The standard interpretation of the Continental Army in the dark and waning months of 1776 often features ragged soldiers, devoid of clothing and basic human comforts, facing harsh winter conditions while encamped in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, prior to crossing the Delaware River. Dramatic imagery of cold and discomfort, with regiments, or what was left of them, camping in a fashion that was a far cry from the organization of their British counterparts, has become the foundation of public memory. Is this the complete picture?
Perhaps this imagery is in part due to the national mythology of the Delaware River crossings and the brilliance of the ensuing battles which followed from December 26, 1776, through January 3, 1777. While certainly there is a level of truth in the accepted interpretation of the desperate nature of the soldiers’ conditions, the reality may be slightly more complex, and can provide an avenue to deepen our understanding of both the realistic capabilities and sustainability of the army based on their physical living conditions and logistics. The truth of the matter, can only be told through a handful of primary sources, each of which provides sparse information on the context and methods in relation to the conditions of the encampment. Taking these sources and measuring them against basic period practices, terrain association, strategic concepts, and logistical sustainability practices may allow for a more thorough understanding, although not complete, of the experience of the soldiers before the Christmas crossing.
Details of encampments and the organization which makes them militarized have never made for popular reading in the larger culture of military history. Yet armies, like humans, can only function based on their success in obtaining the general necessities of life – food, water, and shelter. For the Continental Army and the associated militias to be able to perform the massive task of crossing the river and the subsequent march on Trenton, they needed a certain level of sustainability within their camps and bivouacs in order to function at the necessary level to achieve victory. Simply put, a soldier who endured living completely outside, devoid of blankets, warmth, and food for nearly three weeks, could not have performed to the necessary level to make the crossing, march, and attack Trenton. The reality of their encampment, while still certainly difficult, must be more complex than what has been previously accepted at face value. A new look at this aspect opens the way to a deeper understanding of events and how they impacted what would prove to be a decisive military stroke in the American War for Independence.
In order to fully grasp the larger picture of the encampments it is necessary to examine them as four different and distinct narratives: George Washington’s wing, John Sullivan’s wing, and each of the two main militia forces who constituted the lower camps. Each of these sub-categories requires a different analysis for the soldiers involved. Examining each of these sub-categories through the same practical lenses of logistics, terrain, and strategic prominence in their placement and ability to operate and function as a military force provides information which, when synthesized together, provides a more complete and multi-tiered understanding.
Washington’s wing of the Continental Army was the first element to arrive in the Bucks County area after its long and arduous retreat through New Jersey during November and December 1776. This retreat, a consequence of the Continental Army’s disastrous performance during the campaign for New York, had resulted in the forfeiting of much of their supplies through the mismanaged defense of Fort Lee and the later necessity to burn and destroy supplies such as tents and other camp items so that the army could move more swiftly in an effort to put more distance between them and the swarming British forces hot on their trail.
When the army crossed from Trenton into Falls Township in Bucks County between December 7 and 8 they immediately went into bivouac in the environs of Summerseat, the estate in which Washington established his first headquarters. James McMichael, a member of Miles’ Rifle Regiment in General Sterling’s brigade, wrote on December 8,
We paraded in Trenton at 4 oClock A.M. and at Dawn of the Day we crossed the ferry to Pennsylvania which was very agreeable to us Pennsylvanians to return to our native Country after so many difficulties as had formerly befallen us — at 4 oClock P.M. the Hessians appeared in view but were soon dispersed by Several messengers sent from an 18 Pounder of ours from the Pennsylvania Shore. — here we remained in the Woods having neither Tents nor Blankets.
Another Pennsylvania soldier likely in the same command wrote more bluntly, “Wee marcht to Trent Town and there remay[nd] till the December the 6 then We Ware ordered over the river of Daluaware Whare We ware first to Ly ought in the Woods night and Day for the regulars Wass at the other Side.”
