Attacking at night, during a snowstorm: genius or folly? For Gen. Richard Montgomery at Quebec on December 31, 1775, it was a fatal disaster, but for Gen. George Washington at Trenton, New Jersey on December 26, 1776, it was a stroke of tactical brilliance that resulted in a complete and game-changing victory. There were many factors that contributed to each outcome, but the weather certainly played a part. Was Washington being reckless in light of the failure a year before, or was he thinking creatively? Or, was he simply playing the odds by following the recommendations of military literature?
Washington had gained valuable military experience during the French and Indian War, experience that he supplemented by reading some of the foremost military authors of the era. When he took command of the Continental Army in 1775 he knew the literature well enough to make recommendations to other officers of what books to obtain, and his choices are noteworthy in that they emphasize the type of irregular warfare that would be practiced in the American Revolution. Among the books that he owned and recommended was The Partisan; or, The Art of Making War in Detachment by Mihály Lajos Jeney. Originally published in French, an English translation had been available since 1760.
Included in Jeney’s work, on pages 80 through 85 of the 1760 London edition, is a section on effecting surprise by attacking in bad weather:
The Expedient which carries with it the greatest probability of Success, for a Partisan who commands only four hundred Foot, and who is assured that the Garrison consists of no more than two Hundred, (for nothing of this kind must be attempted without double the number of the Enemy) is to make choice of bad Weather, such as high Winds, or thick Fogs in Winter, and in the Summer Season, violent Storms of Rain and Thunder … You are to appoint a general Rendezvous about a League from the Place you intend to surprise. Here you are to halt; and if the Weather seems to clear up, you must instantly retreat, referring the Affair to another Day …
But if on the contrary, the Wind increases and the Storm continues gathering, conduct your approach in such a manner as to have the Wind on your Backs; for if it is in your Face, the Enemy’s Sentries will perceive you at some Distance …
Having taken all the necessary Precautions, you are to increase your Pace in proportion as the Storm augments. During its greatest Violence … you will have no reason to be under the least Apprehension, as it is impossible for the Enemy to hear or see any thing of your March, for the Inclemency of the Weather will force their Sentries to turn their Backs to the Wind, or retire within their Boxes.
As these Surprises cannot possibly take place but under favour of a Storm, which is seldom of long continuance, it is evident the whole must be well concerted, and executed with all imaginable dexterity and expedition.
It is very certain that the Rain will make it rather difficult for the Infantry to march with any degree of celerity, as in clayey Grounds their Feet will be apt to slip; but they must do as well as they can. Great Roads are generally pretty well covered with Stones or Gravel.
Jeney was writing for battalion-sized contingents of infantry and cavalry that could adapt rapidly to changing conditions. The passages omitted from the extracts above pertain to things that Washington did not have at his disposal for the Delaware River crossing, such as covered wagons to protect infantry from the elements. Washington nonetheless followed Jeney’s recommendations very well, to the extent that his large force of infantry supported by field artillery allowed. But Washington’s river crossing required a significant amount of advance planning, and the general could not have known what weather conditions to expect on the night of its execution. It would be much too bold to suggest that Washington followed Jeney’s advice by deliberately planning to attack in a snowstorm.
But when the weather deteriorated, as Washington’s troops were assembling to start their ambitious assault, the commanding officer chose to press on with his plan rather than standing down. Even though he knew full well of the failed assault on Quebec the previous in year in similar snowy conditions, he also has the wisdom of Jeney to inform his decision. Whether influenced by Jeney or not, Washington’s decision to follow through with the attack proved the wisdom of the partisan writer’s recommendation.