tv Washington Crossing the Delaware CSPAN January 15, 2017 1:05pm-2:01pm EST
going back, everyone who held this job has reached out and offer their advice and their counsel. you realize you are in a club of 30 people who have held this position. >> watch sunday. or listen on the free c-span radio app. military historian harry laver talks about george washington from 1776 christmas day crossing of the icy delaware river to surprise and ultimately defeat hessian troops. he describes the situation of the american result that american revolution at the time that led washington to make this dangerous gamble.
>> ladies and gentlemen good evening, will come to the kansas city public library. to welcomeleasure you to the presentation of harry laver on the 240th anniversary of washington crossing the delaware. an extraordinary moment in american history. so harsh was that the general washington and his other senior commanders considered burning new york city. the continental congress forbade the burning of the new york city. the current congress would consider that. they faced the hessians, perhaps the most brutal soldiers at the time and the british army. maybe the most literate. the least orderly and
ill-equipped army in the world at the time, as george washington himself said, as unaccustomed to undoubted freedom cannot keep her straight of government and an army. that army, through full retreat to new jersey, defended by alexander hamilton and his artillery who covered the retreat. that was before alexander hamilton learned to sing, by the way. they successfully retreated into pennsylvania and of course crossed the delaware and what nathanael greene said at the time was god's redeeming providence as they fought and won the battle of trenton and princeton. princeton which the hessians had captured and which one haitian said, aessian officer
wonderful library. then they subsequently burned it. it is an extraordinary moment in american history this ragtag , army facing the most successful army in the world coming out of the seven years war. george washington as leader, who, although we know what a great commander he was today, at the time his greatest greatest experience, of course, they captured boston, about the time he got there they had already surrounded boston. his main experience of war had been the braddock's defeat and the defeat at fort bragg. this american who learned so much through failure was able to command a great victory. i want to quote from a great book about this great moment in
american history. he said, much a recent historical writing has served this ill because too many scholars have tried to make the american past into a record of crime and folly. the story of washington's crossing tells us that americans in early generations were capable of acting in a higher spirit and so are we. and so is dr. harry laver who has himself a distinguished career as a historian. he has written about the art of command and edited a book and contributed it. he has written about the kentucky militia in the revolutionary and post revolutionary area -- revolutionary era. he has written about general grant and his art of command. he is a wonderful historian at
the command school at fort leavenworth, which you know the library has a tremendous relationship with the history department. we are honored to have dr. laver here tonight. >> first of all, i would like to thank everyone here at the kansas city public library. they have been fantastic supporting us as a college and having speakers down here to support this program. a credit to you coming out on a chilly night like this. as a number of you mentioned, it
is harkening back to this kind of weather that general washington and his men faced, especially with saturday with the incoming snow. how many of you are familiar with this painting? the painting itself painted by a german artist emanuel leutze. he traveled to the united states, visited the united states and went back to germany where he put together this painting. the painting that we now have is in the metropolitan museum of art in new york city. has anybody seen it? it is huge, 12 feet by 20 feet. the first version of this that l eutze did have some fire damage in the studio and then it went to a museum in germany. in 1942, the royal air force in a bombing raid destroyed the painting.
fortunately he was working on another person in 1851 -- another version in 1851. we can note that he was trying to capture these weird of the revolution and the spirit of the united states. he does that extraordinarily well. when we look at the figure at the front, not the very front, but the one leading -- leaning towards us. on the opposite side of the boat, an african-american figure, and as you make your way back, there is a person in red just behind the flag.
the speculation is that might actually be a woman. at the back of the boat, the band you see leaning back, a native american. then, if you look closer, you can identify a few figures like the man holding the flag. president james monroe and there is general nathanael greene, one of washington's commanders in the operation he has taken. there are few historical inaccuracies. washington standing? probably not. that would have made it a good painting. additionally the number of men in this boat would have sent the boat to the delaware river. they were large, 40 to 60 feet long.
i do think it captures the spirit of what was happening. and of course the central figure, washington. with some of my students in debate about the role of individuals in history. history oral drive events driving collectively asked human race? are there indispensable figures in the past? truth is some of my colleagues would confirm historians don't like the idea of an individual -- that it any time an individual can alter the course of human history.