Other Continentals were in the same condition. Nicholas Cresswell, traveling in the region, took stock of Adam Stephens’ Virginia troops, “a set of dirty, ragged people, badly clothed, badly disciplined and badly armed.” Washington had anticipated moving his army into this region several days before its actual arrival, as indicated by his order on December 1 to Col. Richard Humpton to remove all the army’s supplies, what was left of them, over to the Pennsylvania side. While the composition of these supplies remains largely unknown, based on the examples given it was likely in large part ammunition and food stores, and wholly devoid of blankets, tents, and other clothing items. Captain Charles Willson Peale, a Philadelphia Associator who was present around the area of Summerseat on December 9, in searching for the Maryland Battalion of which his brother was a part, noted what he saw of Washington’s troops: “The weather is fine, more like spring than winter. I went to see the Maryland battalion and found them scattered through the woods in huts made of poles, straw, leaves, etc., in a dirty, ragged condition.” While Peale’s report on how the soldiers encamped is consistent with the previous accounts, his point on the warm weather lends context to the conditions the soldiers lived in; certainly warmer weather made the reality of bivouacking more bearable in lieu of permanent winter quarters at that moment.
Washington’s wing of the army was also plagued by exhaustion from constant motion. An army on the march, especially one on the retreat, tends to become a logistical and organizational nightmare, resulting in an inability to adequately sustaining the army’s necessary functions. The Continental Army’s need to rest and organizationally reconstitute itself was paramount; to do this required time, which meant the soldiers would need some sort of permanent quarters while the process unfolded. It appears in the early phases of their stay in Bucks that the soldiers made do with their unfavorable conditions and survived the elements where they could as the brigades shuffled around and moved into the wider community.
A factor affecting the assignment of specific camps was the intent of the British. On the same day that the remainder of Washington’s wing crossed the Delaware from Trenton, the British searched for a crossing point in an attempt to gain a foothold in Bucks County. With the immediate points around Trenton devoid of craft to get them across, the British sent an expedition roughly eighteen miles north to Coryell’s Ferry. Much to their frustration they discovered the Americans had already secured the ferry craft, denying the British the ability to cross. But the impact of the British presence at Coryell’s was reciprocated strategically on the Continentals. Washington, digesting the move, became concerned that the British would use that point to outflank his position and destabilize his command before he could reorganize and formulate a counterattack. In response to this potential threat to his northern flank, Washington dispatched General Fermoy’s brigade consisting of the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment and the German Regiment, and Sterling’s crack brigade of two Virginia units, Miles’ Rifle Regiment, and the famed Delaware Regiment. James McMichael, part of Miles’ Regiment, outlined this movement on December 9: “At 3 oClock P. M. we marched from our encampment near Trenton ferry proceeded to Thompson’s Mill, near Corrylls ferry where we Encamped our Quarters being the Woods the frost very hard.”
The shuffling of troops in the next several days illustrates this process. Washington on December 12 was finally comfortable enough in his strategic position to tackle the issue of his army’s sustainability:
The General desires that Brigadiers Lord Sterling, Mercer, Stephen & de Fermoy do, respectively, Quarter their Brigades in Houses or Hutts as compactly as possibly, that they may be soon form’d, and ready for action at the shortest notice of the approach of the Enemy. Each Brigadier is to take care of his own Front, and keep strong Guards at all the convenient passing places—the intermediate spaces between the Brigades, are to be attended to by the Brigadiers next adjoining. This order is not intended to withdraw the German Battalion (now annex’d to Genl Fermoys’ Brigade) from the Posts they at present Guard. The Brigadiers are to use their utmost endeavours to have the Men got under the best cover they can, consistent with the above order for Quartering them compactly. And, as it does not admit of a doubt but that the Enemys attempt to cross the River will be conducted with the utmost secrecy and expedition, they cannot possibly use too much vigilance & caution with their Guard.
Washington’s wing of the army, from December 12 through the first crossing on December 25, revealed itself to be in a strategic position to react to a thrust from both the northern limit at Coryell’s Ferry and Bristol some twenty-five miles to the south. The idea was to encamp his brigades in an echelon fashion, which would allow for general support, communication, and a series of established lines of battle that units could fall back on should the Crown forces cross and attack. Beginning at the northern sector at Coryell’s Ferry, Washington placed Fermoy’s brigade who occupied the “old fort” which consisted of an old blockhouse and palisaded walls. The troops there were responsible for guarding the ferry. Outside of utilizing the small fort, which was likely for the soldiers on guard duty, the rest of the brigade was quartered in various farmhouses or in some variety of brush huts in the scattered woodlots between the ferry and the Thompson-Neely farm roughly two miles to the south.
