“It is a great stake we are playing for. Every virtuous citizen is depending on you to rid this land of the ministerial troops that have brought wanton destruction to its shores and is attempting to enslave America. The time is now near at hand which will probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves, whether they are to have any property they can call their own, or whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed and they consigned to a state of wretchedness from which they cannot be delivered.
Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance or the most abject submission.
Men, you are assembled here for tonight we cross back into Jersey. Those of you who stood with me at Long Island and on the battlefields around the environs of New York, I entreat you to remember those actions. Those of you who have since joined our ranks from General Schyler’s army up north, I beseech you to listen carefully:
Across that river not 10 miles distant in the town of Trenton and just beyond in Bordentown are posted the same regiments of base hirelings and mercenaries that attacked us at Brooklyn Heights and White Plains.
The same Hessian mercenaries that spared not the bayonet and showed no quarter to many a brave American soldier who fell on those fields of battle. The same slavish mercenaries that imprisoned hundreds of your fellow soldiers, captured at Fort Washington, on royal prison ships in New York Harbor. Those same mercenaries hired by the Ministry then pillaged and plundered the good citizens of Jersey. And those same mercenaries will… as soon as this river freezes over, march across and carry those atrocities here to Pennsylvania and throughout the rest of these United States should let them
Tonight, our mission, our duty as a free people, is to stem the tide of these atrocities, to retake what is rightfully ours and rid this great land of the plague of the mercenaries, and those who brought them to our shores. At this fateful hour the eyes of all our countrymen are now upon us. The eyes of the world are watching. Let us show them all that a freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.
Yes, men! Tonight we cross back into Jersey. I beseech you all, remain close to your officers. They are good men. Heed their commands. On the march south a profound silence is to be enjoined and reflect upon what we owe those mercenaries. And when the hour is upon us fight for all that you are worth and all that you cherish and love. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct that you show.
The watch word is VICTORY OR DEATH — For I am resolved that by dawn both Trenton and Victory shall be ours!”
General George Washington’s rallying speech to the Continental Army and militia on Christmas night, 1776 — the night they silently crossed the Delaware to attack the Hessian forces garrisoned in Trenton, New Jersey. You can find an unforgettable description of the scene and speech in Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography Washington: A Life.
This surprise attack gave the Continental Army momentum as it marched straight into subsequent victories at the Second Battle of Trenton and Princeton.
This speech also inaugurated what has become known as the “Ten Crucial Days” of the American Revolution: the campaign that saved the Continental Army from defeat, allowing them to fight on until the arrival of French reinforcements coalesced around American shores.
As Washington certainly knew, this night crossing of the Delaware was a questionable tactical maneuver. His army was in desperate need of reinforcements, as enlistments were soon to expire and morale within the ranks, and around the colonies, was low. Only a commanding victory would complete the campaign season on a high note, allowing the American army to survive to fight another year.
As the exaltation of Washington’s speech slowly faded, the men — some of them barefoot — loaded their packs and checked their weaponry. In the silent dark midnight, they loaded their agitated horses, icy breath billowing from their nostrils, into rickety Durham boats. The men crouched in after. The shadowed figures of General Washington and Colonel Knox emerged from the candlelit McKonkey Ferry Inn and stepped onto the boats. Navigating the ice floes and choppy, inky water, there could be no guarantee they would even make it across; or in making it across, make it to Trenton before daybreak; or in making it to Trenton, defeat the ferocious Hessian army.
But with only the hollow howl of a December wind, and the sound of oars dipping into the Delaware, Washington’s “Liberty or Death” may have echoed in your ear enough to make you believe.