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Guest column by Citrus Heights resident Michael Bullington–
Monday, in Citrus Heights and across the U.S., we celebrate Presidents Day. Locally, our City Hall will be closed in honor of the occasion.
As individual citizens, reflecting back over the accomplishments of those men that bore the mantle of ultimate responsibility for our nation, let us turn back in time to a particular winter that was the turning point in America’s pursuit of liberty.
The protagonist of that particular winter was a certain general from the colony of Virginia. He was an accomplished horseman, a farmer, a surveyor, an inventor, a frontiersman, a politician and a military man of great accomplishment. His army had just suffered a severe setback in Brooklyn in the fall, and his adversary had been in hot pursuit of him.
Then, winter brought the chase to a halt. Amid the snow drifts of New Jersey, he gathered the tattered remnants of his army to launch an ambitious assault across the Delaware River to attack the German mercenaries quartered at Trenton, New Jersey, when they would least expect it.
The crossing was to take place on Christmas night in 1776. The general was George Washington.
The attack took place at around 8 a.m. the day after Christmas, catching the Hessians, groggy from celebrations of the day before, unprepared and completely surprised. Further aided by the hand of Providence, the canon fire from the colonials came from the same direction as a snowy whirling wind that left the Hessians barely able to even see their attackers.
The result was a resounding victory that infused Washington’s troops with new confidence. But… the commander in chief was not one to sit on his laurels.
Only a week later, on Jan. 2, he repeated his crossing of the ice-floe congested Delaware River to attack another target, Prince’s Town, where the British were quartered. These were not simply British regulars, but two elite regiments and a mounted unit.
At first seemingly cornered on the south bank of Assunpink Creek, and having repulsed three furious charges by Cornwallis’ now-reinforced troops, the demise of Washington’s troops seemed imminent the following day.
However, Washington evacuated all but 500 hundred of his 5,500 troops under cover of nightfall, around the left flank of the British and north towards Prince’s Town through uncertain and dangerous terrain. The 500 men left behind continued using pick axes to dig trenches throughout the night, with campfires burning, and occasional canon shots hurled at Trenton, in a ruse to obscure the withdrawal.
By morning these 500 were evacuated as well, and Cornwallis’ men charged over the parapets of the colonists’ defenses to find… no one. The “fox” was still loose.
The initial contact by Washington’s men was by the advance units of his next in command, Hugh Mercer. Mercer was mistaken for his commander and refused to accept an offer of quarter.
He suffered seven bayonet wounds and was left for dead. He would survive the battle for seven days.
Washington arrived and found the American troops in retreat. Alone, he spurred his horse to the middle ground between the Crown’s troops and the colonists, in easy range of the British, and shouted the rallying cry, “Who will follow me?”
That singular act of bravery inspired the colonists to renew their attack as they chased the British from the field. Washington’s troops then went on to capture Princeton and compel the surrender of 194 British soldiers defending Nassau Hall of the then-College of New Jersey.
Lord Cornwallis, under orders from General Howe, retired most of his forces in New Jersey to the environs of New Brunswick, signaling a significant capitulation to the embryonic American army under Washington.
A century later, British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan would write in a study of the American Revolution, when talking about the impact of the victories at Trenton and Princeton, that, “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”
How fitting that on the occasion celebrating all American presidents, it should be on Washington’s birthday, Feb. 18. Let us remember with wonder and gratitude the exploits of the man who was not only its first president, but very likely its greatest.
Michael Bullington is a 34-year resident of Citrus Heights and a 39-year student of history. The Sentinel welcomes guest opinion columns on local topics from Citrus Heights residents. To submit an article for publication, click here.
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