That Christmas When Nathaniel Pettit Helped George Washington Cross the Delaware. 1776.

By Brandon

Major Nathaniel Pettit was from Hunderdon County, New Jersey and was the brother of Charles Pettit, the first Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. Just for fun this year I decided to set the known facts about Nathaniel Pettit’s involvement with General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in story form below. I hope you find this amusing and share this with all our cousins!

It was Christmas, 1776. Evening had just swept in. General George Washington looked out over the Delaware River as the first snowflakes began their gentle but ominous swirling descent into the darkening water below. He, like so many of the men under his command, had given up the warmth and comfort of his home to fight for a cause that now seemed desperately out of reach.

In the few short months before this night, he and the Continental Army had suffered several crippling military losses. In New York, the British landed the largest amphibious force ever assembled anywhere in the world at the time. This crack force went straight to work reclaiming the rebel colonies for the crown. In September, the Americans were forced to hastily abandon New York City. In October, the British pushed Washington further out of New York and routed his militia at their base in White Plains. In November, the British captured Fort Washington on the Hudson River taking over 2,000 men, weapons and precious powder. Just four days later the British captured Fort Lee and established total domination of the Lower Hudson River. Washington’s forces had been reduced by nearly a quarter while the British war machine swarmed across New York and New Jersey. The American forces had now fallen back to Pennsylvania and were on the verge of collapse.

Morale was low. The enlistment terms for many of the soldiers would soon expire and there were some who talked of deserting. New enlistments were also dropping off rapidly and other men taunted would-be patriots, believing American independence to be a lost cause. Washington himself was beginning to lose faith, privately writing a friend that “the game is pretty near up.” The General knew his time was running out. He needed a victory. America needed a victory.

It wasn’t long before frozen rain began pelting the Continental Army under his command, tinking out its icy tune on every hard surface. The falling of sleet, the soaking rain, the whirling snow and an occasional crack of a frost-covered tree limb were the only sounds on the river that night. There was an eerie silence in the American camp. Though it was Christmas, there would be no festivities for these men. Tonight, they had work to do.

Across the river in Trenton, NJ, a different scene was playing out. Hessian soldiers and Loyalist Americans had established their winter headquarters there on December 14th. They were warm, entrenched, and ready for a fight. The Hessians had earned a reputation that inspired terror in the rag-tag patriot army. They were essentially German mercenaries leased by the British. They represented the most formidable and ferocious military men Europe had to offer. The Americans were not ignorant of this and they knew their untrained army of tired farmers would be no match for this renowned garrison. There were two things, however, the Americans hoped would offset this horrible military imbalance.

  1. The Germans loved Christmas.
  2. The Germans loved beer.

The expectation was these two affinities would converge in the form of a beer-filled Christmas celebration on the British side of the Delaware leaving the Hessians groggy and Trenton vulnerable to a three-pronged American attack.

On the American side of the Delaware, 1st Major Nathaniel Pettit[1] was faithfully carrying out the critical orders General Washington had given him. The darkness of the sky that loomed overhead earlier in the night now seemed like a faded memory as the encroaching winter storm blotted out the stars. Though cold and painful, the weather provided the perfect cover for Washington’s desperate move. Nathaniel Pettit had been given the special task of assembling an American “fleet” of sorts. Washington had instructed him to gather all the watercraft he could find to assist the Americans in crossing the Delaware under cover of night. Lieutenant John Clifford, a soldier under the command of Pettit would give his account of this historic night some 56 years later when applying for a pension[2]:

Snippet from Clifford’s account describing Pettit and Washington’s actions on Dec 25, 1776.

About the first of December 1776 & after being discharged from the five months service he marched as first Lieutenant under Capt. Jacob Geerhart in company with a detachment of Capt. Daniel Bray & Capt. Thomas Jones Companies under the command of Major Nathaniel Pettit agreeable to the General order, to collect all the water crafts that could be found in the Delaware River between Easton and Sherrerd ferry (now French Town) and bring them to Frenchtown to assist Gen. Lee’s army in crossing the Delaware from N. Jersey to Pennsylvania and after performing this duty, crossed over the Delaware with Major Pettit and joined Gen. Washington’s Army as a volunteer acting as Lieutenant with the Army until the 25th day of that month (Dec).

The boats gathered up and down the Delaware under the watchful eye of Nathaniel Pettit included flat boat ferries and Durham boats. As the boats arrived, the troops boarded with horses, artillery, and supplies while the others on shore watched them disappear out of sight into the frozen night. Navigation was possible by way of a cable system which kept the boat from drifting down river. Soldiers carefully pulled the boats along and prodded at obstacles with poles along the way. The site where Washington directed Nathaniel Pettit to assemble the boats was naturally narrow and only about 300 yards in width. Washington made the crossing by boat himself and began organizing his force on the other side.

The frigid conditions put the Americans three hours behind schedule, but it also ensured that no enemy scout or spy would be out to observe their clandestine advance. After Washington arrived on the shores of New Jersey, it was learned two of his columns under Cadwalader and Ewing would be unable to join the main army due to the storm. The three-pronged attack initially planned had to be abandoned at the last minute but Washington made the dangerous decision to move forward, marching the main army ahead once all the remaining men crossed over. Nathaniel Pettit and his men would continue to oversee the watercraft operations until they ultimately floated over and joined Washington’s skeleton force. By about 3:00 a.m. the American army had traversed the choppy abyss without losing a single soul. At four in the morning they regrouped and began their brutal march to catch the inebriated Hessians at Trenton.

This was Washington’s last desperate effort to secure a much-needed American victory before there was a total disintegration of the Continental Army. The frostbitten patriots had crossed the Delaware in the dead of night in the midst of a miserable ice storm. They marched through the sleet until dawn literally leaving bloody footprints in the snow. They proceeded with only one of the three expected columns and launched upon the enemy with all the force they could muster under these conditions. It was a foolhardy move by a mere ghost of a fighting force but they were determined to see it through to the end.

The battle began at daybreak and resulted in a magnificently stunning American victory. The Hessian commander, Johann Rall, was killed in the action and the entire surviving enemy force was captured. Perhaps the most shocking revelation of the morning was that the Hessians had not stayed up all night drinking and celebrating as expected. They were sober and prepared for battle, jumping to their arms and to their posts immediately at the sounding of the first alarm. There was no reason the Hessians should have lost this battle.

Though Trenton was not a major strategic military gain, the surprise American victory thundered like a roaring cannon throughout the colonies. The colonists’ spirits brightened and new enlistments swelled the ranks. George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and the capture of Trenton reinvigorated the Continental Army at a crucial point in history. The brave men under Washington’s command firmly held the line against the total breakdown of the American struggle for liberty. Thanks to the valiant efforts of men like General George Washington and First Major Nathaniel Pettit, what started out as a “lost cause” that night in 1776 became the point at which America would pivot towards ultimate freedom. Much to the surprise of Washington himself, for whatever reason that year it seems the Continental Army and the American colonists were blessed with a Christmas miracle.

Brandon Pettit, Christmas 2020

Want more Pettit family history?  Check out The Pettit Family History and Genealogy Site here!

  1. Striker, William S., Official Register of the Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Revolutionary War, Trenton, N.J., W.T. Nicholson & Co., Printers, 1872, p342
  2. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, John Clifford, #S970, National Archives Microfilm Publication M804, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington D.C., Roll 579, p3