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Ed Ruggero

Ed Ruggero

Ed Ruggero, author most recently of The First Men In, helps organizations develop the kinds of leaders people want to follow. His Gettysburg Leadership Experience teaches battle-tested leadership lessons that endure today.

Christmas soldiers of 1776

This Friday, December 25, marks the 233rd anniversary of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware.

The summer and fall of 1776 marked a low point for George Washington's Continental Army. His soldiers were defeated in the Battle of Long Island in August, and, soon after, they had to flee New York City, leaving behind thousands of comrades taken captive by the British.

By December the Continental Army had all but abandoned New Jersey and hoped only to escape across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Prospects for the rebellion looked grim: The enlistments of one-third of Washington's men would expire on December 31, leaving him with a force too small to prosecute the war offensively against the British.

And yet, as his oft-beaten and demoralized soldiers retreated with the British and Hessians on their heels, Washington was already thinking about how he could strike back. He needed a victory to reinvigorate the cause and convince his men to stay on.

As winter set in, the British scattered their forces in small garrisons across New Jersey. On December 23, a day when the password used by Continental sentries was "Victory or Death," Washington's officers got word that they would cross the river and attack the enemy outpost at Trenton, New Jersey.

Much depended on surprise. Washington feared that an alerted enemy would counterattack and annihilate his army--and the newborn nation's hopes--before he could escape back to Pennsylvania.

The weather was cold and clear on Christmas Day, promising frozen roads and easier movement. Then, at sunset, the temperature climbed and the rain began. The soldiers, some of them wearing only rags on their feet and all of them drenched to the skin and whipped by sharp winds, moved to the boats and out onto the ice-choked river. Once on the far side, the men slopped up muddy banks, man-handling balky artillery pieces. Washington rode alongside the column as it stumbled through the dark, encouraging the men in a calm voice.

Shortly after leaving the river, Washington encountered a small force of Virginians who had crossed to attack a Hessian outpost. The general was furious, certain he had lost the element of surprise. He would have been even angrier had he known that his was the only column that made it across the river; the two supporting attacks were stalled in Pennsylvania. He would reach Trenton after dawn, and he expected to find an alert enemy, yet still Washington pressed on.

Washington has often been called a lucky commander, and his luck held that night. Hessian forces that had spent the night chasing the Virginians returned to their barracks, exhausted. The Hessian commander, Colonel Rall, was convinced that no attack was possible in the miserable weather. He called off the regular dawn patrols of the river crossings that might have discovered the American advance.

The sun was well up by the time Washington reached Trenton. His soldiers, shivering and soaked by the freezing rain, moved their mud-caked artillery to a low hill at the top of King and Queen Streets. Riding at the head of his troops, Washington ordered, "Advance and charge."

It was over in less than an hour. Rall was mortally wounded, and though 500 of his men escaped, some of his officers had run, leaving the regiment leaderless. The bedraggled American force captured some 900 prisoners and tons of valuable supplies. Most importantly, this victory breathed new life into the Revolution at the very moment it was about to expire. Nearly half the men due to leave the army chose to stay with Washington and fight another day.

What must Washington have been thinking when the sun came up that morning, revealing his wet and weary men as they plodded forward, heads bent into the sleet, following the clouds of their own breath? In spite of the defeats, Washington's soldiers were willing to trust him again, willing to risk their very lives on his judgment. Can there be anything more humbling for a leader to behold?

This Christmas other men and women, the heirs of those sodden and shivering Continentals, are also far from home, taking risks their leaders have asked of them. Those of us who will spend this holiday in comfort should be no less in awe of the service they offer us than was Washington as he looked over his column of patriots on the road to Trenton.

By Ed Ruggero

 |  December 21, 2009; 5:44 AM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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... and that's not the end of the story.

In Gen. Washington's boat on the "wild river ride," across the Delaware River, was a young lad from Virginia. During the surprise attack upon Trenton, he was the first American soldier wh was wounded.

This lad would later return to Virginia, study the law, under Thomas Jefferson. In 1817, he would become the President of these United States and serve two terms as POTUS.

The name of this lad?

President James Monroe.

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | December 21, 2009 5:51 PM
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The question whether we can what those cherished few did is a good one, and I am convinced the answer is "yes". Even as I write this, our armed forces are in harm's way carrying out those operations necessary to protect us here at home. They are led by junior officers and noncommissioned officers, many just barely out of their teenage years. We mourn their loss, but let us rejoice that our nation still produces men and women capable and willing to go the distance to protect us here at home.

Posted by: panamajack | December 21, 2009 5:13 PM
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Washington wasn't just lucky; he was a wise leader who knew how to inspire his men. In this day and age, when people are so jaded and cynical, one wonders whether we , as a nation, could do what those cherished few did in the winter of 1776. We need look no further than to those brave men and women at every far flung corner of the world where the Stars and Stripes fly to know the answer. Their forbearers would be proud to know that their heirs continue their proud traditions of service and victory.

Posted by: grasonvilleed | December 21, 2009 4:44 PM
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