Picking up the sector of responsibility which included the Thompson-Neely farm, Beaumont’s Ferry, and Pebbletown was General Sterling’s brigade. Sterling had roughly 550 men to cover this two-mile stretch of real estate. Outside of the small village of Pebbletown there were relatively few buildings to house the troops, resulting in many of them taking up residence in barns, the Thompson mill, and for those most unfortunate, brush huts.Included in this command was the army’s “strongest” regiment, the 3rd Virginia, totaling some 140 men fit for duty who were not laid up in the hospitals. Major Ennion Williams, in command of Pennsylvanians under Sterling, wrote, “our men lay out in huts made of boards in a rough manner.”  Aside from the infantry formations, Col. Henry Knox had placed his artillery with many of the regiments stationed near the various river crossings. Concentrating guns at specific points provided support in case the British crossed at any one point of the river.
To the west of Sterling’s line and to the north of Newtown, the new supply hub for the army, came the next largest concentration of troops from Washington’s wing between Paxson’s Corner and Buckingham. Although the specific details of this encampment are few, it must be assumed that the troops in this sector, the Virginians of Stephens’ brigade and the New Englanders and Maryland troops of Mercer’s command, spent their time operating in much the same conditions as Sterling’s and de Fermoy’s men. This division of the army under Gen. Nathanael Greene was spread amongst the tiny village of Centerville (Buckingham) along York Road six miles from Sterling’s men. Here and at every other point of the extended line of the officers of the Continental Army enjoyed their privilege of rank. While the vast majority of their men endured the rough nature of camp life, the officers were able to establish themselves in the homes and villages of the region. Their comfort generally stood in stark contrast to the enlisted men. They enjoyed warm sleeping quarters, proper meals, furniture and utensils to enjoy it.
The vast majority of soldiers could have only dreamed about such comfort. Major Ennion Williams, commanding the combined Miles’ and Atlee’s battalions quartered around the Thompson-Neely farmstead, took stock of his men’s situation, particularly in the want for clothing and other necessities. He wrote, “the men are barefooted and very thinly clad and have not received pay in three months.” He then went on to express his belief that his unit would be in the area of the Thompson farm for only five to six days, implying that his command only established quarters sufficient for temporary sustainment versus a long-term encampment. Major Williams’ underlying thread was that the army, either through a general movement or the mass exodus of soldiers when the enlistments expired, had no intention to build sturdy winter quarters.
Further to the south spanning from McConkey’s Ferry down to Dunk’s Ferry below Burlington the encampment situation was wholly different. The soldiers here, with the exception of Gen. Daniel Hitchcock’s New England brigade, were made up of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey militia. The experience of Capt. Thomas Rodney’s Delaware militia company typifies the experience of these untested soldiers. Rodney recalled that after staying in very comfortable quarters at Philadelphia his men on December 18 “began to draw rations and live as soldiers.” On December 21 Rodney’s company left Philadelphia and marched up the Bristol Pike, stopping at the Red Lion Inn and utilizing its facilities for the evening. The next day Rodney and his men arrived in Bristol, where they were assigned a camping location on the adjacent properties of William Coxe and Andrew Allen along the banks of Neshaminy Creek; here the officers and men occupied homes and buildings, with Captain Rodney quartering in the Allen house.
The Delaware company had arrived in the cantonment of a much larger force of Philadelphia militia under Col. John Cadwallader, whose headquarters was centered around the King George II Inn in Bristol. Sergeant William Young, one of these Philadelphia “Associators,” described a much different camping situation than what was being experienced by the men of Washington’s wing to the north. Young wrote on December 7, “Marcehd about a mile from the Shore and pitched our tents; all pretty well.” The following day he joyfully recorded, “Got boards to floor our tents and cover them so as to keep out Rain, and to make it as comfortable as we could in this advanced season of the year. We built a famous common house in Bad weather to cook in, and to sit in in Bad weather.” Unfortunately, all their hard work would be short-lived, as later that night the battalion was ordered to decamp and remove to points further south of Dunks Ferry along the Delaware River. Over the next several days Young recorded staying in quarters associated with the properties of a Mr. Smith and later a Mr. Walton, where in addition to pitching their tents they also constructed earthen redoubts.
