The Battle of Trenton, at the end of 1776, was, as you all know, a decisive turning point in the War of Independence. The Continental Army had earlier suffered stinging defeat in New York, and New Jersey didn’t look very promising. By late December of that year the entire revolutionary effort looked to be in doubt. To make matters worse, many of the colonial soldiers’ enlistments were set to expire at the beginning of the new year, and many of the men must have imagined cutting their losses and returning home to try to salvage what remained of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, in the aftermath of this misadventure.
It was the success at Trenton that changed the momentum of the war and set the cause of independence on a course for success. I won’t recount for you here the details of the battle – which many men here know, I’m sure, with greater clarity than I do. But I will recall one miniscule detail of the march to Trenton, after Washington and his men had already successfully crossed the icy Delaware.
Somewhere near Jacob’s Creek, about 12 miles from Trenton, while General Washington was directing the movement of artillery from horseback, the hind legs of his horse buckled and the horse began to slip backward down an ice-covered slope. Washington, ever the horseman, grabbed the horse’s mane, yanked his head upright, shifted his own weight in the saddle, spurred his horse forward, and managed to prevent the horse from careening down the ice. He recovered his stature, stayed in the saddle, and continued to oversee the movement of the artillery.[i]
It’s reasonable to surmise that there were Troopers nearby, since they were with Washington on the way to Trenton. And I like to imagine that the Troopers’ confidence in their General was bolstered by his expert horsemanship. Certainly from a historical perspective, as the most recently named, Most Improved Rider of the Troop, I’d have been impressed!
But we know how easily and how often history turns on miniscule events. Who knows what would have happened if the march to Trenton, already hours behind schedule, had been thwarted because of the unauthorized dismount of its commanding officer?
As it happened, Washington and his men caught the Hessians who manned Trenton by surprise, and in 45 minutes of fighting claimed a decisive victory, then turned back to return to the relative safety of Pennsylvania on the other side of the Delaware.
Once back on this side of the river, Washington had a pressing task at hand: to convince the men whose enlistments were about to expire to re-up, which he did, sitting on his horse and offering a $10 bounty in return for signing on for an additional six weeks of service in the Continental Army.
Picture Washington giving a speech to his men while mounted on his horse. As one soldier described it, the general “told us our services were greatly needed and that we could do more for our country than we ever could at any future date and in the most affectionate manner entreated us to stay.”[ii]
At first just a few men stepped forward. As the others looked at Washington, I wonder if they called to mind that scene from just a day or two before when it had seemed the illustrious general was about to be toppled from his horse to slide unceremoniously into a half-frozen creek. Did they recall his strong fingers grasping the horse’s mane and holding his head up? Did they see his sure legs grip the horse’s sides? Did they remember the way his shifted his weight just so in the saddle to help the horse regain its balance? Did they hold in their minds eyes the vision of that horse spurred forward, steam snorting out its nostrils, ears forward, its eyes alight, and its rider sure and confident and upright, taking command of the work that needed to be done to assure the victory they had crossed the river to accomplish?
Who knows what the men thought? But every one of them eventually stepped forward to re-up, and the rest of how things played out in the war, is, as they say, history. And perhaps throughout the years of war that lay ahead of them his soldiers remembered the sight of that sure horseman on his steed, bringing victory where others would have found only defeat.
I don’t know for sure, but I very much doubt that the papers that reported the successful river crossing and the victory at Trenton included any word about George Washington’s horsemanship. But if they had, here’s how the headline might have read:
Horse slips, Washington doesn’t fall.
Now, this sounds like a pretty boring headline, but it is at the heart of what we revere about Washington: when the going got tough and things looked bleak, our man stayed on his horse. It certainly would be good press for any Trooper!
Now think for a moment about that reading we heard from the Revelation to Saint John the Divine, about war that breaks out in heaven. If you think about it, and put aside all the hoopla about a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads, this is, more or less the headline for the war in heaven:
Dragons attack, angels win.
It is also the headline that every solider who marches as to war hopes will be told about him:
Enemy fires, our boys are safe!
It follows, of course, the general contours of the Christian Gospel, which can also be reported in headline form:
Christ hung on a Cross to Die: Rises from the Dead.
And the reason the image of Jesus hanging from the Cross has been branded onto our memories is because we need that image, too, in the time that lies ahead of us. We need to be reminded of Christ the sure rider, as it were, on his Cross: confident and upright, taking command of the work that needs to be done to assure the victory he has crossed the river to accomplish.
It is no wonder that very shortly after he died, in 1799, it became popular to revere George Washington with an enthusiasm usually reserved for saints. And it was not long before the image of the “apotheosis of George Washington” produced. This image, which literally means “George Washington becoming a god” is what graces the rotunda of our nation’s capitol, where Washington, draped in royal purple, is flanked by Victory and Liberty, surrounded by figures representing the thirteen original states.
Great debate has been waged about the matter of Washington’s faith: how strong it was, or whether he had any at all. The rector of this church, William White, once said that no amount of recollection could bring to his mind “any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.”[iii]
But what we know or understand about Washington and the inner workings of his heart and mind actually pales in importance beside the image of him as the strong rider who will not be unseated from his horse, who will lead his men to the victory that they crossed the water to accomplish, and defying all odds, achieving that victory not only in Trenton but in the grand battle for freedom.
And in that image, we see, too, something true about our faith in Jesus Christ, the inner workings of whose heart and mind are unknowable to us, the mysteries of whose birth remain much talked about, the meaning of whose death is much debated…
All of which pales in comparison to the image of that sure rider, as it were, on the Cross, who will not come down from it to save his own skin, but who remains there to save our souls, who will lead us to the victory he crossed the water to accomplish, and whose triumph is a freedom more sublime than any even the great General Washington could have won for us: freedom from the fear of death, the tyranny of the grave, an eternity of hopelessness… For which we give thanks to God now, and for as long as our voices will praise him.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
at the Washington Memorial Service of
The First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry
18 December 2011
Christ Church, Philadelphia
[i] Chernow, Ron; Washington, A Life; 2010, New York, Penguin, page 274
[ii] Ibid. page 278
[iii] Ibid. page 130