Following the crossing of the Delaware River by boat late on Christmas night, 1776, the Continental Army still had to march several miles through snow, sleet, hail and rain to attack Hessian troops at Trenton. Around 6:00 AM on December 26, they reached Jacob’s Creek. This stream they had to ford on foot, winching their cannons down one side of the steep ravine and back up the other side. Once they had crossed the stream, they still had two more hours of marching before reaching Trenton, where they would achieve a stunning victory over the Hessians.
In a footnote, historian David Hackett Fischer writes “The line of the road across Jacob’s Creek and its tributary stream must be walked to be understood. Even today after many improvements it presents exceptionally steep grades and sloping surfaces. The topography of the march has been missed in every major historical account of this event” (Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 2004, p. 516)
Featured image: Detail of interpretive sign near the modern bridge.
Scenes from the first Assunpink Firewalk, part of the City of Trenton’s Patriots Week, which celebrates George Washington’s revolutionary victories at the Battles of Trenton.
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 their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 1776
The Firewalk was held along Assunpink Creek, near where American soldiers repulsed three British attacks at the second battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777.
After night fell, Washington left a rearguard to light campfires and fool the British into believing the Americans were holding their positions. In actuality, the American troops were marching away. The next day, Washington would win another victory at the Battle of Princeton.
The Firewalk included the lighting of 13 torches, symbolizing both the 13 colonies and the fires lit by the Americans to cover their retreat, and a reading of Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis, written on December 23, 1776, and read to American troops before the first battle of Trenton.
Philemon Dickinson, called “one of the truest patriots of the revolution” by historian William Stryker, was from a wealthy family that owned land in several states, but he chose to establish a country estate, which he called the Hermitage, at a site outside the town of Trenton, New Jersey. He bought the property, which included a house and barns, in July of 1776.
Not long after he bought the property, Hessian troops seized the building and established a picket there, which guarded the approach to Trenton from the north. Dickinson, who was a general in the New Jersey militia, was stationed across the river in Yardley, where he could observe the Hessians occupying his home. After crossing the Delaware on Christmas night, American troops marched past the Hermitage on their way to Trenton, driving the Hessians before them. General Dickinson, still stationed in Yardley, contributed to the effort by ordering the artillery to shell his own home; fortunately for his real estate, the effect was mostly symbolic.