Christmas is a day of the year, so historical things are bound sometimes to happen on that day, or just before or after it. But the special meaning of Christmas to many people tends to give those events prominence and a sense of connection.
America has her own set of Christmas-connected memories. One of our earliest is from the year 1776, when George Washington pulled off a badly needed victory over Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey on 26 December, after a perilous nighttime crossing of the Delaware River.
America’s fledgling revolution had suffered a relentless series of losses that fall, although Washington had managed to avoid some of the worst losses in battle by the expedient of fleeing around the countryside. But his army’s defeats in October, in New York City, were costly and discouraging, leading to an ignominious retreat through New Jersey. Morale was low, and the enlistment contracts of the Continental Army’s soldiers were to expire on 31 December.
There was grave concern among the revolution’s leaders that the army, small as it was by then (Washington retreated from New York with about 3,000 men), could not be held together after the disastrous autumn. Losing the army at that point would have meant failure for the revolution itself, with nothing but a few ill-organized local militias standing between the colonial population and British troops.
Washington retreated with his small army of regulars into Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River from Trenton. Shortly after mid-December, however, he received reinforcement from a contingent of militia, which temporarily gave him more than 7,000 men. He decided to execute an attack while he had an army to do it with, on the Hessians in their winter quarters in Trenton, across the river. He would make his approach on Christmas night, moving troops, horses, and supplies into position over the river under cover of darkness – an operation that would have been difficult under any circumstances, and was truly a remarkable feat under the conditions of a harsh winter.
I’ll let Myron Magnet pick up the tale:
Once again, as at Brooklyn, Washington marshaled his men at the river’s edge in silence and secrecy on Christmas afternoon—only this time, their bare feet left bloody tracks in the snow. Once again, rain and sleet lashed them, which during the night turned to snow and became “a perfect hurricane,” one Boston fifer recalled. Washington crossed first, to take charge if the enemy appeared, and in groups of 40, the men squeezed onto flat-bottomed freight scows to cross the churning, ice-clogged river, while Glover’s mariners ferried horses and 400 tons of cannon across, too. The storm slowed them down, so Washington feared that he had lost the surprise of reaching Trenton before dawn, and it stymied the other two detachments altogether, so they didn’t cross. Even so, wrote Washington, “as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events.”
It was 3 AM on December 26 when the last man safely reached the Jersey side and 4 AM before the line of march formed up and set off, straight into driving snow and hail, with Washington galloping back and forth, exhorting and encouraging them, “in a deep & Solemn voice,” one soldier recalled, to “Press on, boys!” and marveling at how “they seemed to vie with the other” in doing what he asked, in a way that “reflects the highest honor upon them.” When the sky lightened at 6 AM, they’d gone only half the nine miles south to Trenton, and the storm had soaked their powder, leaving them to fight with bayonets alone. That they would catch the enemy sleeping off a Christmas drunk is a legend; the 1,500 Hessians, whose foraging parties American patrols constantly harried and whom Loyalist spies kept informed, had slept on their arms for three nights and were on rigid alert, even though most viewed American prowess with wry contempt and felt certain that the storm made an attack that day unlikely.
Washington had split his forces for the crossing, and only the 2,400 men under his direct command made it across the river for the appointed rendezvous and the battle that followed. But as “every schoolchild knows,” or at least once knew, the Contintentals, bloody feet and all, did catch the Hessians off-guard, and did inflict a resounding defeat on them, taking almost 900 prisoner while losing only two Americans in the battle, and another handful during the approach.
Washington retreated afterward with his men, since he didn’t have a force big enough to hold the garrison by itself. Three days later, the other elements of his split force having finally negotiated the crossing, he took the same men back across the Delaware to join them in finishing the fight. But their enlistments were about to expire by then. Some of the officers got volunteers to extend their terms by offering them money, and Washington decided to up the ante with an offer of his own, although he had no idea where the money might come from.
But that didn’t turn the tide. Magnet again:
“The drums beat for volunteers,” one soldier recounted, “but not a man turned out.” Washington, as a sergeant never forgot, “wheeled his horse about, rode in front of the regiment,” and said: “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with the 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 drummers drummed; the men spoke low to one another; a few stepped forward, and then nearly all did. The choice cost almost half of them their lives. An officer asked if he should enroll them in writing. No need, Washington replied. In his new ethic, a man with the merit of a gentleman was a gentleman, and his word of honor was enough. These were men whom 16 months earlier Washington had described as “exceeding dirty & nasty people.” Now he knew them better. “A people unused to restraint,” he wrote a couple of weeks later, “must be led; they will not be drove.” And he had used the magic American word with them: consent.
Had he not used that magic word, what might have happened? All we know for sure is what did happen. There was no great army down the road, or even two or three states away, waiting in reserve to save the revolution’s bacon. There were only Washington and his few thousand dubious volunteers, half frozen in a field in New Jersey, negotiating to extend enlistments in the last 48 hours of 1776. On such a thread hung the fate of American independence.
America and the world have more than once celebrated Christmas in difficult times. Michael Novak had a memorable piece about that at NRO a few years ago; I’m sure readers have their own favorites as well. I want to jump forward, however, past most of the other deserving years, to a now-obscure event in a different kind of war. This one occurred 32 years ago, when Ronald Reagan had been in the Oval Office less than 12 months, and the former Soviet Union and its puppet government in Warsaw were cracking down on the people of Poland.