Captain Peale, serving in the 3rd Battalion of the Philadelphia Associators, on the 11th in camp near Bristol wrote, “Had a good nights rest. Changed our tents from the wind, which is easterly … We are hourly expecting to set out. Snow with rain. We have tents covered with boards.” After noting the presence of heavy baggage in the camp Peale said, “My chest contained a new mattress and a green rug, my miniature apparatus, 3 or 4 dirty shirts, etc. ordered to be ready to march early in the morning.” The camp in the area of Bristol was much more community oriented. Perhaps because of the militia’s affiliation with the region the local population was much more involved with the sustainment of the men. Peale again captured the thread of this; he recorded that his men, when outside of their camp for various duties, were sheltered in relative comfort in properties of sympathetic locals, including the Bath family house. On December 16, he painted a clear picture of the comforts of their occupation: “I carry 5 shirts, one pair stockings, and handkerchief, to Mrs. Tumbleson’s, one mile out of town, to get them washed. We parade in brigade, and march a few miles to exercise the men in the manner of attack in line of battle.”Peale presents his unit’s stay as not only a camp with appropriate baggage, but one with access to have clothing and equipment cleaned and generally repaired, an important insight into the sustainability of Cadwallader’s extended force.
The town of Bristol was a well-established place in 1776. It contained a major ferry system and all the fixings of a thriving town. Inns, warehouses, major roads, and artisans such as blacksmiths, carpenters, and other specialized trades were all contained in a compact area, making the town a central point for Cadwallader and Hitchcock’s men. The New Englanders of Hitchcock’s brigade experienced an altogether different situation in comparison to their neighbors in the Philadelphia battalions. These men, having retreated with Washington’s wing through New Jersey, had their tents and baggage burned. One soldier recalled that, “The hope of the commander-in-chief was sustained by the character of these half frozen, half-starved men.”
North of Bristol the New Jersey and Pennsylvania militia battalions under Maj. Gen. Philemon Dickinson and Brig. Gen. James Ewing kept a watchful eye on activities across the river. Much like their brethren in the Associator battalions, the militiamen fared much better in warm and durable clothing and perhaps accommodations. General Ewing, in command of the Pennsylvania militia from the western counites, was given specific instructions on where to place his men, providing a clear image of the area his men occupied. Ewing was given the sector ranging from Bordentown to within two miles of Yardley’s Mill. At least one battalion of approximately 150 men was quartered across from Bordentown. The bulk of Ewing’s force was kept in position near Hoops Mill in modern day Upper Makefield. In the interstices, guard and sentry outposts were manned along the river to keep watch. Ewing’s command in total numbered about 800 men, which when broken down between the outposts and guard assignments decentralized this force so that there was no main encampment. General Washington, in a letter to Ewing on the 14th, demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of the framework of their area of operation:
Every thing in a manner depends upon the defence at the Waters Edge, in like Manner one Brigade is to support another without loss of time, or waiting orders from me — I would also have You fix upon some Central Spot convenient to your Brigade, but in the rear a little, and on some Road leading to Philadelphia for your unnecessary Baggage, Waggons & Stores, that in case your opposition should prove ineffectual, these things may not fall, but be got off & proceed over Nehsameny Ferry, or Bridge, towards Germain town agreable to the determination of the Board of Officers the other day.
If Washington’s assessment is correct, then the militiamen under Ewing operated as more of an active front rather than a cantonment.
