Shlepping children to museums, historical venues, and theater performances can sometimes feel like a valiant but hopeless effort to inspire the next generation. At the symphony, the kid is surreptitiously listening to his iPod; while wandering past Impressionist paintings, she’s playing with a Game Boy; at a Civil War battlefield, it’s nonstop whining. But sometimes, believe it or not, it works.
When Mark Sirak, resource interpretive specialist at Washington Crossing State Park, was 11, his family joined his uncle’s family on a trip to Gettysburg. He bought history books at the park and hasn’t stopped reading history since.
Although Sirak’s devotion to the past endured through high school and onward, his route to becoming a professional historian was circuitous. After high school, in 1992, he went to college for a semester but then dropped out, got married, and took a job with the maintenance department at Washington Crossing State Park, which he kept for 14 years.
From about 1993 to ’96 he participated in several civil war reenactments. Both he and his uncle, Bruce Sirak, were infantry soldiers at the 130th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1993. His uncle, who is the real devotee, has since graduated to portraying Governor Charles Olden, New Jersey governor during the Civil War.
Sirak went back to school to Rutgers University at night in 1995, and it took him seven years to get a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education. A year later, he was able to transfer to the visitor center at Washington Crossing, where he has been a historian for three years.
Sirak will share his love of history in a lecture titled "Christmas Night Crossing and the Battle of Trenton," Saturday, December 17, at the Washington Crossing State Park Visitor Center in Titusville. The talk, originally developed by his colleague, Clay Craighead, uses diaries and letters of participants of the famous George Washington Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware to bring the story to life.
The setting for the Christmas night crossing in 1776 was an American army in retreat and a country in despair. "People think of `76 as a great year, with the Declaration of Independence, but actually it was dismal for the cause," says Sirak who, like most historians, loves to correct popular misconceptions about the past.
After the declaration, George Washington had attempted to defend New York City, but was defeated in a series of battles. Forced to retreat to Pennsylvania, he wrote on December 18 to his older half-brother, Lawrence, "If every nerve is not strained to recruit the new army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty nearly up."
Both short on men and equipment and lacking a well-trained army, Washington needed a victory to reverse American fortunes. In a letter that Washington allegedly wrote to Charles Lee on November 30, he implies hope for an opportunity to turn things around: "Should they [the British] now really risk this undertaking [crossing the river and trying to take Philadelphia], then there is a great probability that they will pay dearly for it, for I shall continue to retreat before them so as to lull them in security." Although some historians believe this letter was planted, because it is far more optimistic than others during the retreat, Sirak believes it to be authentic.
The moment for daring action came on the freezing-cold night of December 25, 1776. Critical to the operation’s potential for success was the presence of two types of boats: Durham boats and ferries. The Durham boats, named after the Durham Iron Works near Easton, Pennsylvania, were used to bring iron ore to Philadelphia and then return goods to the towns farther north on the Delaware. Because the river is shallow in some places, these boats were designed to handle heavy weight but with a shallow draft. Hence, says Sirak, "they were good for moving troops."
A second style of boat available to Washington, not often mentioned, was the ferry boats at the two adjacent ferries, John’s (now called Johnson’s) Ferry on the New Jersey side and McKonkey Ferry in Pennsylvania. "Johnson’s Ferry was a logical crossing point, because the ferries were here, and it was navigable," says Sirak. The flat ferry boats, normally used for regular commerce, carried about 100 horses and 18 artillery cannons across the river for Washington. Sirak notes that it would not have been possible to load these items in and out of the Durham boats.
Sirak also dispels the popular myth that the Hessian troops who defended Trenton were celebrating Christmas that night and were drunk. "There is no evidence of this," says Sirak. He quotes John Greenwood, a 15-year-old fifer with the 15th Massachusetts who was given musket for the battle: "I am willing to go upon oath that I did not see even a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy."
"Actually the Hessians were tired and fatigued," says Sirak. Their commander, Colonel Rall, had ordered that each night at least one of the three regiments "sleep upon their arms" — that is, mostly in uniform so that they could quickly turn out for an alarm.
The Hessians sent out daily patrols to Johnson’s Ferry, and they were constantly harassed by small boatloads of Americans from Washington’s army who would attack outposts, kill a couple of Hessians, and then cross back to Pennsylvania. Also, the Hunterdon County militia (there was no Mercer County then) would make hit-and-run attacks on patrols. Because of these attacks, the Hessians had to be constantly on their guard.
Before Christmas, Rall had been warned by General James Grant, the commander in Brunswick (now New Brunswick), that Washington was planning an attack. But by lucky happenstance for the Americans, 40 of Washington’s men made an unauthorized raid on a Hessian outpost on the outskirts of Princeton on December 24, and Rall thought that was the attack he had been warned about. As a result, he turned out the whole Hessian garrison of 1,500 men, but by then the Americans had vanished. It’s likely that the Hessians then let down their guard.
