tv Sino News Magazine PBS February 6, 2011 8:30pm-9:00pm PST
major funding provided by the pennsylvania society of sons of the revolution and its color guard, instituted to perpetuate the memory of the men who, by their acts and counsel, achieved the independence of the united states of america. additional funding provided by... narrator: it is december 7, 1776. george washington and his continental army are at the end of a long retreat. with the british in pursuit, they gather all available boats and escape across the delaware river from trenton into pennsylvania.
the painter charles wilson peale describes a scene of unimaginable misery. man as peale: the sick and half naked veterans of the long retreat streamed past. i thought it the most hellish scene i have ever beheld. narrator: washington's army has been on the run for three weeks. perhaps "army" is the wrong term. there are just a few thousand soldiers starving, demoralized, on the brink of defeat. it was a moment when the leaders on both sides thought that the revolution had been defeated. most of the british leaders believed that. washington believed it. narrator: the struggle for independence from great britain seems near an end. along with it, the lofty ideals of liberty and freedom. washington himself harbors no illusions.
man as washington: ten days more will put an end to the existence of our army. narrator: in fact, ten days will change the war and the world. ten crucial days in and around trenton and princeton when george washington and his army alter the course of history. these ten days in which washington reversed the slide towards defeat and collapse are ten of the most important days in the history of the world. narrator: december 12, 1776. washington's army is on the pennsylvania side of the delaware. across the river in new jersey, the british--
well armed, well fed, supremely confident. they seem destined to capture philadelphia, america's capital. thomas paine sums up the situation in his pamphlet "the american crisis". man as paine: 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. narrator: how did things become so dire? just five months earlier the continental congress ratified the declaration of independence, a glorious and radical document. "governments are instituted among men," it said,
"deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." that was five months ago. it seems like five years. for the declaration of independence was also a declaration of war against the most powerful nation on earth. (seagull cries) british forces soon began arriving by the tens of thousands. professional soldiers carried on magnificent sailing ships in a display of immense power. george washington and the continental army were up against the best, regular soldiers in the world. highly trained, highly disciplined, highly experienced. they had an average of, in some of these regiments, of seven to as many as nine years experience. many of the americans had that many days of experience. narrator: but the inexperienced americans had something else--
a cause for which they were willing to die. i think what motivated the americans of 1776 was that word "liberty". they were definitely fighting for their free way of life. i don't think enough americans realize that in 1776, the americans had been in america for 150 years, and they had a free society. from their viewpoint, the british were trying to take it away from them, and that was a very, very infuriating and alarming thought, and this is what really animated them to fight. narrator: but in the summer and fall of 1776, one british victory followed another. (cannon blast) long island. (cannon blast) kip's bay. (cannon blast) harlem heights.
(cannon blast) white plains. (cannon blast) fort washington. (cannon blast) fort lee. finally, washington felt he had but one choice-- a retreat through new jersey. as they went through newark, george washington asked that young lieutenant of infantry james monroe to stand by the side of the road and count the troops. they had started with about 35,000 men in august, and he counted 3,000 men. they'd lost 90% of their command. narrator: in pursuit, 10,000 troops under british gen. cornwallis who likened this to a fox hunt. washington, of course, was the fox. the british were joined by hessians-- professional german soldiers-- and new jersey citizens
who remained loyal to king george. fleming: the germans were mercenaries. they had been hired by the british, and plunder was what they were in the war for, so they ruthlessly looted every town they came through, and their officers did nothing to stop them. some british regiments behaved almost as badly. narrator: so now, it is december. washington and his army have set up camp on the pennsylvania side of the delaware river which is perhaps washington's greatest ally. man as washington: the delaware now parts the two armies, and nothing hinders the passage of the enemy but want of boats which we have been lucky enough to secure. narrator: december 13, 1776, the americans get lucky. across the river, british gen. william howe decides to suspend operations for the winter. he leaves for new york.
