The Battle of Trenton, where George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas of 1776, then surprised and captured a Hessian garrison on the morning of December 26th, was one of history’s most decisive battles. The death toll was surprisingly low, even for the late 18th Century. Only 2 Americans and 22 Hessians were killed. Yet Washington’s dramatic move effectively liberated New Jersey, and most of the Northeast, from British rule.
If you’ve read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The American Crisis you know why. As large and well-provided as it was, the British Army in 1776 was trying to hold onto a territory that was far too large to be ruled by mere brute force. Unless the British had the support of a decisive majority of people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Washington could maintain his small army indefinitely. That left British General Howe had two equally problematic choices. He could concentrate his army in large garrisons like Rall’s Hessians in Trenton. But that would not only leave them with vulnerable supply lines, and it would make it clear that the English in North America were little more than an occupying army. He could break his army down into smaller formations designed to protect Americans loyal to the British crown. But that, in turn, would require his troops to commandeer supplies from the local farmers. At some point, they would cause so much resentment that they could be defeated by local militias. Washington’s decisive victories at Trenton and Princeton demonstrated that he could a defeat well-trained European army. He didn’t have to win every time — Washington lost the majority of battles he fought against the British — but if he managed to keep his army in the field, the American victory was inevitable.
The Crossing, an A&E film made in 2000 and starring Jeff Daniels, dramatizes the crossing of the Delaware and the victory at Trenton. Is it any good? As cinema, probably not. It’s a low-budget TV movie. Daniels captures little of the authority George Washington could project by his very presence, his skill as a horseman, or his physical courage. He comes off like a put upon corporate executive dealing with cranky subordinates, not one of history’s great military commanders. Based on the novel by Howard Fast, The Crossing also contains a number of historical inaccuracies, and misconceptions. The Hessians at Trenton were not an elite force of “mercenaries.” They were mostly poor German peasants, kidnapped by the Landgrave Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel, and sold as slaves to his friends among the crowned heads of Europe, including King George III. There’s no proof that Horatio Gates, who disapproved of attack, was led out of the camp under guard. As far as I know, he simply feigned illness and joined the Continental Congress in Baltimore. Alexander Hamilton did take part in the Battle of Trenton, but he hadn’t yet become a member of Washington’s general staff. Most importantly of all, where’s the blizzard? Washington crossed the Delaware and marched up to Trenton in the middle of a nor’easter. The only two deaths in the Continental Army at Trenton were due to exposure, not he Hessians. If you’re going to make a patriotic film about the most decisive battle of the American Revolution, why leave out the biggest obstacle Washington’s troops faced?
But I suppose that a low-budget TV movie didn’t have the technical resources to stage a nor’easter. What’s more, a big budget film would have meant big stars, investors, publicity campaigns. The story of the Battle of Trenton might have gotten swallowed up in the special effects. The Crossing, for all it’s flaws, does manage to convey why the Battle of Trenton took place, what it meant, and how Washington pulled it off. While it may contain some poetic license, the dialogue between Washington and his subordinate Colonel John Glover, for example, masterfully stages the tensions between the Virginia plantation owner and his cranky, democratic soldiers from Philadelphia and New England. Did Glover actually insult a host at a dinner party? Who knows, but the real Glover certainly could have made the speech rejecting aristocrat privilege and the Anglican church. When Washington orders Glover to commandeer the Durham boats he would later use to make the crossing, the movie makes it crystal clear that he considers it an option of last resort. Glover demurs. Washington takes responsibility, even though he knows that if the Continental Army makes it a habit of strong arming supplies from local farmers and business owners that the British would eventually win the war.
For the Battle of Trenton itself, director Robert Harmon does a lot on a shoestring budget. Unlike Ted Turner’s Gettysburg, which also starred Jeff Daniels, we don’t really get the sense we’re watching middle-aged reenactors. Perhaps the small scale of The Battle of Trenton made it easy to stage, but the clumsy staged explosions and flying bodies notwithstanding, The Crossing does capture the terror the Hessian soldiers must have felt when they realized they had been outflanked and surprised by Washington’s troops. Whether or not the scene where Alexander Hamilton leads an attack on a Hessian blockhouse is perfectly true to history isn’t important. It captures the brutal quality of close combat, of “going in with cold steel.” The exhilaration Washington must have felt when he realized he had captured Trenton with no deaths — the only two Continental soldiers who died during the attack died of exposure — comes across loud and clear.
Johann Rall is portrayed as a bit of a dandy, a man who takes the time to get dressed and groom himself, even after he’s informed that his camp at Trenton is under attack. There’s really no way of knowing what Rall did in those final hours before he was killed, but the film does convey just how much he was taken by surprise. Contrary to popular mythology, the Hessian soldiers weren’t sleeping off a hangover on the morning of December 26th, 17776, but Rall certainly wasn’t expecting Washington to move against him in force. He hadn’t put out flankers or advanced patrols. Perhaps he had been watching weather reports circa 2014, where every little snowstorm is built up into the monster blizzard that never comes. Maybe he thought the Americans were all out at the supermarket stocking up on bread, toilet paper, and snow shovels?
Final historical note: Colonel John Glover had black soldiers under his command in The Marblehead Mariners. As Princeton historical David Hackett Fischer makes clear in his book Washington’s Crossing, they also staged riots against white racist troops from Virginia. There’s a black soldier in Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s classic painting. But Glover’s black soldiers aren’t portrayed in The Crossing.