will admit i am one of those who don't like that idea at all. is washington willing to make an exception be? events.ree eventse are two or three of that point to washington as being an indispensable figure. and this event we are talking about tonight, with the two and 40th anniversary -- with the 240th anniversary coming up, is one of those. go back with me to december 25, 1776. the place we're going to go is a small village called mcconkey's ferry on the delaware river in pennsylvania. it is about 35 miles north of philadelphia, at the time, the capital of the united states.
we are going there to join general washington standing on the banks of the river. at the time, general washington, commander and chief of the continental army of the united states of america, a country that had just declared its independence less than six months earlier. it is hard to imagine hot, steamy independence hall in philadelphia. washington is having to undertake an operation that he does not want to do. as we stand there with washington, the weather is not very good. christmas day has dawned bright and good. but as we got to late afternoon, rain began to fall and next with sleet. the wind began to pick up so the sleet would sting when it hit your face. as we stand with washington, we're watching about 2500 men loaded onto those durham boats that i mentioned a few moments ago.
those soldiers along with artillery cannon pieces and horses getting on board. it became difficult to load as night was falling and the delaware current was running strong and there were ice flows coming down the river, always threatening to overturn those boats. and washington himself begin to board one of those boats. i have no historical evidence for what i'm about to take -- say, but i have to believe as a that moment, washington's mind had a flashback, if only for a few seconds, to an event in his life more than 20 years earlier.
in -- an event that was hauntingly similar to what he was experiencing now. the year was in 1753, the royal governor of virginia was concerned about what the french were doing in the western part of the british colonies. he was concerned about western virginia and western pennsylvania and decided he needed to find out what was going on out there. he selected a young virginia militia major by the name of george washington to lead an expedition, to do some reconnaissance and communicate with the french about british concern. and on november 16, young major washington set out here on this expedition. along the way, through great fortune, he picked up a small -- a member of his small party. the party was about six individuals and the individuals -- and the man he picked up was named christopher grist.
today he really rivals daniel boone in his frontier ability. as they make their way into western pennsylvania they pick up some indian allies. this was part of washington's responsibilities. in about 10 days they were at the forks of the ohio. they joined to make the ohio river. thatngton immediately saw this was key terrain that would be essential. but he found no french. he continued to the point where he got to the shores of lake yeary -- lake erie. they conveyed the message of governor of virginia.
and then he set out to return to virginia. washington saw it as an urgent task. the small party sets out. but then the weather starts to , then horses start to give out. so he finally decides the group is slowing him down. in command, second make camp, gather your strength, let the horses recover, and then make your way south as soon as you can. cross country and get to the river to get back to virginia. sheltered -- the next day they set out again. washington was beginning to feel the rigors and demand. he was starting to feel a little
bit weak. then through another stroke of great fortune they offered to guide them on the shortest possible route. and so they set out. washington agreed to let him do that. a little later they offer to carry the indians musket. your suspicion is well-founded. washington declined to have him carry the musket. at this point he is becoming increasingly concerned about the indian guide they have stumbled upon. meadow, ato a wide tree line on the opposite side. the indian has some distance out in front of the other two. in the sun breaks through the clouds. at this point he was able to get
his bearings and realize the indian had been waiting well away from the river. -- from the allegheny river. at that moment, the indian reached the tree line spun around and fired his musket at the two men. washington here's a gunshot, he awakens and sees christopher gist running after the indian as fast as he can go. guest is trying to get to the indian who is trying to go through the loading process on a muzzleloading musket. he gets to the indian just before he can level his musket. gist leveled his musket at the --indian's chest. he stops gist from murdering the indian. they let him go. soon after that both men realized the indian is likely to
return and to not by himself. they press on overnight and into the next day with no sleep and virtually no food, cold, freezing weather. late the following day, they finally reached the allegheny river. their hope is it is frozen over so they can quickly go across, but it is not. some are on either side on -- some ice on either side of the river, but running down the middle of the river, a rapid current of ice flows. they cut down a number of trees, quickly craft together a pretty shoddy raft and shove off into the river. each of them has a poll or stick they are trying to push themselves with across the river. the ice flows are putting up against this raft. any moment they are about to go over.
