(An 18th-century drawing of a Delaware River ferry boat)
February 1 is the Celtic feast of Imbolc, which signifies change or rebirth. In Luke’s Gospel, it is when Jesus was presented in the temple to begin his mission to change the road to redemption. In 1776, America needed an Imbolc to celebrate since her Revolution to change governments was near defeat. Washington’s outnumbered army retreated from New York through New Jersey, headed for the Delaware River with the Brits in hot pursuit. He sent word to Congress in Philadelphia to have boats at Trenton to get him across the River into Pennsylvania. Captain John Barry of Wexford was given the task and contacted Cavan-born Paddy Colvin, who owned one of three Delaware ferries to be used; in fact, today’s town of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, was then called Colvin's Ferry. Colvin knew all the obstacles in the river and how to avoid them. The river had to be crossed quickly, or the patriots would be trapped on its banks. With no bridges, Colvin knew the other ferry owners as well as those who owned Durham cargo boats and where to find them; together with the help of John Glover’s Marblehead mariners, they arranged the crossing. Colvin’s Ferry was the oldest and less than 2 miles from Trenton.
The other ferries were Co Antrim-born Sam McConkey’s ferry 9 miles above Trenton and Howell’s ferry 4 miles above. On 3 December, Washington reached Trenton, and the ferries began carrying the Patriot army and their equipment across to Taylorsville, Pennsylvania. By 8 December, Washington and his rear guard had just crossed as the Brits entered Trenton. The army was safely across, and an angry Cornwallis found all the boats moored on the Pennsylvania side of the river, which was now an impassable ice-choked barrier between him and the disorganized army he had hoped to capture. Leaving a force of Hessian mercenaries to hold Trenton, he set up a headquarters 12 miles north at Princeton; Washington set up his headquarters across the river, half a mile north of Colvin’s Ferry.
Washington met with local butcher Armagh-born John Honeyman, who often traded with the Brits, and learned of the small force guarding Trenton. He decided to re-cross the Delaware at Christmas and surprise the Brits with a present they never expected. Pretending to have escaped from the Patriot camp, Honeyman was sent to the Hessian camp to inform them that the colonials were in no shape to attack as they were demoralized and suffering from cold and hunger. Hoping the Hessians had been lulled into a false sense of security, Washington arranged to cross the icy River on Christmas night and surprise the Hessians at dawn, thinking they’d be hung over from celebrating the holiday the night before. In truth, the Hessians had been alerted by an informer, but a snowstorm that evening was so severe that the Hessians began to relax. There was no way an army could march through that blizzard! It was so bad that the Hessians even canceled patrols for the next morning and went soundly to bed. Meanwhile, Washington chose the most able 2,400 men in his army & Colvin quietly crossed them on all the ferries and Durham boats into the wind, snow, hail, and sleet that assaulted them, but they nevertheless persevered and regrouped at McConkey’s ferry in New Jersey to march the 12 miles south to Trenton.
("Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze, 1851)
The Hessians were surprised, surrounded, and arrested at dawn, and Trenton was taken. Washington knew Cornwallis would try to recapture it but decided to stand and fight. He sent for the rest of his army and fortified Trenton. Cornwallis, hearing of the fall of Trenton, left two regiments to fortify Princeton and marched back to re-take the town. Washington sent out units, under Co. Offaly-born Col. Edward Hand, to harass the Brits and slow them down while he set up defenses around Assunpink Creek with the help of local resident Dublin-born Paddy Lamb. By 1 January, the rest of the Patriot army was in New Jersey.
The British arrived late on 2 January, and the Second Battle of Trenton began at a small bridge over Assunpink Creek. Cornwallis ordered an assault, but the Patriots forced him back by shooting at the legs of the Brits, forcing them to use men to remove their wounded and so reduce the number of Brits on the attack. Cornwallis withdrew for the night, saying, Rest now, we'll bag the fox in the morning. That night, the Patriots noisily built up their campfires to cover the sound of part of their army under General John Sullivan, son of Irish immigrants, (left) leaving with Dubliner Paddy Lamb, who led them on back roads around the British force to Princeton. In the morning, the Patriots launched a surprise attack on Princeton, and in Trenton, Cornwallis awoke to distant cannon fire from the north. Realizing that Princeton was under attack, he divided his forces and sent one to relieve Princeton, but they were too late to prevent another Patriot victory. Meanwhile, darkness put an end to the second battle of Trenton as the Brits were driven back everywhere. The little creek ran red with British blood, and the entire campaign was decided in Washington’s favor. The revolution was saved, and new recruits poured in thanks to a victory in which several Irishmen played a major part. Today, Washington’s night march to Princeton is cited as one of the greatest flanking maneuvers in American military history.
The retreating Brits fled towards British-controlled New Brunswick, and in their haste, some supply wagons were disabled on the way. Two hundred men were left to guard and repair them and bring them on to the British camp. In the dark of night, a group of 20 local patriots quietly encircled those wagons, and the guards were suddenly surprised by a volley of musket-shots and shouting from the surrounding trees. Thinking they were being attacked by a larger force, they fled, leaving the supply wagons to be brought to Washington, where the joy of the troops was unbounded for the wagons were full of woolen clothing, of which the men were in dire need. By February 1, Washington could celebrate Imbolc as he went into winter quarters at Morristown, while the Brits, after their 3rd defeat in 10 days, evacuated Central New Jersey. In the spirit of Imbolc, the revolution was reborn largely with the aid of Irishmen Paddy Colvin, Sam McConkey, John Honeyman, and Paddy Lamb, as well as Irish military men like Captain John Barry, Colonel Edward Hand and General John Sullivan. It was an Imbolc to remember!
(Mike McCormack is the AOH NY State Historian Emeritus)