December 22, 1776: An Uncertain Time for Washington and America

Washington’s army stood on the brink of disaster; the future of America with it. He had moved a detachment of his army across the Delaware into Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the hopes of using the river as a natural fortification to prevent the British from following him.

Almost a week earlier, several thousand troops had crossed the Delaware River to the north, at Easton, Pennsylvania in Northampton County. One of these men, Sergeant John Smith of Rhode Island, stayed at Easton on 16 and 17 December 1776, and made some small notes about the town in his journal.

The inhabitants, he wrote, “were all Dutch and not the kindest in the world.” Smith had come in by ferry at night on the 16th, and he and his company knocked on doors to ask for a place to warm up as snow had fallen outside and “we could not pitch our tents the ground was froze so hard” [‘Sergeant John Smith’s Diary of 1776’, Louise Rau, ed., The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (September 1933), 247-270].

He spent that first night shivering in the cold. Smith tried again the following night to find shelter, warmth, and comfort “amongst the houses But had some Dificulty their Being no Room for Us.” Luckily, he was able to find a place to hang his hat, though he and his companions took advantage of the home owners’ hospitality (which might be why they were none too kind in the first place) [Smith and some of his company helped themselves to some cider and food from their cellar that evening, about which the woman of the house complained for some time, and the next morning he set off with his company].

Smith and his regiment were among 4,000 troops under the acting command of General Sullivan (previously under General Lee, who had been captured a few days earlier) that arrived in the town over the course of his two-day stay, and after he left some 900 more men under General Gates and an additional 3,000 men under General Heath were expected to come through shortly after [source]. These numbers do not include the hundreds of camp followers. Among the living and healthy (well, as healthy as they could be) were British prisoners of war, and hundreds of sick, wounded, and dying [source].

These troops would move from Easton to Bethlehem, and then through Springfield, eventually arriving at Washington’s camp between the 22nd and 23rd, December. Washington was still concerned, however, and he wasn’t alone. In Philadelphia, there were real concerns that the British would march on, and take, the city. The newspapers were in full blown propaganda mode, including hyperbolic letters and treatises to fluff up the ranks of troops and to stir up patriotism in the population which had remained rather unfavorable towards Washington’s army (see below). This plea, laden with threats of ‘ravages’ under the British (which is nonsense–the British were a professional army, not a violent mob), was published in the Pennsylvania Packet on December 18:

Every species of ravage and calamity have already marked the footsteps of our enemy, and they are now within a few miles of your metropolis, waiting to cross the Delaware, to glut their inordinate lust of rapine and desolation in the plunder of that rich and populous city. The most insensible cannot but perceive the shock our common cause must suffer, if this unfortunate event should take place. Every  one must be awake to the misery that must in this case attend every individual of this country. The love of ease, we hope, can not so far prevail on you as to keep you from the field at this critical and alarming time.–We speak to a people that a few months ago would with eagerness have flown to arms at the first appearance of their country’s danger. We know the value you have ever set on liberty, that best gift of God; with the maintenance of liberty is now connected your personal happiness, and every deal and valuable blessing–the chasity of the wives of your bosom, your daughters, which else may be violated by a brutish soldiery.–But it is not a temporary evil only that is to be suffered should our enemy prevail, the power of ‘binding us all in cases whatsoever,’ claimed by a British parliament, is to reach your posterity, and to rivet chains upon them for ever. You once seemed sensible of this, and were determined to die rather than submit–the same rounds of dispute remain between Great Britain and us, the same spirit and determination should also still remain.

The paper also published letters, dating to December 22, 1776, from Washington’s camp–whether these were actual letters or fabrications of the printer is unclear (at least to me), but the language is similar enough to the plea above that it gives me pause to winder about its authenticity and the anonymity of the author. This was published on December 27, 1776:

Extract of a letter from camp, Dec 22.