washington net one point shows his stick into the bottom of the river and into the river washington goes. with just enough strength he hangs on to that raft. he ends up with a pretty severe case of frostbite when this is over. helps haul washington back onto the raft. they end up on a small island where they spend the night. how these men survived, i have no idea. washington especially had been in the river completely soaked in freezing temperatures. the following morning, i doubt they slept, when light comes, they see the river has frozen over. they cross and get to a trading post, get sustenance and warmth, recover and the following day washington sets out again for virginia. january 16, 1777, one month after departing from the meeting
with the french, he delivers that message to the governor. 21 years old, he had shown extraordinary determination and strength of character. not surprising, the governor recognized this and washington rose through the ranks of the virginia militia. over the next couple of years, well beyond 10 years, he rises in the political world of virginia and the military world. then came april 19, 1775, lexington and concorde takes place. washington, in virginia, was a representative to the second continental congress where the delegates met to decide what to do about this bloodshed that occurred in massachusetts and very quickly they settled on selecting a commander and that commander was a george washington. from there, washington headed up
to boston or he took command of the army forces that were organizing their to battle with -- organizing there to battle with the british. ever the next years, there are skirmishes and engagements, but the next time we pick up our story is in new york city where washington has the continental army to defend new york from british forces arriving in the hundreds almost every day. in late august of 1776, washington escapes narrowly from the battle on long island. over the next few months, washington and his continentals will battle the british. and with one exception every engagement is a near disaster. it is defeat followed by withdrawal. the british chase them outside
of new york city, across the manhattan island, into new jersey and by november 1776, washington is seeking refuge. for washington, he had made some serious mistakes. he was not the general that we recognize today. and indeed some of his colleagues were very concerned about this man he was leaving -- this man who was leading their army. an officer in the army who was formally in the british army wrote to his colleague about the indecisiveness of mind that was plaguing the army. and even one of washington's aids, referring to the indecisiveness of our commander.
he had not shown great leadership. but washington was absolutely decisive, absolutely and fully committed and dedicated to the cause of american independence. he never wavered for a moment. there never was a question in his mind. to -- a general named william howe. by the time we get to mid november and early december, we decide he's done enough. to --aven't been able haven't been able to stand against him.
in the spring you pick up the battle again. all troops are going into garrison. and be done for the year. it was not a bad decision. washington's army as decrepit as it was. after all the general was the spring thaw would the corpse of the rebellion that had broken out. washington has no idea general howell was going to call off the campaign season. washington was concerned that was the delaware froze over, how would -- general howell would march into philadelphia, which with the disastrous for the united states. washington says, i must do
something, but what can i do? two weeks left until the end of the year. congress, fearful of a standing army, standing armies, the tool of oppressive governments that require an extraordinary amount of taxes. congress did not like the idea of standing armies, so the only approved year-long enlistments for washington's soldiers. congress referred much to rely on the militia, the citizen soldiers who defended their homes. washington knew the militia had value, but he was not overly confident in them. in theyoint he says come in, you cannot tell how, they ask, you cannot tell where. consume your provisions, exhaust your stores, and than at the last, leave you at a critical
moment. but that was all he had. he does gather about 6000 men in mid-december, knowing in two weeks on december 31, the enlistment of the great majority of them was going to expire, and his thinking was the same as general howe. my army is going to die over the toter unless i do something change the direction of this war. you look at what the british were doing, and what he saw is the british going into garrison, just as general howe had ordered. down to philadelphia on the lower left-hand side of the map, any place you see those little red circles were garrisons of forces,or hessian hessians, the mercenaries,
