Irish at Washington's Crossing: A Historically Unforgettable Christmas

Some ‘historians’ ignore facts in order to downsize their presentation. What is most egregious is when the contributions of the Irish are thus ‘written out’ as inconsequential. Take Washington’s Christmas crossing of the Delaware for example. The Irish around Trenton, like Paddy Colvin, who ran a Delaware River ferry; Paddy Lamb, who lived near a Bridge on Assunpink Creek and John Honeyman, a retired British soldier, now a butcher in nearby Griggstown, all had a significant part in that historic venture, but their names have been forgotten.

In 1885, Rev A. Lambing, compiling an issue of Catholic Historical Research, wrote:

Not long ago, when reading one of the Trenton papers, I saw the simple statement that the American forces under General Washington crossed the Delaware at Patrick Colvin's ferry into Pennsylvania on its way to Virginia to join Lafayette who, with Irish General Wayne's presence, was keeping Cornwallis at bay. Struck by his name, which at once denoted his nationality, I resolved to know more about him and made him a subject of investigation.(1)

Were it not for Rev Lambing’s research, poor Paddy may have been forgotten by history. Patrick Colvin of Co Cavan bought the ferry and a considerable tract of land in 1772, which he owned until 1792, and for those twenty years, what is now Morrisville, was known as Colvin's Ferry.(2)

Considering the number of times that Washington’s forces were transported across the Delaware, it was most fortunate that the ferry was in the hands of a patriot like Paddy Colvin. In a speech before the New Jersey Historical Society in January 1885, US Army General Carrington stressed that Trenton was a key to the success of Washington’s operations, being strategically located between New York and Philadelphia.

The Delaware River was a line of defense behind which Washington retired when hard-pressed and re-crossed to strike the enemy on every opportunity. No bridges spanned the river and yet it had to be crossed quickly or the patriots would be trapped on its banks. Patrick Colvin, who owned the closest ferry to Trenton, knew all the fords and obstacles of the river and how to avoid them. He also knew the other ferry owners; who owned boats and where they could be found. He placed all this information, as well as his ferry, at the service of Washington.(3) Colvin’s Ferry was the oldest and less than 2 miles from Trenton. The other ferries were McConkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton, Howell’s Ferry 4 miles above and Dunk's ferry 10 miles below.

In 1776 Washington led a masterful evacuation from Brooklyn through New Jersey, headed for the Delaware River with the British in hot pursuit. On December 1 he notified Congress in Philadelphia, to line up a fleet of boats at Trenton to get him across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. Wexford-born Captain John Barry contacted General John Glover and his amphibious regiment from Marblehead MA, who had helped the patriots withdraw from Brooklyn at the start of this retreat, and his friend Paddy Colvin on the Delaware River to help complete it.

(Below: Battle of Trenton, by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.)

On December 3rd, Washington’s advance guard reached Trenton and began ferrying across the Delaware. On December 8th, Washington crossed with his rearguard just as the British entered Trenton. Colvin got the army safely across and a disappointed Cornwallis found all the boats safely moored on the Pennsylvania side of a river, which was now an impassable barrier between him and the disorganized army he hoped to capture. He left a force to hold Trenton and returned to Princeton as Washington set up headquarters a half-mile north of Colvin’s Ferry. Washington decided to cross the Delaware and surprise the Brits, but he needed information. He met with Armagh-born John Honeyman, a local butcher who had retired from the British army but was now a spy for the patriots. He had traded with and was familiar to, the British and Hessians.

He told Washington of the small force of Hessians guarding Trenton. Under the pretense of having escaped from Washington’s camp, Honeyman went back to the Hessian camp to inform their gullible commander, Col. Johann Rall, that the colonials were in no shape to attack. He told Col. Rall that the patriots were demoralized, suffering dreadfully from the cold and hunger and that many were unshod. Hoping that the Hessians had been lulled into a false sense of security, Washington chose to cross the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas night and surprise the unprepared Hessians at dawn after they had spent the night celebrating Christmas. Like most of Washington’s spies, few records exist of Honeyman’s activities, but his actions at Trenton were publicly recognized and celebrated after the revolution.

Washington chose the ablest 2,400 of his 9,000 man army and arranged with Colvin to cross them since Colvin knew the river better than anyone. On Christmas night, the force was quietly taken to cross the Delaware by General Glover’s regiment of seamen on three ferries arranged by Colvin. The Records of the American Catholic Historical Society (1889), state: It was on that night (Dec 25, 1776) that Washington crossed at McConkey’s or Patrick Colvin’s ferry. Colvin is a new hero whose services on that eventful night have been made known by recent historical investigation by John McCormack, the Catholic Historian of Trenton.

