Emanuel Leutze's 1851 painting "George Washington Crossing… (The Bettmann Archive )
"I remember reading in my youth a small book — 'The Life of Washington' — and of all his struggles none fixed itself on my mind so indelibly as the crossing of the Delaware preceding the Battle of Trenton…" — Abraham Lincoln, Feb. 21, 1861
George Washington was the Father of Our Country and our first president. Before he was president, he was Gen. George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army and a wealthy landowner. He led America to a military victory over Great Britain — at the time, the most powerful country on Earth.
One of the most important battles of the war — the Battle of Trenton — was fought in the winter of 1776.
It was a bitterly cold winter and Washington's soldiers were a ragtag lot. There was little food for the men or warm clothes. Many had no shoes. Their feet were bleeding and they were losing every battle. They were fighting against a well-equipped, professional army.
But Washington had guts and stamina and he proved his brain power at the Battle of Trenton.
Trenton was a small town in New Jersey guarded by Hessian soldiers. The Hessians were professional German soldiers hired by the British. They thought the American soldiers were a joke. No way could the Americans win against these well-fed and warmly dressed professional warriors.
But Washington had a daring plan. He decided to attack the Hessians on Christmas night at Trenton.
Christmas Day, 1776, the Hessians were celebrating the holiday and their guard was down.
Washington knew this and he planned a surprise attack. He knew that surprise was the only way we could win.
He said to his troops, "Let us … show the whole world, that a Freeman contending for liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on Earth…" (A slavish mercenary is a soldier who believes in nothing and only fights for money.)
The American soldiers respected those words. After all, Washington was risking both his life and his wealth for liberty. How could they do less?
The Americans had to transport men and artillery across the Delaware River by boats in the dead of night. (A cannon could weigh 2,000 pounds.) Washington marched his men miles and miles through a driving snowstorm on that cold winter night until they reached a crossing on the river. The currents were strong, the snow was blinding. The river was full of large blocks of ice. Boat after boat crossed and re-crossed the treacherous waters, until they reached the other side of the river: Trenton – where the Hessians were stationed.
Washington and his army attacked. The Hessians were shocked and caught completely by surprise. They fled. Many were captured. The Americans won the day.
Why were the Americans willing to fight so hard with so little? The Americans fought because they believed in freedom. They were fighting for liberty. The Hessians fought because they were paid to fight.
There were to be many more battles, but this battle was a turning point in the American Revolution.
"…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom? and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." — Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 19, 1863.
Check out Short Stories in Activity Center on latimes.com/kids for more stories about American history.
Presidents' Day, Monday, Feb. 21, is the celebration of the births of two great presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.