soldiers hired. looking at the map, washington saw an opportunity. about in the middle of the map, there was a hessian horse of about 1500 soldiers. the hessians had a reputation as hard fighters and also as soldiers who treated very harshly civilians and their prisoners. but there washington saw a chance to change the direction and momentum of this war. what washington put together was audacious. nisqually surpassed by the complexity of the plan that washington put together. bring the army of four different units, the largest he would command himself. that would cross the delaware
river to the north of trenton, swing down and assault trenton from the north and the east. another force of 600 would travel down the rest inside of the weather -- western side of the river with the purpose of blocking the hessians'means of escape to the south. another force of 2000 would make their way even farther south, cross at where we see bordentown, where another hessian force was, and their job was to keep there was hessians from reinforcing the other hessians at trenton. the other small force was reinforcements. the plan was each of these columns would converge just before dawn, the day after christmas. imagine in an era before cell phones, before radios, before any kind of communication beyond
man and horse, how difficult this was going to be to coordinate all these elements. this would have been challenging for general howe's army of professionals, let alone a group of militia part-time citizen soldiers. that is washington's plan. on christmas eve, one of the revolutionary leaders named benjamin rush visited washington at his headquarters north of trenton. rush recalled later that washington was nervous, fidgety, and understandably so. before he left, rush looked down at the papers washington had on his desk and what he saw was the password for the centuries -- -- password for the
sentries. the password was victory or death. clearly washington was committed. the following morning was christmas. clear, freezing, but then bad weather began. at this point we can rejoin it general washington on the banks of the delaware as he is getting on board. the crossing takes place over the course of the night. it is 3:00 a.m. before all the manner across the river. three hours behind schedule, washington realizes at that point he is not going to get to trenton before dawn and the element of surprise might be lost. he was not turning back at that point. he began to press farther south, and this is a painting from 1819 of washington overseeing the troops crossing the delaware. around 4:00 a.m., after getting all his men together and in column, they begin to move down on that nine mile journey down
to trenton. we see the top of the map the path that washington's men took. about four miles from trenton, washington's 2500 split into two forces. one force traveled its way along the river road under the command of a general named john sullivan. they were going to approach trenton from north along the river. the other half, under nathanael greene, takes a different path. they swing around and come in on the pennington road. washington is with this column as it makes its way towards trenton. it is about 7:20, well after light has begun to streak through the skies. as they get closer to the village, washington is trying to
maintain whatever surprise they might have. some of the soldiers were called washington was on horseback on the outskirts of town, and as the man passed by washington, moving into position around the village, washington was telling them to take -- stay by your officers. for god sakes, stay by your officers. and then they made first contact. shots exchanged with some of the hessian sentries. very quickly those sentries were quickly overwhelmed by the men coming out of the woods, and washington's men pressed forward. he could hear to his right gunfire, and then increasingly rapid gunfire as sullivan's men it made contact. washington took great comfort that selling 10 -- sullivan's men had arrived.
what he didn't know was that all the other columns had turned back. none of them had crossed the river. the commanders had made the decision as washing -- washington's men were crossing that the river was too treacherous to cross. they decided to turn back. washington's men were on their own. there was no help coming from anywhere else. in trenton, colonel rall and his men were taken by surprise. it is not really that surprising that they were taken by surprise. we know what happened in the days leading up to the washington assault. previously, at 5:00 in the afternoon the previous day, rall had received a warning of an attack on trenton, but he dismissed it.
but he dismissed it because for a number of days leading up to then, militia -- and stretching to call them that -- would come out, take a pot shot at the hessians, and disappear. the hessians would go on a patrol and chase after these phantoms. this occurred in the middle of christmas day even. as night was falling and snow was starting to fall on christmas day, rall's men are struggling back into their barracks after a while boost -- wild goose chase, and they are exhausted. it is not surprising he was not taking the warning experience will -- warning seriously. and now washington's men were attacking his men. colonel rall tries to get his men organized.
