Merry Christmas. I suspect that was a rare phrase among the freezing soldiers at Valley Forge in the bleak days leading up to December 25, 1777. General George Washington was presiding over a rag-tag assembly of would-be warriors who were far better at farming than fighting. They had battle experience, but most of it was in losing rather than winning. Washington feared that if help did not soon come, the army would completely disband and with that all hope of American liberty would be lost.
There was a turning point at Valley Forge that Christmas. It did not come because of having a celebration of Christ’s birth, but of interrupting one. In the late hours of December 25, Washington took his troops across the half frozen water of the Delaware River toward the encamped Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. The well fed and warmed mercenaries encamped there celebrated Christmas and retired for the night, secure in the knowledge that no one would be foolish enough to attempt a military maneuver in this weather, especially not the beleaguered, near dead Americans.
At dawn on December 26th, Washington ordered the attack and alarmed Hessians scrambled for clothes and weapons but to no avail. With more than one hundred killed or wounded, the remaining troops surrendered the fort and Washington had won his first conclusive victory.
The long winter at Valley Forge did not end on that day however. More cold, more hardship, and more threat of desertion plagued this fledgling fighting force. Valley Forge was not the decisive turning point in the American Revolution because of the capture of Trenton, that was only one part of the story. The greatest achievement is in the fact that a doubting Congress learned that no matter how difficult the obstacles, or how much they threatened to replace him, George Washington would not quit.
By March of 1778, with the new found help of France, a well-trained disciplined force left Valley Forge fully prepared to meet the British Forces. For the next three years, Washington saw his troops out maneuver and out fight the larger professional brigades of Cornwallis until at last, the war ended with the surrender at Yorktown.
In a very real way, you and I as Americans have the opportunity to celebrate this joyous holiday in a free and prosperous land because on that cold, bleak Christmas of 1777, George Washington refused to celebrate and chose rather to interrupt the celebration among the opposing forces.