General Washington, Opposite Trenton: A Short Play
[Summary: Washington, about to make a desperate gamble, is visited by a stranger who attempts to dissuade him.]
Keith's House, near Newtown, Pennsylvania, December 23, 1776
GW = General Washington
HC = Horatio Cue
Aide-de-camp: Your Excellency, a certain Horatio Cue, a gentleman, to see you.
GW: Show him in.
HC: Well, George, it seems your back's against the wall.
GW: I beg your pardon, I don't believe I've had the honor of your acquaintance....
HC: Oh,...yes,...<extending his hand> Horatio Cue, a Georgian, a traveler, recently arrived to Philadelphia.
GW: And what, sir, draws you to this Province just as everyone else departs?
HC: I've come to advise you.
GW: Advise me! And what advice, sir, do you propose to offer?
HC: Things have not been going well.
GW: ...Yes, that's true.
HC: I fear that with Lee's troops having joined you, with the terms of so many of the men about to expire, with your reputation in such serious decline you will be unwisely and precipitously moved to attack the Hessians at Trenton....
HC: Eight days ago you wrote the President of Congress that many of the men are "entirely naked and most so thinly clad as to be unfit for service". Five days ago you wrote your brother Jack, "I think the game is pretty near up."
I happen to know that the soldiers occupying Trenton are the command of a Colonel Johann Rall, veterans who made up the right wing of the main attack upon Fort Washington. You propose to cross a half-frozen river at night, to march your men through the snow in their shoeless, cloth-covered feet, to subdue on flat land the same force you were unable to stop five weeks ago when given the advantage of height and entrenchment?
A nation of two million has been able to supply you with only 6,000 men! And refuses to properly equip even those!
This independence, this love of liberty, so loudly proclaimed July last seems not nearly as deep or widespread as one might have presumed.... Why should you and your men vainly dash yourselves upon the rock of British dominion while others sit idly by?
GW: Sir, I have no idea how you have gained this knowledge of my personal correspondence.... I have it on good authority that the Hessians have erected no fortifications whatsoever; they do not take the possibility of an attack seriously.
HC: Ah, yes! Your spy, Honeyman!* An admirable bit of subterfuge there, George, --I'll grant you that.... But it really doesn't change things.... They have outposts, sentries, patrols; the sort of complete surprise you require is well nigh impossible.
GW: Your acquaintance with Honeyman astounds me.... Your argument is well-reasoned but, I fear, deficient in several important respects:
If we stay and wait for the British to attack us, we will be in an even worse position.
If we retreat to a more defensible position past Philadelphia, we will be conceding our nation's capital without so much as a single fight.
In either case, we will, a week from now, be forced to start over in building our army, as the majority of the men will have been too discouraged to re-enlist and will have returned to their homes.
More importantly, you misjudge my countrymen, whose love of liberty is very great indeed. What they lack is conviction as to its possibility. They see England as a giant who will, in the end, crush us.
If we can confront the enemy in something approaching equal numbers, the fact that we are fighting for our homeland will more than compensate for our lack of experience. Wars are not fought ultimately with muskets and cannon; they are fought with men's hearts.
Have you ever made a campfire?
HC: Of course.
GW: Then you know how difficult it can be in the damp to get one going. Fancy yourself, for the moment, an Indian making a fire without match-sticks. After much effort it starts to burn and then expires except perhaps for an ember or a small twig. How mightily you would nurse that little flame --would you not?--, knowing how long it will take to get it going again....
My men, Mr. Cue, are that flame. And it is to my care, fairly or not, that it has been entrusted.
I have a great deal of business to attend to. Good-bye and good luck.
In the middle of the night of December 25, Washington and 2400 Continental regulars crossed the Delaware at McKonkey's Ferry and attacked Trenton from the north; Brigadier General James Ewing, whose force of 1500 men was supposed to attack from the south across Trenton Ferry, stayed put, assuming the severe weather and the difficulty of crossing had caused the mission to be aborted; Colonel John Cadwalader's 1200-member militia, which was supposed to attack British positions south of Trenton, was unable to get their cannon across and retreated. Nevertheless, Washington was so successful in surprising the Hessians that more than 2/3 of their force (22 killed, 92 wounded, 948 captured) along with all of their cannon, muskets, and other equipment, was taken. Four hundred British/Hessians escaped to the south over Assunpink Bridge with nothing more than their muskets. Four Americans were wounded; none were killed.
Major James Wilkinson, a protagonist in the affair, later thinking back to the start of the mission, remembered that the path to the river at McKonkey's Ferry had been "tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken boots".
* John Honeyman was a spy who worked for Washington at various times during the war. He posed as a Tory cattle dealer and butcher. When he had some useful information he would lurk around the American lines, be captured, and brought to Washington's attention. Washington would treat him as a spy --interrogate him privately-- but then secretly arrange his escape. What made this work was the fact that Washington (and Honeyman) confided this secret to no one.
At Trenton, Honeyman, after being shot at by the Americans and thoroughly soaked/frozen in the Delaware during his "escape", gave Colonel Rall the disinformation that the American forces were pitifully weak, sick and fearful.
He was indicted for high treason and aiding the enemy a number of times by his American neighbors but had a written affadavit from Washington which he could --and did on at least one occasion-- use as a last resort....
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