man name henry knox gets his artillery in place there in trenton. general knox gets his artillery in place right were he sees washington's name, pointing down the length of this long to roads . king street and queen street. it was like a bowling alley. he could fire straight down, and that is the spot where the hessians were trying to organize. great chaos among the hessians, trying to get themselves organized through this assault by washington. colonel rall realized this was not going to prove effective, and his men had made that decision on their own and had been heading out the eastern side. they were looking to escape the trenton -- to princeton, where there were reinforcements. washington had sent a force to block the road to princeton. colonel rall and his men evacuated trenton into the
surrounding field. rall tries to organize his men out there for a counterattack. they charge against the americans, the americans fire and inflicts casualties, it -- including colonel rall. the hessians are done. eventually, about 600 of them will escape, primarily to the south. but 22 are killed, including colonel rall. over 80 are wounded and washington and his men casher -- capture about 900 hessian soldiers. it is an astounding victory, credited primarily to washington and his determination to press on. washington was not content with this, however. he understood this may not be enough momentum to keep the
revolution and the cause through all long winter that was coming. so he convinced them to sit around -- stick around for six more weeks. he was persuasive, and a $10 bonus for staying with enough. he crossed into pennsylvania briefly, and that is the new year was donning crossed into new jersey -- dawning crossed into new jersey and went into battle against the british at princeton. he defeats them on january 3. he led his army north to moorestown, new jersey, where they went into winter camp. washington was the cause of this victory. we cannot attribute it to anything but him and his
determination to continue on. washington would face some pretty significant challenges yet to come. the following winter, 1777-1778 as the winter we are all familiar with and valley forge. lesser known as the winter, two years later at moorestown, that was far worse than the winter at valley forge. but they survived that. washington's dealings with congress over the course of the entire war, who were not at times the most affordable washington -- supportive of washington. but five years after washington wins the battle in trenton -- this is a painting of washington leading his men. he was not quite out that front in trenton. washington will see the last major conflict of the war at yorktown, virginia, where he
along with the american army and french allies, both army and navy, forced general cornwallis to surrender. general washington, at that point in late 1776, kept the revolution alive. that was the darkest moment of the revolution, were writer thomas payne mentioned as "the times to try men's souls." i think of washington had not acted as he had and shown that determination, this ring saw -- spring thaw would have revealed the corpse of washington's army, just as general howe would have addicted.
for that reason -- predicted. for that reason, i think washington was an indispensable figure. thank you all for coming out. christmas day, let's take a 240th --rm or the moment to remember the 240th anniversary of what washington did. thank you for coming out. [applause] dr. laver: i understand we have some time for questions. the request is if you do have a question, if you make your way to one of the two microphones so c-span can get your question. i will say, this is an early disclaimer -- disclaimer. if i do not know the answers, a number of my colleagues are here. sir? >> there are a hundred of number of wonderful stories about the battle.
so they were gambling on the kitchens -- hessians gambling and drinking on christmas. and there's another one about rall playing cards and washington being on the move, and he paid the price for that. is there any truth to those two stories? dr. laver: the first question about the hessians sleeping off christmas celebrations? the best evidence is not so much. they may have been celebrating, but the circumstances i described previously, they were just worn out from a lengthy campaign. the hessians were involved
in the campaign from new york city up through -- many of you are familiar with the battles of harlem heights and new jersey. i think they were just worn out. as to the other message in the pocket, i have heard that as well. again, the evidence is pretty slim on that. but your point about us by bringing information, that was the source of the warning that colonel rall did receive. there was a spy and washington's headquarters, and in the preceding days as is washington -- washington and his commanders were discussing this. this by dint of hard and took off to the british commander. -- the spy did depart and thomas to the british commander. but what he didn't know was that washington at a smaller group of commanders got together to finalize the details of when, where, and how. the spy had some idea, but no specifics. rollins had -- rall would have ignored that anyway. >> you spoke about washington's beginnings in the virginia
militia. did he have training over the next 20 years up to this point? did he have a mentor or someone that guided him in military tactics and knowledge? what made him become what he was? dr. laver: he did have two mentors. the first, i cannot say was necessarily a military mentor, but was his older brother, lawrence. he set down principles of character and integrity that washington really in the lower -- really absorbed. voluntarily, washington's mentor is general brad from the british army. he was with him from the french and indian war. washington serves as an aid to general braddock. washington shows extraordinary courage and that battle. he was suffering from severe health problems, and gets up out
of a sick bed in the battle that bracket -- braddock is killed. he was following braddock, and braddock becomes his mentor. washington's aspiration was to become an art of -- officer in the british army. he was declined because he was a columnist. colonist. >> you kind of segued into my question. my understanding is that washington and king george the third were cousins. is there anything to that at all? dr. laver: i have not heard that. anyone else because that? -- speak to that? i have not heard that. >> he was descended from british aristocracy, though.
was he not? dr. laver: all british aristocracy leads back to charlemagne or whomever, he might be. [laughter] dr. laver: but i don't know for certain. i cannot say yea or nay on that. >> i have a picture in my mind of what happened at trenton, and suddenly i have 900 prisoners. what do you do with them? that was before guantanamo. [laughter] >> you have to do something with them. dr. laver: typically, prisoners were exchanged. you exchange rate for rank, individual for individual. there would be an exchange process. some of the officers that were recognized, charles lee was taken for a while and exchanged as a senior officer.