The final element under Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, mixed with troops from Canada, arrived in the Bucks County area last. These troops, primarily New York and New England regiments, had endured all of the same hardships of Washington’s wing but had retained most of their tents and baggage. These troops on December 20 marched towards the backside of Newtown and established camps along the Eagle Road beginning at Ryans Corner and stretching to the Eagle Tavern in the shadow of Jericho Mountain. Fife Major John Greenwood, then fifteen years old and part of the force from Canada that had recently joined the main army, recounted on the march to Newtown that, “With no tents to shelter us from the snow and rain, we were obliged to get through it as well as we could.” Later, after leaving Bethlehem and heading for Bucks County, Greenwood followed up on his previous thoughts: “some of our men without even shoes, over the mountains to a place called Newtown.” The men in Sullivan’s column, although they retained tents, fared little better than the force from Canada. Captain John Johnson of the 1st New York Regiment with his awkward arrangement of forty-five enlisted men and eleven commissioned officers, were said to have been “in a miserable plight, destitute of almost everything, many of them fit only for the hospital.” The New Yorkers made the march in with Sullivan’s wing, crossing the Delaware at Easton and finally encamped near Newtown on the 20th.  David How, a private in the 16th Continental Regiment sharing a brigade with the New Yorkers under Col. Paul Dudley, noted in his diary their daily use of tents and camp equipment, implying these troops under Sullivan retained much of their baggage. On December 16 while preparing themselves to cross into Pennyslvania, he wrote, “we have ben Geting our Bagage a Cross and Geting Waggons for the March this Day.” Once in Pennsylvania, they bivouacked at Springfield then mentioned staying at Buckingham where the bulk of Greene’s troops were camped, on the 19th, then drawing stockings and shoes there the next morning. On the 21st he wrote, “This day we marchd about 7 miles to Solsbury and Encamped in the woods there.” Two days later his regiment “went about 4 miles to Live in Houses.” The condition of Sullivan’s men was slightly better than those who had arrived earlier in December. Yet as the accounts seemingly reveal, even soldiers who had tents, at least some of them, found firmer quarters in structures.
The comparison, albeit on the surface, opens up the human experience of the soldiers who in truth acted as the main players in the critical winter campaign. Understanding their conditions, how they lived, and more astonishingly how they survived the ordeal makes the feat of crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night even more miraculous. Grasping the soldiers living conditions in relation to the sustainability of the army allows historians to directly apply its circumstances to the performance and capabilities of the soldiers during the maneuver and battle parts of the campaign. This in turn will help present a realistic framework that assists historians in keeping the interpretation of events accurate.
While certainly the Continental forces were in desperate straits the few weeks they spent in Bucks County, the reality of their encampment and conditions does not always mesh with public memory. When considering the operational nature of the river crossing and subsequent attack on Trenton the living conditions of the soldiers themselves become the most important dialogue. Military theory has always demanded that the success of an army on campaign depends squarely on its logistics, which includes the comfort and sustainability of the troops. Therefore, when considering the daunting events of December 25-26, we must directly lean on these factors as a precondition to what the Continental forces were able to achieve operationally. This is evident in the accounts that express the exhaustion of the individual soldiers and Washington’s decision to return the army to Pennsylvania after the attack. It is revealing in that when formulating the plan, it was recognized that the soldiers had just enough stamina based on their sustainability and logistics to enact and follow through on the operation.
George Washington to Richard Humpton, December 1, 1776, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series,ed. W. W. Abbott, Dorthy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, and Beverly H. Runge (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988),VII: 248.
Orders to Brigadier Generals Lord Stirling, Hugh Mercer, Adam Stephen, and La Rochefermoy, December 12, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0243.
“Return of the Forces in the Service of the States of America, encamped and in quarters on the banks of the Delaware, in the state of Pennsylvania, under the command of his Excellency George Washington, Esq., Commander-in-Chief of all the Forces of the United States in America, December 22d, 1776,” in American Archives: Fifth Series, ed. Peter Force (Washington, DC, prepared and published under an Act of Congress, 1853), 3: 1401-1402.
Lund Washington to George Washington, December 17, 1775, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0525.
Henry D. Paxson, Washington Crossing: Brief Itinerary of a Trip from Philadelphia to Washington Crossing and other Points of Historic Interest in Bucks County Pennsylvania (Washington Crossing, PA: Washington Crossing Park Commission, 1926), 36.
George Washington to James Ewing, Hugh Mercer, Adam Stephen, and Lord Stirling, December 14, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0264.