Our parties make prisoners daily. The enemy march and counter-march. They seem to be cantoning their troops; but how easy it is to draw them together, and make a push the first of January, as they did the first of December at Brunswick? They know our situation well, having better intelligence than we can obtain. The militia turning out may save this once happy province from the ravages of a most cruel, base and inhuman enemy. My blood boils at the thought; and I lose all pity for those who tamely sit and see the danger approach. On that they alone might feel the woes of conquest! and not our virtuous females, who have roused their husbands, sons, and brothers to defend them and their posterity from such horrid evils as slavery must rivet on them. I have charity for the real conscientious; but let none else be spared–Either drive them to us, or destroy them.

These letters would do little initially. Indeed, by the 22nd, Washington would explain his fears in a note to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety. I have embolded the parts that make plain his desperation and willingness to do whatever must be done to secure himself for the winter campaign:

To the Pennsylvania Council of Safety

Head Quarters Bucks County [Pa.] 22d December 1776.


I am honoured with yours of the 18th and 20th. I am of opinion with you, that the Ships, which made their Appearance in Delaware Bay, were never intended to come up, unless to create a diversion below, and thereby draw your Attention from the upper part of the River. But I hope the Weather will soon rid you of all Apprehensions of an Attack by Water for a time to come.

Your Collection of old Cloathes for the Use of the Army, deserves my warmest thanks, they are of the greatest Use and shall be distributed where they are most wanted. I think if the Committee or some proper persons were appointed to go thro the County of Bucks and make a collection of Blankets &ca in the Manner you have done in Philada it would be better than doing it in a military Way by me; for many people, who would be willing to contribute or sell, if asked so to do by their Neighbours or Acquaintances, would feel themselves hurt if the demand was made, and backed by an armed force. But I would at the same time remark, that if any, who can spare without Inconvenience, refuse to do it, I would immediately give proper Assistance to take from them.

I have not a Musket to spare to the Militia who are without Arms. This demand upon me, makes it necessary to remind you, that it will be needless for those to come down who have no Arms, except they will consent to work upon the Fortifications, instead of taking their Tour of military Duty, if they will do that, they may be most usefully employed. I would recommend to you to call in as many Men as can be got, for the express purpose of working, for we shall most undoubtedly have occasion for every Man who can procure or bear a Musket.

In less than ten days from this time my Army will be reduced to a few Virginia and one Maryland Regiment, Colo. Hands, the Regiments lately under Colo. Miles, and the German Battalion, all except the last very thin. The Enemy are most assuredly waiting for that Crisis, and except I am strongly reinforced by Militia, nothing can hinder them from reaching Philadelphia.

I would therefore intreat you to collect every Man you possibly can. Send people out to contradict the Reports that are circulated, that we have more men, than we want, from which, many that would perhaps turn out, if they thought there was a real Necessity, remain at home.

I have ordered the Militia of this County to meet on the 28th and march to Philadelphia, that of Northampton as soon as possible, and have directed the Colonels to make me a Return of those who refuse to appear.

It is necessary that, as the Militia come in, they should make a Return of their Numbers to Genl Putnam, be kind enough to inform the Officers of this, and direct them to do it.

Colonel Biddle has given directions to Major Mifflin to discharge all the Waggons not wanted for the removal of Stores, as we have a sufficiency for the Army here. I am Gentlemen with due Esteem & Regard Your most obt Servt

Go: Washington

Northampton County, Pennsylvania, whose seat was Easton and whose town of no more than 450 people had witnessed the bulk of Washington’s army pass through earlier (as noted above), would receive this letter from Washington:

To the Colonels of the Militia of Northampton County, Pennsylvania

Head Quarters in Bucks County, December 22, 1776.

