Monday, August 19, 2013

Cadwalader crossing the Delaware: hidden Revolutionary history

Everyone knows about Washington's legendary crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776. This bold move enabled Continental troops to surprise Hessian troops at Trenton, starting a chain of events that reversed the tide of the Revolutionary War.

What's not discussed very often is Washington's plan for a southern landing at an additional location about 20 miles south of Trenton at Dunk's Ferry. About 1500 men under the command of General John Calawalder took to the freezing waters of the Delaware with the goal of attacking the Hessians stationed in Burlington County. Their assault, it was thought, would divert attention from the Trenton invasion, busying Hessian troops who otherwise might be called north for fortification.

The site of Dunk's Ferry is now a park in Beverly, NJ.
Accounts of ice floes and bitter winds at Washington's crossing are echoed in the recollections of soldiers who attempted to reach the Burlington landing site, but what they found closer to the New Jersey shoreline was even more challenging than what their counterparts were experiencing to the north. A solid 150 yard wide sheet of ice prevented the boats from landing on the proper shore, and those carrying the troops' artillery were carried further downstream, mired among floating ice.

At that point, the surprise invasion became a case of "hurry up and wait." The 600 or so troops that had made it as far as the ice sheet were ordered to wait for further orders as Cadwalader contemplated his options. Would it be prudent to follow through on Washington's orders without the benefit of supporting artillery?

After three hours of waiting in the bitter, wind-driven cold, the troops received their orders: retreat to their point of origin at Bristol, Pennsylvania. Many of the troops felt that their efforts to reach the shore should not be wasted, and some even considered moving forward without Cadwalader. However, wiser heads prevailed, noting that they would be able to continue to support the patriot movement if Washington's plan proved unsuccessful. That, fortunately, wasn't an issue, but the ten days to follow were to be among the most crucial to the future of the young nation. Cadwalader and his men eventually made their way to New Jersey and northward, supporting Washington at the Battle of Princeton.

Today, Dunk's Ferry is better known as the town of Beverly, and the only visible sign of the planned landing site is a memorial erected by the town for the Bicentennial in 1776. Even that marker avoids mentioning the aborted landing, mentioning only that Washington and his troops used the site.

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