Ferry to Freedom
In the beginning, as we said, they were a people angered, invaded, persecuted; and they had taken up arms to put a stop to this thing. But they were no army.
Then Congress passed a measure which made them an army; Congress gave them a commander in chief, an almost unknown Virginia farmer whose name was George Washington. And the farmer knew only a little more about warfare than did the men he led.
He had twenty thousand of these armed citizens under his command in July of 1776, when certain men in Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence. Sometimes they fought; but more often they ran away, and as the months passed he saw his army dissolving like a mound of loose sand before the incoming tide.
That was when he began to learn what is probably the hardest thing for a leader to learn, and yet one of the most important things--how and when to retreat. November found him with eight hundred men left from his original twenty thousand. As far as the enemy was concerned, the war was over.
But the Virginia farmer was learning about the people, about their strength and their weakness. He took what was left of his army, the hard and resolute core that had stayed by him on all the long, terrible retreat; and with them he crossed the river that was the last barrier between himself and the enemy. For miles up and down the river, he dragged all the boats across to his side. That gave him breathing space.
And in that breathing space, Tom Paine wrote an appeal to the people. And the people responded. The Virginian's army grew, and by the third week in December he had five thousand men.
Then he proved that he was a great commander, knowing not only when to retreat, but when to turn and strike back. Believing that he was finished, the British had gone away to winter quarters, to warmth and comfort, leaving only an army of German mercenaries to keep watch on the east bank of the river. Washington knew that, and he made plans to strike--on Christmas day in the morning.
All in one freezing night, under cover of darkness, he ferried his army from the west to the east bank of the river. A regiment of Marblehead fisherman, perhaps the best troops in his command, handled the boats. The whole crossing was a military miracle, and by dawn the army was on the east bank and marching to the attack--the attack that found the Hessians drunk and unwarned, and gave us one of our first great victories.