trenton is secured by a force of 1,500, mostly hessians, and throughout new jersey, the british have a chain of towns firmly under their control. meanwhile, washington faces still another threat. many of his troops' enlistments will expire on new year's day. man as washington: our only dependence now is upon the speedy enlistment of a new army. if this fails, i think the game is pretty near up. narrator: a bold stroke is required, and the americans devise a plan. they will cross the delaware and attack the hessians in trenton. a dramatic crossing is set for december 25, christmas night of 1776. man as washington: christmas day at night is the time fixed upon
for our attempt on trenton. necessity, dire necessity must justify any attempt. narrator: gen. washington scribbles three words that will become the army's rallying cry, "victory or death." at one point, just on the eve of the battle of trenton, he said, "i cannot believe so good a cause will fail," and that was... i think that was a marvelous statement of what was animating him. narrator: christmas day, 1776. the wind is howling. the delaware choked with sheets of ice. other crossings are also planned south of trenton. they fail when the treacherous weather and ice clogged river make crossing impossible. upriver at the primary crossing point,
flat-bottomed, durham boats are waiting. 60 feet long, built to haul iron ore, they are about to haul a wretched army across the delaware from mcconkey's ferry in pennsylvania to johnson's ferry on the new jersey side. ferry boats are used for horses, cannon and wagons. the officer in charge of the crossing is henry knox-- six feet tall, nearly 300 pounds, just 25 years old. man as knox: the floating ice in the river made the labor almost incredible. the night was cold and stormy. it hailed with great violence. however, perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible.
narrator: washington's army includes 16-year-old john greenwood, who later wrote about the ordeal. man as greenwood: it rained, hailed, snowed and froze. when i turned my face to the fire, my back would be freezing. however, by turning myself round and round, i kept myself from perishing. narrator: the boats ferry soldiers across the river about 40 at a time. there are 2,400 men in all, more than 100 horses and 18 cannon. the operation takes nearly ten hours-- far longer than expected. fischer: washington was sitting on the east bank of the delaware, the new jersey side, wrapped in his cloak against the weather and wondering should he call it off. and came very close to doing that.
they were now so late that they'd be attacking in daylight, and he felt that surprise would be lost, and the operation became even more desperate. but then, he decided that to get those men into the boats and send them back again might be even more difficult than going forward, and so off they went. narrator: finally, at 3:00 in the morning, the army is in new jersey now facing a grueling, nine mile march to trenton. fleming: as they marched down the road towards trenton, washington's horse slid off the bank of the road and started to go down into a gully, and everybody thought for a moment that this was going to be a disaster. that he may go tumbling down and even get killed, and instead, with those huge, long arms of his, he grabbed that horse's reigns and literally dragged it back on the road. you know, just turned its head and got it back on that road. narrator: the men remained together for five miles
then split into two columns. along the way, two men freeze to death. at 8:00 in the morning, both columns reach the small village of trenton. about 1,500 hessians are there under the command of col. johann rall. he had been warned of american plans, but is confident an attack is unlikely. man: fire! (repeated cannon blasts) narrator: then, the unlikely attack begins. man as greenwood: we got within 200 yards of about 300 or 400 hessians. orders were given to charge bayonets and rush on, and rush on we did. before they had time to reload, we were within three feet of them when they broke and ran like so many frightened devils.
