George Washington's Irish Christmas Present

As Christmas approached in 1776, George Washington and his patriot army were nearly done. They had been chased from the Battle of Long Island, up the island of Manhattan across to New Jersey and down through that state to the Delaware River which they crossed into Pennsylvania, losing skirmishes all along the way. Washington knew that for many, their enlistments were up and he was about to lose his disheartened troops; he needed a victory to boost their moral.

His sentries brought him a man they had captured snooping around the banks of the river supposedly looking for lost cattle, but whom they accused of spying for the British and Hessian forces camped across the river in Trenton. Washington dismissed the sentries and warmly greeted his old friend, an Irishman named John Honeyman with whom he had served in the French and Indian War. After his discharge from the army, Honeyman had married an Irish lass from Coleraine and settled in Philadelphia where he met Washington as he attended meetings of the Continental Congress. Though they had both served the British in the French and Indian War, Honeyman was sympathetic to the American cause and offered his services to Washington. Honeyman later moved to New Jersey and Washington called upon him to play the part of a spy. Acting as a Tory, proven by his discharge papers, he worked his trade as a butcher in Trenton gathering intelligence. Having amassed enough information, he arranged to be captured by the Continental forces and taken before Washington. He relayed the positions, size and strength of the enemy and then ‘escaped’ back to Trenton. In Trenton he was taken to the Hessian commander, Colonel Johann Rall, where he reported that the Continental Army was in a very low state of morale and many were even barefoot. He assured that there was no way they could ever attack Trenton. The Hessians, who had been on heightened alert for two weeks, believed Honeyman’s story and so relaxed their security to enjoy Christmas.

Artist: C. Ziegler after Conrad Gessner, 1799
 Hessian troops in British pay in the US war of Independence

Meanwhile there were a few other Irishmen in Trenton. Among them were Paddy Colvin and Sam McConkey, who ran two Delaware River ferries and Paddy Lamb, who resided near Quaker Bridge on Assunpink Creek. With Honeyman, they were all part of this very special Christmas adventure. Paddy Colvin of Co. Cavan, owned a ferry on the Delaware River and the town of Morrisville, PA was also known as Colvin's Ferry. Washington’s forces had crossed the Delaware many times and it was fortunate that the ferry was in the hands of a patriot like Paddy Colvin. No bridges spanned the river then and yet it had to be crossed quickly or the patriot army could be trapped on its banks. Paddy Colvin knew all the fords and obstacles in the river and how to avoid them. He also knew who owned boats and where they could be found. He placed all this information, as well as his ferry, at the service of Washington’s army. Colvin’s Ferry was less than 2 miles from Trenton. The other ferries were McConkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton owned by a native of Tipperary, Howell’s ferry 4 miles above and Dunk's ferry 10 miles below.

As Washington, retreated from New York with the British army in hot pursuit, on December 1 he sent a message to Congress in Philadelphia, to quickly line up a fleet of boats at Trenton to get him across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. Captain John Barry (another Irishman) contacted Paddy Colvin who set to the task. On December 3, Washington’s advance guard reached Trenton and his army began ferrying across the river. Early on December 8, Washington crossed with the rear guard just as the British entered Trenton. A disappointed Cornwallis found all the boats safely moored on the Pennsylvania side of the river, which was now an impassable barrier between him and the disorganized patriot army he had hoped to capture. Knowing they would be sitting ducks under the American guns if they tried to cross, Cornwallis left a force to hold Trenton and re-located to Princeton.

Washington set up headquarters about half a mile north of Colvin’s ferry when he received the visit from Honeyman. Based on Honeyman’s information, he decided to cross the Delaware on December 25 and surprise the force at Trenton. He arranged with Colvin to cross at a few ferries since Colvin knew the river better than anyone, and the trusted Irishman was a friend of Capt. John Barry. So it was that on Christmas night and the morning of St. Stephen’s Day, 1776, Washington quietly crossed the Delaware into New Jersey and successfully surprised the Brits and captured Trenton.

Washington knew the importance of holding Trenton and that Cornwallis would soon be on his way to recapture the town, but his whole army hadn't made it across. He decided to stand and fight, but much of his army was still on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Furthermore, he had about 1,000 prisoners to lock up. Washington re-crossed the river and mustered the rest of his forces to cross and fortify Trenton before Cornwallis could arrive. On Dec 30, Washington crossed back into New Jersey at McKonkey's Ferry, with his troops crossing simultaneously at the other Ferries.

Meanwhile Cornwallis, hearing of the fall of Trenton, left two regiments to fortify Princeton and marched back to Trenton. Washington sent out small units, under Co. Offaly-born Col. Edward Hand, to harass the oncoming British. These small bands succeeded in slowing Cornwallis down, inflicting heavy casualties, but the British force still arrived in force by late afternoon on January 2. Washington was ready. The Second Battle of Trenton began with the armies facing each other, only 200 yards apart at a small bridge on either side of Assunpink Creek. Cornwallis ordered the assault and cannon and rifle fire erupted from Washington's side leaving heavy British casualties after fierce fighting. The bridge held, darkness fell, and Cornwallis withdrew for the night. Hundreds of British dead and wounded were recovered from the bridge and Cornwallis told his army, "Rest now, we'll bag the fox in the morning."

That night, Washington's army built up their campfires to burn all night and silently slipped away. A small group was left behind to noisily build fortifications as if they were planning to defend at dawn, but also to cover the sound of the army’s withdrawal. Washington and his force led by General John Sullivan, son of Munster Irish immigrants, snuck away in the night. Another local Irishman, Paddy Lamb, guided them along back roads around the British forces to launch a surprise attack on the British force in Princeton. Cornwallis awoke in the morning to distant cannon fire as the attack on Princeton had begun. He quickly divided his army and sent a force to relieve Princeton but they were too late to prevent another American victory. Meanwhile, darkness put an end to the second battle of Trenton. The British were driven back everywhere. The little creek ran red with British blood as the entire campaign was decided in the patriot’s favor. As Washington went into winter quarters, he was master of New Jersey. The war had finally turned in his favor and new recruits poured in thanks to a courageous Christmas present from number of patriotic Irishmen.

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Tags: American Revolution, Christmas, United States

Comment by Gene McParland on December 17, 2014 at 9:53am

Great piece of history. Little known facts concerning a well-known event.


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