The Polish “Solidarity” movement, launched in a trade-union strike in August 1980, was deeply alarming to the Communist leaders in Moscow and Warsaw. On 13 December 1981, a police raid was mounted on Lech Walesa’s Solidarity headquarters, and martial law was declared for Poland shortly thereafter. To discourage the people from meeting in secret, and make it as difficult as possible for them to coordinate action with each other, the Jaruzelski government cut off electric power to much of Poland, in the middle of a terribly cold winter.
The Poles lit candles – and placed them in their windows, a symbol of Solidarity, of popular determination, of unquenchable spirit, and of faith, even after 35 years of communist rule. In the midst of the crisis, Poland’s ambassador to the United States defected, with his wife, on 23 December. The couple, anguished over their very difficult decision, sat talking to Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush in the White House, and the ambassador explained about the candles.
The ambassador said, “May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put in the window tonight for the people of Poland?” Immediately, Ronald Reagan rose and walked to the second floor, lighted a candle, and put it in the window of the dining room.
That evening, Reagan gave a televised address to the nation, discussing Christmas and the events in Poland. In it, he asked Americans to light candles for Poland:
Ambassador Spasowski requested that on Christmas Eve a lighted candle will burn in the White House window as a small but certain beacon of our solidarity with the Polish people. I urge all of you to do the same tomorrow night, on Christmas Eve, as a personal statement of your commitment to the steps we’re taking to support the brave people of Poland in their time of troubles. …
Let the light of millions of candles in American homes give notice that the light of freedom is not going to be extinguished. We are blessed with a freedom and abundance denied to so many. Let those candles remind us that these blessings bring with them a solid obligation, an obligation to the God who guides us, an obligation to the heritage of liberty and dignity handed down to us by our forefathers and an obligation to the children of the world, whose future will be shaped by the way we live our lives today.
Because of a few thousand men whose feet tracked blood as they trudged through the December snows in 1776, there was an America whose president could speak so at another Christmastide in 1981.
As Paul Kengor noted a year ago, however, the story of Christmas 1981 didn’t end there. In his address on 23 December, Reagan had opened with words about the Christ child:
Some celebrate Christmas as the birthday of a great and good philosopher and teacher. Others of us believe in the divinity of the child born in Bethlehem, that he was and is the promised Prince of Peace. Yes, we’ve questioned why he who could perform miracles chose to come among us as a helpless babe, but maybe that was his first miracle, his first great lesson that we should learn to care for one another.
Tonight, in millions of American homes, the glow of the Christmas tree is a reflection of the love Jesus taught us. Like the shepherds and wise men of that first Christmas, we Americans have always tried to follow a higher light, a star, if you will. At lonely campfire vigils along the frontier, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, through war and peace, the twin beacons of faith and freedom have brightened the American sky. At times our footsteps may have faltered, but trusting in God’s help, we’ve never lost our way.
The Washington Post, publishing a transcript of the address the next day, omitted this passage from it. Kengor recounts that the Post got so much grief for the omission that it eventually published a lame explanation, claiming that space constraints had made it impossible to print the entire speech.
Kengor had learned only recently, at the time he wrote in 2012, that Reagan’s pastor in 1981, John Boyles of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., had corresponded with the president about this editorial decision by the Post. Reagan wasn’t terribly worried about it:
Although the Washington Post chose not to reprint that portion of my speech in which I spoke of the Christ Child, the message was brought to millions via television. This is not the first time the editorial staff of The Post has marched to a different ideological drum!
I have a deep and abiding faith in this nation and its people. Whatever does or does not appear in the media will never be able to smother the love of God which burns so brightly in the hearts of most Americans.
Reagan would have understood George Washington’s insight about the character of his people, and the magical word consent. Indeed, Reagan would most likely have drawn the philosophical connection to a Savior who “stands at the door” of men’s hearts “and knocks.”
At Christmas of 2013, we are faced with a conundrum: an advance of darkness that doesn’t find us bleeding in the snow, precisely, and hasn’t cut off our electric power in the cold. But its finger hovers suggestively over the power switch. And it tries to deepen the twilight with each passing day by editing the truth out of public discourse.
In some ways, it would be easier if we could fight our battle in 2013 by trudging through the snow. That’s not the battleground on which the darkness of our time will meet us. But we can still learn from both Washington and Reagan.
From Washington, we can take the lesson that we must do what is necessary, even if some say it does not look possible. That is an irreducible reality. We can’t get around it, and the day is coming when a choice will be forced on us. As Washington’s victory at Trenton makes clear, the first key to achieving surprise, as to achieving any other tactical advantage, is not giving up.
We can meditate also on the extent to which all worthwhile enterprises hang on the consent of our fellow men. What a remarkable thing it is that President Reagan took for granted about his people what President Washington had to learn about his. America did that, through decade upon decade of living by consent.
What we can learn from Reagan is what we always learn from him. The darkness is going to do whatever it does, and we can’t always foresee it or understand it. But we do know, always, what the light is. Reagan’s Christmas message in 1981 was brought to millions, right past the censors at the Washington Post. The light in that message could not be dimmed.
It’s Christmas 2013, and 2014 is coming. We have the power, each of us, to light a candle against the darkness, and put it in our window. The thread by which hangs liberty, our right to worship, and our right to live by consent will only break if we let it.