December 1776 was a difficult time in American history. The United States had been at war with England nearly two years and had quickly learned that battling the British army and navy was no small feat. The Continental Army suffered great losses and were fighting for their lives.

But one moment in December 1776 would define the American spirit to this day – the crossing of the Delaware.

Crossing the Delaware

We usually picture Washington’s crossing of the Delaware based on the famous painting. At a glance it appears to be a short, uncomplicated engagement. Under the direction of a mythic leader, American forces rowed across the Delaware River on Christmas to quickly capture a camp held by foreign mercenaries.

Those of us who have served, of course, can get a better feel for the full story.

Underfed and underdressed soldiers marched and waited in a freezing drizzle. They traversed a semi-frozen river in small boats, in the dark, as quietly as possible to not raise suspicion.

They were out the door by 4 p.m. on Christmas night. Movement across the river took nine hours to complete, so the journey didn’t end until 3 a.m. Once they landed, these American soldiers, many of them bootless, marched six miles through the morning snow on cold and bleeding feet.

Surprise and audacity made for a short and relatively bloodless battle with Hessian forces at the Battle of Trenton. The Hessians suffered 100 killed or wounded and 800 captured. Their American counterparts lost only two men, with five suffering injury.

Christmas forces always on watch

In some ways this was the real birth of the U.S. Army. And like the hundreds of battles fought by American service members since, it was fought and led by brave citizen soldiers.

One American officer wounded that morning was Lt. James Monroe. He would go on to be a Founding Father and American president. Millions have followed in that same vein, serving their nation in uniform, then returning home to do great things as civilians.

Since December 1776, the Christmas force has been on watch to keep America safe. They stood watch in the forests of Germany, the fields of Korea and even now in the deserts of Afghanistan and around the world.

This week, we’re especially thankful for the brave men and women who sacrifice time with their friends and families to stand watch and cross the Delaware if need be. Merry Christmas and happy holidays!