The Honble. the Council of Safety of the State of Pennsylvania having, by a Resolve passed the 17th day of this Instant December, authorized me to call forth the Militia of Northampton County to aid and assist the Continental Army under my Command, I hereby require you immediately to order the Captains of your Battalion, to issue orders to the Officers and privates of their respective Companies to meet and join in Battalion, with their Arms and Accoutrements in good Order, at such time and place as you shall judge most convenient for that purpose. Taking care, that it may be as soon as you think such orders can reasonably and conveniently be conveyed to the people. And when your Battalion or any part of them, are so met, you are immediately to march to the City of Philadelphia, and there put yourself under the Command of Major General Putnam, or whoever the Commanding Officer may be; And I further require you, to make me an exact Return of the Names and places of abode of such Officers and privates, as refuse so to meet and march to Philadelphia, that they may be dealt with as the Resolve above referred to directs.


That part “that they may be dealt with” is found in the Pennsylvania Archives (Ser. 1, Vol. 5, 115), wherein the Council of Safety resolved:

That it be recommended to General Washington to issue orders immediately for the Militia of Bucks and Northampton Counties forthwith to join his army, and to send out parties to disarm every person who does not obey the summons, & to seize and treat as Enemies all such as shall attempt to oppose the execution of this measure, and likewise every person in these Counties who are known or suspected to be Enemies to the United States.

Even with these ordinances to detain disaffected people, the Associators called up from Northampton and Bucks were troops Washington didn’t trust. A few days earlier, while across the river in New Jersey, Washington would write to John Hancock about the dissatisfaction with the Associators overall:

We find Sir, that the Enemy are daily gathering strength from the disaffected; This strength, like a Snowball by rolling, will increase, unless some means can be devised to check effectually, the progress of the Enemy’s Arms: Militia may possibly do it for a little while; but in a little while also, the Militia of those States which have been frequently called upon, will not turn out at all, or if they do, it will be with so much reluctance and sloth as to amount to the same thing… Witness Pensylvania! could any thing but the River Delaware have saved Philadelphia? can any thing (the exigency of the case indeed may justifye it), be more destructive to the recruiting service, than giving Ten dollars bounty for Six weeks service of the Militia, who come in, you can not tell how—go, you cannot tell when—and act, you cannot tell where—consume your provisions—exhaust your Stores, and leave you at last at a critical moment. These Sir, are the men, I am to depend upon, Ten days hence. This is the Basis on which your Cause will and must for ever depend, till you get a large standing Army, sufficient of itself to oppose the Enemy.

And a week earlier, on 15 December, he wrote of the people and Associators of Bucks County specifically to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety (which, not incidentally, prompted their resolution to allow Washington to order up the militia himself directly):

The Spirit of Disaffection that appears in this County, deserves your serious Attention. Instead of giving any Assistance in repelling the Enemy, the Militia have not only refused to obey your general Summons and that of their commanding Officers, but I am told exult at the Approach of the Enemy and our late Misfortunes. I beg leave to submit to your Consideration whether such people are to be intrusted with Arms in their Hands? If they will not use them for us, there is the greatest Reason to apprehend they will against us, if Oppertunity offers. But even supposing they claimed the Right of remaining Neuter, in my Opinion we ought not to hesitate a Moment in taking their Arms, which will be so much wanted in furnishing the new Levies. If such a Step meets your Approbation, I leave it to you to determine upon the Mode. If you think fit to empower me, I will undertake to have it done as speedily and effectually as possible. You must be sensible that the utmost Secrecy is necessary, both in your Deliberation on, and in the Execution of a Matter of this kind, for if the thing should take Wind, the Arms would presently be conveyed beyond our Reach or rendered useless. [source]

Needless to say, victory over the British was in doubt. It was a trying time for Washington and his men, which were loyal to the cause, and the state of Pennsylvania as a whole. Thankfully, as we now know in hindsight, Washington would launch a daring raid over the Delaware and take the Hessians at Trenton. But that would not happen for three more days.

On January 1, 1777, the cause seemed far more secure than it did on December 22, 1776. It’s rather amazing, the difference a week and a half can make.

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