The Faith of Our Fathers

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We face difficult times in America: A historic stock market crash. A deep recession. Political and financial scandals.

How should we respond? Remembering the story of how George Washington, our first commander-in-chief, responded to an even greater Christmas crisis is most instructive.

Only weeks after the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, 20,000 British troops landed on Staten Island, N.Y., with the goal of crushing the rebellion. The invasion force of the world’s best soldiers was the largest the British Empire ever had deployed.

An angry King George III and Parliament were determined not only to end the rebellion but to destroy the American will to resist. They planned to seize New York and Philadelphia, cut the rebellious colonies in half and capture or kill all those who had dared to take up arms against Britain.

Defending New York, Washington and 10,000 American soldiers stood alone against these plans.

Beginning in August 1776, Washington and the Continental Army lost a bruising series of conventional battles against the British. At the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans were outmaneuvered and outgunned. Washington and his surviving troops escaped across the East River in the dead of night.

Washington then lost Manhattan and was defeated at the Battle of White Plains. The British soon captured Fort Washington in Harlem Heights and Fort Lee in New Jersey. In these battles over 1,000 Americans were killed and 4,000 captured. Almost all of the American POWs later died of disease and starvation aboard British prison ships anchored in the East River. Thousands more American soldiers deserted ranks.

By November 1776, Washington and his 3,000 remaining troops were forced to flee across New Jersey toward Philadelphia. On Dec.11, they crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania hoping that the British Army would call off pursuit until spring.

Washington’s men were hungry, cold and poorly armed. New York and New Jersey were occupied by enemy soldiers. Americans across all 13 states were shocked and dispirited by the defeats. The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia, fearing the British would seize the city. The enlistments of most of Washington’s soldiers were set to expire on Jan. 1, 1777.

As they camped on the west bank of the Delaware, Washington’s Army was about to melt away. In his essay on the "American Crisis" written in December 1776, Thomas Paine famously wrote "these are the times that try men’s souls."

Fortunately for the cause of American independence, the British followed 18th-century European custom and suspended their offensive campaign for the winter.

This was the moment when a significant American leader became immortal in history. Washington retained hope because he and his followers believed in their cause. He also realized that he must innovate. Fighting the British in the conventional European way had led only to defeat. So, he decided to do the unthinkable.

On Christmas night 1776, Gen. Washington he led his remaining troops through the darkness back across the Delaware. Despite a severe winter storm and heavy ice flows in the river, Washington and his army landed 10 miles north of Trenton, N.J., which was occupied by 1,500 German mercenary troops under British command.

Washington’s plan was to surprise the Hessians at dawn, defeating the enemy force and capturing their food, cannon and ammunition.

From the start, things went wrong. The snow and sleet caused huge delays. But Washington remained determined to succeed. His motto for the operation was "Victory or Death." Washington and his American soldiers marched all night. At mid-morning on Dec. 26, they reached Trenton and attacked the Hessians.

Washington’s strategy achieved total surprise, winning the battle in less than one hour. His troops killed or wounded 100 Hessians and captured 900, while 500 fled. Washington lost only two soldiers – both died of hypothermia during the long night’s march.

One week later, Washington won a second surprise victory at the Battle of Princeton, forcing the British Army to retreat to New York. A wave of confidence and enthusiasm swept through the new United States and the British never again dominated the American battlefield.

During the Christmas crisis of 1776, Washington demonstrated hope, innovation and determination in the face of unbelievable hardships. While we face far lesser challenges today, we should remember Washington and have faith that we will succeed.

Glen Meakem was the founder and CEO of FreeMarkets Inc. in Pittsburgh. He is co-founder and managing director of Meakem Becker Venture Capital.