Crossing the Delaware
Respond to life’s challenges and failures like Washington.

At the start of the American Revolution, people didn’t yet view Washington the way we do now. We may have the false assumption that it was clear from the beginning that he was the man for the job he had been given. In reality, there were several contenders for Commander of the Continental Army, and Washington was only appointed to appease his home state of Virginia.

Upon hearing of his appointment, Washington himself said before congress: “I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust.”

Starting in July of 1775, Washington had to prove himself. He had to organize an army that had no structures, no supplies and no discipline.

From July 1775 to December 1776, Washington experienced almost no victories. In fact, that period was filled with defeats and failures.

The biggest defeat came in November 1776. Washington sought to defend New York City against the powerful British Navy. He had two forts built on opposite sides of the Hudson River—Fort Washington and Fort Lee.

These forts were severely outnumbered and outgunned by the British. It became clear to Washington that the defense of both Fort Washington and Fort Lee was an untenable notion. He thought the army should consolidate its guns and troops to one of the forts. But rather than make a decision, though, Washington gave in to one of his confident junior officers who thought he could hold both forts.

On November 16, the British launched a naval attack on Fort Washington. The attack was won with ease—forcing almost 3,000 American troops to surrender along with highly valuable artillery and supplies. This was a crippling loss for the Continental Army.

George Washington took this defeat, and his part in it, very personally. He watched the attack through a telescope from Fort Lee. Washington Irving, who interviewed eyewitnesses, said that “Washington wept with the tenderness of a child” as he watched the event unfold. Unsurprisingly, this event led the Continental Congress to question Washington’s leadership. It also forced Washington to retreat through New Jersey and across the Delaware River. Ron Chernow wrote that “the outcome could have only deepened Washington’s nightmarish sense of helplessness.”

A month later, Washington was not only facing the same great British army but also the well-trained Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey, on the eastern banks of the Delaware River.

Washington’s troops were encamped just to the west side and slightly downstream of the Delaware River. They would be quite safe in this position for the winter; the Hessians would have to navigate a dangerous river crossing under American fire in order to stage an attack. An ordinary general would have stayed on the western banks, restocked supplies, garnered support from Congress, and requested more troops. But Washington wasn’t willing to wait until spring for a victory.

This was less than six weeks after the colossal failure at Fort Washington, and Washington was about to risk the entire rebellion—and the future of this nation.

On the evening of December 25, 1776, Washington organized his men, and they silently boarded a flotilla of boats. The night was cold. The army was undersupplied. Washington wrote that his men’s feet left bloody paths in the snow. Washington told the army that profound silence was their primary objective.

Two-thousand-four-hundred American troops crossed the Delaware that night, less than had been lost six weeks earlier. A thick fog descended on the 40 ships, shrouding the Americans throughout the night and early morning. Washington rightfully accredited this to the hand of Providence—he knew God was blessing his mission.

In tactical terms, Washington had just removed the greatest defensive barrier he had between him and a far greater military force. This was not a moment of glorious victory, as is often depicted, but one of terrifying risk! Ron Chernow wrote of the event, “Quite simply, if the raid backfired, the war was likely over, and he [Washington] would be captured and killed.”

Upon reaching the eastern bank at 4 a.m., Washington’s troops snuck quietly up the winding banks of the Delaware. Finding the Hessians asleep at Trenton, Washington personally led a surprise attack which killed or captured 900 British and Hessians. Only seven Americans were lost, and five of those died from the cold. The whole attack took less than an hour. British Historian George Trevelyan wrote that “it may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with more lasting effects on the history of the world.”

America had just won its first major victory and had gained a sense of hope from it. More importantly, America had finally established confidence in its military leader.

You know the rest of the story. We view Washington with the utmost admiration for great reasons. But this, the crossing of the Delaware, was the moment when George Washington transitioned from a mediocre or disappointing leader to the genius General Washington we all know.

Yet he, just like all of us, experienced challenges and failures. We all want to have these great victories, like the Delaware, yet sometimes we only seem to have Fort Washington moments. It’s easy to let those moments shape who we are, what we do, how we carry ourselves, how we think—but Washington didn’t.

Don’t let your failures prevent future successes. In fact, use your failure to propel future success.

When Washington failed at Fort Washington, he didn’t just wallow in it. He didn’t let that define him. He understood that it was his fault, and he took responsibility, but he wasn’t content being a failure. He kept up the hope that he could redeem himself.

Washington’s example shows that it is wrong to think that because we have failures, we are failures. He would never submit to being a failure. As a result, he remained hungry for victories, and those victories came! Of course, they came from God, and Washington knew that his successes only came as a result of divine intervention, but we can rely on that intervention even more than he could!

Life isn’t easy. It is full of failures. But with a Washington-like response, we can overcome all of them.

We look back on Washington as a courageous leader, a brilliant and daring military tactician, a wise president—not because Washington lacked in failures, but because his failures only propelled him to cross the Delaware.