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December 14, 2007 A Christmas Story - 1776

Provided By JOHN O. MARSH, JR.
Secretary of the Army, 1981-1989
Former VA Congressman--7th District, 1963-1971

Christmas day in 1776 fell on a Wednesday. It was a cold miserable and bitter day in Buck's County, Pennsylvania. Later that afternoon as skies began to darken, snow mixed with sleet fell on Washington's Army as they assembled on the banks of the Delaware River. The men were underfed, and punished by the cold made worse by a strong cutting wind. Poorly clad, some did not have any shoes, as blood spots on the snow attested. Crossing the Delaware to attack Trenton was made more dangerous by the approaching dark, and gathering ice floes on the river.

A small detachment of fifty soldiers from the Third Virginia Regiment which, had earlier crossed the river, were an advance party for reconnaissance purposes, and also to secure the avenues of approach. They would later play a key role in the attack on Trenton after linking up with the main body of troops. The reconnaissance force was commanded by Captain William Washington, a distant relative of the Commanding General. He had only one officer to assist in command, an eighteen year-old first lieutenant from the Third Virginia, who had volunteered for the assignment.

Enroute to their Trenton objective, soldiers in the advance party inadvertently aroused occupants of a farmhouse. The owner proved to be not only a Patriot, but also a doctor. He grabbed his medical bag and joined the troops as their surgeon. His name was Dr. John Riker, and he was destined to earn a special place in American history later that day.

As the American force moved into Trenton, the Hessian garrison belatedly alerted, sought to repel the attack and moved two howitzers into the street to provide direct fire on the attackers. Captain Washington and his lieutenant led a charge under fire on the guns, and captured both.

Both officers were badly wounded. Captain Washington in both hands. His lieutenant was hit by a musket ball in the left shoulder severing an artery. He would have bled to death but for the swift action of Dr. Riker in stopping the blood flow. The young officer, for his valorous action, was on that day given a battlefield promotion to Captain.

Not only did he live to fight another day, but also posterity knows him better as the fifth President of the United States--James Monroe.

Next April on the 28th marks the 250th anniversary of his birth. What shall the Nation do to honor him?

Washington and Monroe at Trenton