Measured by the size of its importance to those fighting for the Cause of America, those everywhere in the country who saw Washington and his army as the one means of deliverance of American independence and all that was promised by the Declaration of Independence, [the battle of] Trenton was the first great cause for hope, a brave and truly “brilliant” stroke.
From the last week of August to the last week of December, the year 1776 has been as dark a time as those devoted to the American cause had ever known—indeed, as dark a time as any in the history of the country. And suddenly, miraculously it seemed, that had changed because of a small band of determined men and their leader. —1776, David McCullough
America was more deeply divided in 1776 than it would in the Civil War, Viet Nam, or the current war in Iraq. Large majorities in some states were opposed to breaking away from Great Britain, which was at the time the world’s mightiest military superpower. The British were joined by tens of thousands of German professional soldiers, often ruthless, always fierce fighters.
Opposing them was a ragtag people’s army of poorly trained volunteers unused to military discipline, farmers and businessmen who risked their lives and fortunes to support the cause of independence.
By the fall of 1776, after a series of humiliating defeats in New York, George Washington’s Continental Army had been decimated. The war had become too difficult, the price of freedom too high. Many abandoned him and went home.
The Germans, under command of the British, had occupied Trenton, NJ and were closing in on Philadelphia. The Continental Congress had fled. The remainder of Washington’s army was sick, hungry, cold and despondent.
Needing a victory to regain the momentum, Washington planned a last-ditch offensive. He would divide his army in thirds and cross the frozen Delaware River on Christmas, 1776, hitting Princeton and Trenton, NJ in a coordinated attack at dawn on December 26.
But, as usual, everything went wrong. A blizzard struck on the night of the crossing, forcing two of his three armies to turn back. Ice floes in the river slowed operations and put Washington’s army hours behind schedule. Two of his men froze to death on the long march to battle. Guns were soaked and icy, which meant that combat would have to take place close in, with bayonettes and the support of a few artillery pieces.
Unaware that his supporting forces had turned back in the storm, Washington and his troops attacked Trenton ferociously. They were up against a tough group of Hessians who had bested Washington once before, and now controlled the town.
This time, Washington came away the victor. His men fought relentlessly, and in the end Washington won the battle for Trenton, capturing 900 German prisoners.
The victory restored Washington’s flagging reputation and gave the independence movement a much-needed shot in the arm. In his excellent book on the campaigns of 1776, David McCullough does not credit Washington’s success to brilliance or skill, but to his tenacity.
Again and again, in letters to Congress and to his officers, and in his general orders, [Washington] had called for perseverance—for “perseverance and spirit,” for “patience and perseverance,” for “unremitting courage and perseverance.” … Without Washington’s leadership and unrelenting perseverance, the revolution almost certainly would have failed.—1776, David McCullough.
Which got me thinking about this human quality we call perseverance. Where do we see it today? Where does it come from?
The OED defines perseverance as constant persistence in a course of action or purpose, especially in the face of difficulty or obstacles. Perseverance is not just subborn resolve, but stubborn resolve when the odds are stacked up against you. You don’t persevere in the pursuit of a sure thing; you’re persevering when you doggedly pursue a long shot, and when that commitment is costing you big time.
I think of people I have known who have survived cancer, but only after they have allowed doctors to cut and radiate and poison their bodies, all in the knowledge that only one in twenty or fifty or one-thousand ever survive the disease, despite these efforts.
They persevere because they want to live and life is precious; life is invaluable.
Which suggests another wrinkle in my understanding of perseverance: we summon it up when the goal of all our painful resolve seems too valuable, too wonderful to take our eyes off of.
Liberty and all that it promised was so precious to Washington and his faithful few that they were willing to endure horrendous suffering in its pursuit.
I know certain missionaries who have persevered in bringing the Gospel of Jesus to groups of people who, after decades, seem utterly disinterested. They persist in the face of hardship and disappointment because the goal, bringing men and women to faith in Christ, is precious to them.
Faith itself, the life of faith, requires perseverance. The writer of Hebrews gives this description of faith, one that has amazed me since I first read it:
Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see. —Hebrews 11:1, JB Phillips
Do you hear the uncertainty? Faith is a stance in life based on a hope, a dream, a promise floating off in the distant mist where we can only glimpse it briefly before it disappears again.
This faith in Christ, this life of obedience to an unseen God, this hope of a future where God himself will wipe away every tear is by definition a life lived in perseverance. It is by definition a life of hardship, sacrifice, uncertainty, doubt, but all in the pursuit of a prize well worth the pain: a relationship with the eternal God, the God who loves us.
There would be no America today if not for George Washington’s heroic perseverance. And many other precious things, it seems, are only attained by that same relentless march towards a slender hope against very long odds.
I wonder: Do I have what it takes to persevere?
Painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze