been read by thousands. His writing somehow resonated with people in all walks of life.
All thirteen colonies must know of the recent British victories. Paine imagined those at home felt discouragement similar to the soldiers. After he pondered the situation, he sat down to pen these words:
“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 his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
The American Crisis went to the heart of the problem from these beginning lines. The Pennsylvania Journal published Paine’s work on December 19, 1776.
General Washington commanded the pamphlet to be read to his discouraged men. Paine’s stirring words revived hope within their souls at a crucial moment. The results encouraged Washington. His plan for Christmas Day must succeed though he kept the details from his soldiers.
Regiments began assembling at specific crossing points along the Delaware River late in the afternoon of December 25th. Temperatures dropped causing the snow-covered ground to feel even colder.
Washington didn’t want delays because after the troops crossed the icy river, they must march to Trenton, New Jersey for a surprise predawn attack on the Hessian soldiers.
Unfortunately some soldiers arrived late to their designated areas. Snow, hail, sleet, and rain hindered their crossing. They contended with ice jams on the river. Dark, stormy skies made navigation difficult.
All this affected Washington’s careful timetable. He almost abandoned the plan when faced with a three-hour delay. He trudged on.
Washington’s surprise attack worked. The Continental Army won their first major victory.
Would the results have been same without Paine’s passionate plea to stay the course? With all the obstacles that had to be overcome on that freezing Christmas Day and everything that led up to it, this author doesn’t believe so.
Do our words matter?
-Sandra Merville Hart
“Crossing of the Delaware,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2015/07/27 http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/crossing-of-the-delaware/.
“Ft. Washington Captured – Washington Retreats through N.J -1776,” HistoryCentral, 2015/07/27 http://www.historycentral.com/Revolt/Retreatnj.html.
Paine, Thomas. “The Crisis,” USHistory.org 2015/07/24 http://www.ushistory.org/paine/crisis/c-01.htm.
“Thomas Paine,” USHistory.org 2015/07/24 http://www.ushistory.org/paine/.
“Thomas Paine Publishes American Crisis,” History.com, 2015/07/28 http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/thomas-paine-publishes-american-crisis.