narrator: col. rall is shot and mortally wounded. his men lay down their weapons and surrender. there would later be rumors that the hessians had been partying. in fact, they fought nobly but were soundly defeated. fischer: the myth is that the hessians were drunk. that they were celebrating christmas. that their commander was drunk, and i think none of that was true. the hessians fought with great courage. their officers led them with great resolve. narrator: the battle of trenton is over in less than two hours. 22 hessians are dead and nearly 900 captured. washington describes american casualties as very trifling. the victors and their prisoners march back upriver
and cross the delaware again. they reach camp in pennsylvania exhausted, ill, malnourished. but they had marched 20 miles, defying both the weather and the odds. news of the battle spreads through the colonies. it really suddenly gave them a new sense of the possibility of a revolution that many of them thought had been lost, and the word began to spread. now, they saw that there was an army that had looked the enemy in the face and won, and this just gave a huge surge of courage. and it also really shook the other side. it gave them a sense that suddenly this was a much tougher proposition. narrator: the news also reaches the british and gen. howe. man as howe: the unfortunate and untimely defeat at trenton
has thrown us farther back from the great encouragement it has given to the rebels. narrator: howe orders gen. cornwallis to return to new jersey with 8,000 men. meanwhile, washington convenes a war council with his top aides. they decide to cross the delaware again to take full advantage of the british confusion. the weather has gotten even worse-- bitter cold, deep snow. the delaware has nearly frozen over making another crossing even more difficult than the first. but in the final days of 1776, washington's army again makes its way across the delaware into new jersey. many enlistments will expire at the end of the year,
and washington implores his men to stay. man as washington: my brave fellows, 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 one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably can never do under any other circumstances. the present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny. narrator: december 30, 1776, washington and his army are in trenton where they had defeated the hessians just four days earlier. they expect to be attacked from the north. ten miles up the road, thousands of british and hessian troops
are gathering in princeton, preparing to march to trenton. washington positions some of his men halfway between trenton and princeton. their assignment is to delay the inevitable british advance. back in trenton, washington's forces are ready. january 2, 1777, the rebels newfound confidence is about to be tested. gen. cornwallis and a massive force are marching toward trenton eager for an all out battle. (cannon blasts and gun fire) narrator: along the way, americans engage the british
in a series of skirmishes delaying their advance. the delays are costly to the british who finally reach trenton at sundown. washington and his troops have taken positions on the south side of the assunpink creek. this is the second battle of trenton. narrator: three times the british attack the assunpink creek bridge. three times they are repelled, taking heavy casualties. one american soldier later described the carnage.
man as soldier: their dead bodies lay thicker and closer together than i ever beheld sheaves of wheat lying in a field which the reapers had just passed. narrator: as darkness falls, the americans are encamped on one side of the creek. the british on the other. the redcoats expect to easily defeat washington the next morning. fleming: in the night, washington had some of his men build fires, and they could hear sounds of digging. they thought, oh, the americans were entrenching there on the hill, and, oh, they're trying to keep warm with all these fires. meanwhile, washington's whole army marched by back roads and completely outflanked the british army that was sitting in front of trenton,
and the next thing you know, in the early morning, they attacked the british garrison in princeton. narrator: this time, the frigid weather is an asset, turning muddy roads solid, enabling washington and his men to move through the night. it is dawn, january 3. american gen. nathanael greene is leading his troops on quaker road heading north to princeton. a mile-and-a-half from town, they encounter british troops heading south. (gunshots) with a ferocious british bayonet charge, the battle of princeton begins on the farms of william and thomas clarke.
american gen. hugh mercer is stabbed with a bayonet seven times and will die nine days later. in the midst of the chaos, washington arrives with reinforcements and inspiration. fleming: he rode down the line between the british and the americans and gave the order to fire while he was right there in between the two lines, and one of washington's aides, col. fitzgerald, put his hat over his head, over his face like that because he thought sure washington was a dead man, and this huge billow of smoke rose from the muskets on both sides, and when it cleared away,
there was washington still on his horse. it was just miraculous. narrator: the battle of princeton is another stunning american victory, another cause for hope. gen. nathanael greene wrote about the startling turn of events. man as greene: the two late actions at trenton and princeton have put a very different face upon affairs. and a good many british officers began to doubt that the american war was winnable, and this only a few weeks after they thought it had been won. narrator: following victory at princeton, george washington decides to march north to morristown, new jersey. he will spend the winter with his wife, martha, and his most trusted officers rebuilding the army, planning future strategy. the war is certainly not over.
there will be six more years of fighting. but there has been a remarkable turnaround. a british historian later summed up the battles of trenton and princeton. "it may be doubted," he wrote, "whether so small a number of men "ever employed so short a space of time "with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world." fleming: if the americans had failed at trenton and princeton, or either one of them, they would have become peaceful, submissive, obedient servants of his majesty george iii, and the whole, marvelous spirit of independence and liberty that has animated this country would have really vanished. narrator: in those ten days, as 1776 gave way to a new year,