The word “retreat” is typically understood with a particularly negative connotation; retreat is usually accompanied by defeat, loss, failure, and demoralization. It’s a sign of weakness.
However, on December 8, 1776, the outstanding General George Washington of the Continental Army was all but weak in the face of utter decimation, using the option to retreat as a chance to refortify. The bold command to draw back is one that remains relatively unheard of leading up to the famous crossing of the Delaware River to decisively win the Battle of Trenton and turn the tide of the war.
Following losses in the Battle of Long Island and White Plains in previous months along with the British occupation of New York, morale had plummeted to an all-time low as Washington withdrew across the Delaware river into Pennsylvania in the shivering cold night. Despite the retreat taking place on a Sunday evening, the day of holiness seemed all but holy as the odds were immeasurably stacked against the rebels.
As all eyes and the fate of a nation rested heavily on Washington, the reason for retreat rested in Washington’s plans to reinvigorate his militia in retaking a foothold in the war through a carefully planned strategy.
After crossing, he hid the boats on a nearby island to prevent being tracked, while also preparing them for his return later in the month.
The retreat made time for the army to recover and prepare for the upcoming task at hand, in addition to baiting the redcoats into a false sense of an unspoken cease-fire, as the British were satisfied with their conquests of the winter and suspected the colonists were exhausted.
Alas, deserters and British spies secretly escaped with intentions of informing the Hessian encampment of the incoming assault.
Thankfully, the warnings were met with little response, as the mercenaries highly doubted Washington’s incentive to attack on Christmas Day – history might have played out differently if the garrison had strengthened itself accordingly.
Washington would later go on to finally bring home major victories for the rebels at Trenton and Princeton. If it weren’t for Washington’s military ingenuity and cautious execution, Cornwallis may not have clutched the white flag in the streets of Yorktown five years later.
The unorthodox and tactical mind that pioneered the Continental Army toward triumph will forever remain unmatched. Let us all endeavor to think two steps ahead as George Washington once did in back in his fateful days of steering the colonies on a path to freedom.
“Certain battles were won by retreating.” – Eoin Colfer
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