>> [indiscernible] dr. laver: i don't know how many they may have had after the new york campaign? they may well have had near -- and i don't want to make back the impression because some of you are aware of the horrendous conditions on the prison ships the british should -- often use on the coast. anything else? >> i always thought the american revolution was a continuation of the british civil war, and even their generals were not well trained. why were they any better than ours? dr. laver: i do not know from say the british are not a professional army, because they had been battling for some years
with the french. the french and indian war, our version of that in america is sort of an overflow of that. while the british may not have had a professional army for centuries, they had professional experience. in this era, britain was the superpower. both enable and land forces. there was experience there -- in naval and land forces. there was experience there, and training that the americans did not have. and any sort of standing army, professional officers, congress balked it. if they were true patriots, they would not ask us for pay. there is a very much in different mentality there. >> [indiscernible] dr. laver: in that case, we are going back 100 years or so? the new model army that comes out of the civil war is the basis for increasing the
professionalism of the british army. >> i'm talking what the british army to keep the army's moral -- army small, [indiscernible] dr. laver: to some degree, parliament got past that. they need a military force to maintain control of the college -- colonies. i think some of your points are valid. britain is not a fully complete professional force. >> philadelphia had a port. how come the british didn't go there instead of new york city? congress was there and everything, why not do it the easy way? dr. laver: the short answer is the british to go there.
-- do go there. they end up there the following year. the answer is that new york was the largest city at the time. for operations, that made sense to be the center place -- centerpiece for british military forces. it will remain that way for the rest of the revolution, well after cornwallis surrenders. there is still a huge army in new york city. philadelphia does get into the mix in 1777. >> just to comment on the prisoner question from earlier, i am a native virginian, and the issue with the hessian prisoners taken were they were marched to the south. they were interred at a camp
outside of charlottesville, virginia. a lot of them ended up taking a pledge and joining the continental army in search of -- and serving of continental soldiers later on. the british were not keen on exchanging them because they were mercenaries and hessians. there were not going to exchange the prisoners they had for hessians. they were saving them for british predators -- prisoners. and most of the exchanges were done between offices of like rank and gentlemen. the common prisoners were basically kept and diet in the ships by the thousands, or were sent further south away from the army there. dr. laver: thank you, thank you. sir? >> do we have an idea what kind of nationality mix was involved with them? dr. laver: all mercenaries from various parts.
we were talking about which parts of germany's particular hessians came from. we are not certain. as far as the colonists were concerned, these were hessians and mercenaries at that. >> one particular point about the hessians is that there were 13,010 hessian troops in america. 3000 of them decided to stay and became americans. dr. laver: it looks pretty good when they got here. yeah? we have time for just one more. >> what is it that do -- drew the sessions to come fight? why didn't they just stay home? [laughter] dr. laver: this was not uncommon in the. leading up to the american revolution, that oftentimes
heads of state would hire armies . there were armies out there that were willing to be hired out. these were simply professional soldiers. pay me and i will fight for you. that's exactly what they did with the hessians. the soldier received pretty basic pay. >> real america will air the historic 1977 film the time has come, narrated by james earl
jones and created for overseas audiences. the film documents the progress of african-americans profiling several newly elected public officials. impact.making an >> the registration, the voting, the participation in the democratic process is bringing about a new sense of hope. about a sense of economic parity. >> for the complete schedule go to c-span.org. c-span's washington journal live every day, following the policy issues that impact you. the influenceat
president obama has had on race relations in the u.s.. thes the author of invisibles, the untold story of african-american slaves. also reclaiming our founders vision for a united america. cashin, author of -- c-span's washington journal beginning monday morning. join the discussion. >> the presidential inauguration of donald trump is friday. c-span will have live coverage of all the days events and ceremonies.
watch live on c-span and c-span.org and listen live on the free c-span radio app. >> franklin roosevelt was sworn president of the united states. we will see him take the of the office and here his inaugural address. this program is about 23 minutes and has been compiled from several sources, including news orioles, audio and video from the fdr library, photographs and the library of congress portions of newsreels from the national archives and internet archives. ♪