Also in favor of Washington’s troops was the fact that the Hessian garrison was exposed, with the nearest supporting troops as far away as Princeton (11 miles) and Mt. Holly (13 miles). "If they were attacked or encircled," says Sirak, "they were on their own."
The night of the 25th brought the terrible weather and had Washington very worried. A Nor’easter had crept up, with rain, sleet, snow, and wind. The observations of several participants give a sense of its fierceness, says Sirak.
Colonel Henry Knox wrote: "The army…passed the river on Christmas night with almost infinite difficulty….The floating ice in the river made the labor almost incredible, however perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible….The night was cold and stormy; it hailed with great violence…."
And Major General Nathaniel Greene wrote: "It raind, haild, and snowd and was a violent storm. The storm of nature and the storm of the town exhibited a scene that fild the mind during the action with passions easier conceivd than describd."
The weather put the crossing way behind schedule. Beginning in the late afternoon, Washington had hoped to get his troops to the other side of the river by midnight and attack before dawn. But, as he wrote to Congress from his headquarters in Newtown, Pennsylvania, on December 27, two days after the battle: "The quantity of ice made that night impeded the passage of the boats so much that it was 3:00 before the artillery could all be got over; and near four before the troops took up their line of march. This made me despair of surprising the town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke. But as I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered and harassed on repassing the river, I determined to push on at all events."
But the weather turned out to be another lucky break. The Hessians canceled their morning patrol about halfway to Johnson’s Ferry, figuring that no one could possibly cross the Delaware in that weather. And likely they didn’t want to expose their own men to the cold and precipitation. "They were probably within a mile or two of the head of the American column when they turned around," says Sirak.
Halfway between the river and the Hessian garrison in Trenton, at the Birmingham Quaker Meeting House (in West Trenton at what is now the corner of Lower Ferry and Grand Avenue), Washington split his army in two. General Greene went left on Lower Ferry into Scotch Road (today, Parkway to Pennington), and came in from the north; his troops set up artillery at the location of Battle Monument to fire down the two main streets of Trenton, King (now North Broad) and Queen (now Warren). At the same time, General John Sullivan went down the river road and came in from the south.
"They were lucky that it was actually timed perfectly," says Sirak. "Both columns hit parts of town within five (or some say, three) minutes of each other."
Washington’s army subdued the Hessians in somewhere between 45 minutes and two hours. The Hessians did countercharge, but when Rall was mortally wounded, they surrendered. About 500 Hessians managed to escape, but the Americans captured over 900. "George Washington had been losing battles up to this point, and the Hessians were greatly feared," says Sirak. "This victory starts to turn things around. The morale boost for the army and the nation was tremendous."
This period from the victory over the Hessians and through two more battles was nicknamed the "Ten Crucial Days." A second Battle of Trenton came a few days after the first one. Washington fought a mix of Hessians and British troops and either won, as Sirak thinks, or came to a draw, according to others. Then came the Battle of Princeton, a victory over troops who were 90 percent British, which dramatically changed the perception of the war among both the military and the American populace.
The difficult crossing of the Delaware and the battles that followed were not only formative from a military perspective. This period was also something of a proving ground for many men who were to hold important positions in the fledgling American government. These included Colonel Henry Knox, commander of the crossing, who shortly after became a general and eventually Secretary of War in Washington’s first cabinet; Alexander Hamilton, who became Secretary of the Treasury; James Monroe, who was a lieutenant in the Virginia regiment
and later became our fifth president; and John Stark, who became instrumental in New Hampshire politics.
Sirak himself grew up in Yardley not too far from the site of the crossing or the battle. His father worked in maintenance for the Borough of Penndel’s sewage treatment plant, but was injured on the job. His mother has worked for the State of New Jersey in the Department of Environmental Protection in human resources since 1986. Sirak and his wife, Jennifer, have three young children and live in Titusville, where Sirak has lived for 12 years.
As a historian at Washington Crossing, Sirak interprets for school groups and visitors the collection of 600 artifacts from the American Revolution that the Swan Historical Foundation leases to the State of New Jersey to share with the viewing public.
Sirak likes to close his lectures with his favorite quote, one that encapsulates the morale boost in the wake of the victory at Trenton. Nicholas Cresswell, a loyalist in Virginia, wrote: "The minds of the people are much altered. A few days ago, they had given up the cause for lost. Their late successes have turned the scale and now they are all liberty mad again."
Christmas Night Crossing and Battle of Trenton, Saturday, December 17, 2 p.m., Washington Crossing State Park Visitor Center, Titusville. Historian Mark Sirak presents a talk using diaries and letters of the participants. 609-737-9303.