The surprise worked and Trenton fell to Washington, but he knew Cornwallis would try to recapture it. He decided to stand and fight, but the rest of his army was still in Pennsylvania. Further, he had about 1,000 prisoners to secure. General W. Davis in his History of Morrisville wrote: A long fatiguing march to McConkey’s Ferry would have been a great hardship to men so severely tired. According to the American Catholic Historical Research Series, Vol 7: there seems to be no escaping the conclusion they crossed at Colvin’s Ferry. Washington was then able to muster his forces to cross and fortify Trenton before Cornwallis could arrive. Colvin had the boats waiting, but the river was still choked with large floating ice carried rapidly by the swift current.

On Dec 30th, he crossed back into New Jersey with his troops at several Ferries. Navigation was near impossible but Glover’s seamen navigated the crossing with great skill. 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 and slow them down. Washington laid out his defenses around the creek with the help of local resident Dublin-born Paddy Lamb.(4)

The British arrived by late afternoon on January 2nd and the Second Battle of Trenton began with the armies only 200 yards apart at the small bridge over Assunpink Creek. Cornwallis ordered an assault, but cannon and rifle fire from the Patriot army forced him back. Two more attempts were made, but each failed. As darkness fell, 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.

A less told part of the story came that night, as Washington's army built up their campfires and silently slipped away. Part of his forces were 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’s army with General John Sullivan, son of Munster Irish immigrants, stole away in the night following Dubliner Paddy Lamb, who had now been appointed as a guide for the army. Paddy led them along back roads around the British forces to the town of Princeton (5). In the morning, the patriot army launched a surprise assault on Princeton.

Cornwallis awoke to distant cannon fire as the attack on Princeton had begun. He 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, the war had turned in his favor, the revolution was saved and new recruits poured in thanks to a victory in which several Irishmen played no small part. Washington’s successful night march on Princeton is remembered as one of the greatest flank marches in American history and it delayed Cornwallis’s planned attack on Philadelphia.

Paddy Colvin served his adopted country again on April 6, 1789, when Congress chose Washington to be the first President of the United States. Headed to New York for his inauguration, Washington’s Party left Philadelphia on April 21st in closed carriages. Again he had to cross the Delaware and he chose Colvin’s Ferry to do it. At 10 AM they arrived and Paddy Colvin was given charge of the Presidential party. He personally ferried them across the river, exchanging a familiar handshake and conversation with General Washington. According to William Stryker, Adjutant-General of New Jersey: Colvin was a committee of one to welcome the ‛ Father of his Country’ on the banks of the historic Delaware at Trenton. It gives him a prominence in history that he richly deserves and which many may well envy. They had met there before under far different circumstances, when he had performed similar duties for the great Virginian.

The banks of the river on the Jersey side were lined with Revolutionary officers and soldiers and distinguished civilians of city and State; yet, in recognition of Patrick Colvin's services and devotion to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, they paid him the compliment of permitting him to "take charge of the Presidential party." In time of war he was the genius that made the icy Delaware subservient to his will. Now that peace had dawned, all felt he should be specially honored in his chosen sphere of operations, where he had no successful rival.(6)

Can you believe that these men are forgotten in American history books? McConkey, the owner of other ferry where Washington crossed some troops was also Irish by birth. Historian John McCormack, Tipperary-born editor of the Potter’s Journal wrote: Colvin was a Catholic and McConkey was a Presbyterian in religion. Yet I find that these two Irishmen, holding religious beliefs so divergent, laid their theological differences upon the altar of their country, and made common cause to secure our independence. It is a rule that has but few exceptions and a story that has few more laudable heroes.(7) Yet, check America’s school history books to see which one is remembered and which one is ignored!

Mike McCormack is AOH New York State Historian Emeritus.

Footnotes:

     1. Catholic Historical Researches, edited by Rev. A. Lambing, 1885, pg. 19
     2. www.livingplaces.com/PA/Bucks_County/Morrisville_Borough_History.
     3. Papers Read Before the Bucks County Historical Society, Volume 3
     4.   A History of Trenton: Citizens of Foreign Origin by R. LaGuardia
     5. History of Trenton by John O/ Raun, pg. 171
     6. The Battles of Trenton and Princeton by William S. Stryker, (1898) Called the definitive work by Sir George Trevelyan whose 6-volume work, The American Revolution notes: A better book on the subject could not be compiled. Living on the scene of the engagements, General Stryker from childhood gathered much of his knowledge from the families of survivors.
     7. History of Bucks Co. PA, Chapter XLII & XLIII, 1804:

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Tags: 18th Century, American Revolution, Military History, United States, War

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