The Real Story of George Washington’s Decisive Christmas Attack at Trenton

The Old Barracks Museum (Photo: Courtesy Kevin Mooney)

TRENTON, N.J.—We all know the story from high school history. Or think we do.

Gen. George Washington and his tired and tiny Continental Army scored one of the most significant battlefield victories in American history at Christmas in 1776.

The Continentals launched a surprise attack on the Hessians—mercenaries from Germany who were protecting Trenton, N.J., on behalf of the British.

The Hessians had more firepower, the story goes. But they left themselves vulnerable to the surprise attack because they got drunk celebrating the holiday and passed out.

Their no-account leader, Col. Johann Rall, died in the battle with a note in his shirt pocket from a local spy warning him of the impending attack.

The real story of what happened that Christmas is far more interesting and complex. It is retold every year during “Patriots Week”—a celebration of the great victory that includes a re-enactment of the battle, which draws thousands to the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the Delaware River.

The Old Barracks Museum in Trenton is the center of the action during Patriots Week. There, one can ask colonial re-enactors what they know about Moses Doan, the loyalist spy opposed to the American Revolution who tried to warn Rall of Washington’s …read more