How Sobriety Lost the Battle: Beer and the Battle of Trenton
The American military has a long-standing tradition of social drinking. From the infamous grog bowl to the Officer’s Club, American fighting spirit is derived in part from spirits of another kind. This tradition is hardly new. America’s fighting forces owe much to patriotic brewers, distillers, and vintners. This tradition dates back to before the birth of the nation.
In December of 1776, the Continental Army was in dire straits. The more professional and well-equipped British Army had ceaselessly battered the Americans, and the battles at Long Island and Fort Washington inflicted brutal losses on the Americans. Desertions were common, and even General Washington privately admitted in his letters that “the game is near up.”
The Continental Army’s greatest problem however, was morale. The sons of farmers and tradesmen felt quite useless against the well-trained British Regulars, but what truly terrified the Americans were the mercenary Hessians. The Hessians were German soldiers, leased by the British from the Germanic state of Hesse. The 1770s were the pre-industrial apex of German military power, and German fighters, especially the Hessians, were renowned across Europe for their fighting prowess.
Beating the Hessians seemed about as likely as the Taliban out-gunning an A-10, but General Washington knew that a victory over the Germans, even a strategically insignificant one, would bolster American morale. More importantly, victory would prove the effectiveness of the Continentals to the American public and their French financiers, who were staying on the sidelines until the Americans demonstrated a real shot at victory.
To beat the Germans, Washington needed an equalizer; a way to level the playing field with the Hessians. The answer came in the form of American brew.
American alcohol production in the 1770s was a booming business. At the time, microbiology wasn’t well understood, so Europeans and colonists alike subscribed to the belief that water caused illness, and that beer was thus a healthy alternative (the brewing process did actually sanitize beer, while most water sources remained contaminated). Beer was widely available in any colonial town, and the tavern was a fixture of life in colonial America.
The beer produced in early America differed significantly from the traditional beer of Europe. Colonial America did not have easy access to many European beer ingredients, such as hops and barley. This forced colonists to get creative with their recipes. Fermentable sugars came from pumpkins, molasses, or persimmons. Spruce shoots were an easy substitute for hops. Beer was often brewed in the home.
As the economy and infrastructure of the colonies improved, trade increased up and down the East Coast. The establishment of taverns in turn facilitated the growth of commerce. Taverns not only provided a safe area for travelers to stop, rest, and grab a beer; they were also a valuable public space. The tavern was a commercial center, where farmers and merchants could buy and sell goods. In some regions, a barrel of ale was even considered a medium of exchange. The tavern also functioned as a judicial center, since the legal system of the day depended on travelling jurists. Often, these jurists would hold court where they were staying — the tavern. By the time of the Revolutionary War, it was almost a given that any town of significance would have a tavern, and an ample stock of beer.
In the winter of 1776, as Washington and his staff began to plan their next move, they realized a rare opportunity had presented itself. German Christmas celebrations traditionally include copious amounts of beer, and to the 1500-man garrison at Trenton, New Jersey the Christmas of 1776 was likely no exception. Since any mid-sized colonial town had plenty of beer available, Washington’s staff hypothesized that on Christmas night the garrison would be unready for combat, thanks to the ready availability of American beer, and the German propensity for drinking it. An unnamed officer on Washington’s staff is reported to have said,
They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning.
Confident they could overwhelm the thoroughly buzzed Hessians, Washington and his staff planned one of the most daring operations of the entire Revolutionary War. The Continental Army would stage on the Pennsylvania bank of the Delaware River on Christmas Day. Once night fell, the army would ferry across the river, march nine miles to Trenton, and ultimately conduct a pre-dawn assault on the town.
The operation was beleaguered from the outset. The crossing proved difficult, and the operation ran almost three hours behind schedule. The weather was also uncooperative. Rain soaked the troops and muddied the roads. The army crossed the river, but the falling temperatures turned the rain to sleet and then snow. Many Continental soldiers did not even have proper shoes and their frostbitten feet began to bleed onto the snow. Two soldiers would die of exposure on the six-hour march.
Washington knew he was already fully committed, and despite the setbacks, pressed on. Finally, at 0900 the army arrived at Trenton. The first engagement was with a small picket, whose lieutenant spied the approaching army as he emerged from a copper shop. Washington realized the enemy was not in battle order. Despite all the delays, errors and miscalculations, he had still caught the Hessians completely flat footed.
The few Hessians on duty scrambled through a fighting retreat. Meanwhile, Washington ordered the potential escape routes cut off, and cannon to seize the hilltop at the edge of town. The Hessians attempted to form in battle order, but were quickly cut down by American cannon, which had a clear field of fire from the high ground. Hessian artillerymen found the Americans had seized the German cannon as well, and by the time they were retaken, the Americans had rendered them inoperable. Before long, the Hessians were in a fighting retreat, under harassing fire from the Americans. The Hessian commander was mortally wounded, rendering the Hessians leaderless. Cornered in an orchard outside of town, the Germans surrendered to the ragtag Americans.
In the final accounting, The Americans suffered no KIA and only a handful of wounded. The Germans suffered around 100 killed and 200 wounded. Nearly 1000 Hessians were captured. The biggest surprise, however, came as the Continentals took stock of their captives.
The ragtag Americans had beaten the Hessians, some of the finest soldiers in the world, using surprise, mobility, and firepower at the decisive point. The rumored German propensity for beer never played a role in the fighting at all.
It’s a commonly accepted trope that alcohol increases one’s confidence. Usually, it’s the drinker’s confidence that is unduly increased, but in the Battle of Trenton, the opposite proved true. Washington’s confidence in the appeal of American beer gave him the impetus to launch his assault on Trenton. The battle had powerful repercussions for the momentum of the war, and restored the confidence of the Continental army.
If you’re looking to commemorate the Battle of Trenton, look no further than the Stone Fence, a staple of any tavern in colonial America, and rumored to have been a favorite of Ethan Allen:
2oz Dark Rum
Directions: Pour the rum into a pint glass, add 1 or 2 ice cubes, and fill with hard cider. Garnish with lemon twist, and enjoy!
Paul Lewandowski is a gin aficionado and MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Bologna, Italy campus. He previously served in the U.S. Army and deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Photo credit: Marion Doss