General Washington Bids Farewell to the Man Who Ferried Him Across the Delaware on Christmas

This connection symbolizes an iconic moment in the history of the Revolutionary War

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Purchase $75,000

Originally obtained by us direct from the Glover descendants and has long by in a private collection.


Before the Revolution, from his base in Marblehead, Massachusetts, John Glover was engaged in the profitable import-export trade with the West Indies and the Iberian peninsula . He developed a thorough knowledge of the...

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General Washington Bids Farewell to the Man Who Ferried Him Across the Delaware on Christmas

This connection symbolizes an iconic moment in the history of the Revolutionary War

Originally obtained by us direct from the Glover descendants and has long by in a private collection.


Before the Revolution, from his base in Marblehead, Massachusetts, John Glover was engaged in the profitable import-export trade with the West Indies and the Iberian peninsula . He developed a thorough knowledge of the sea and the men who spent their lives on it. He was also in command of he town’s militia, and following the battle at Bunker Hill on June 17 , 1775, Glover marched his regiment to Cambridge and joined the army besieging the British in Boston.

On taking command of the American army in July 1775, George Washington decided to tighten the siege by intercepting British supply vessels. He sought Glover’s advice in this matter and in August Washington chartered Glover’s schooner Hannah. She was armed and sent to sea, becoming the first of several vessels Washington would use for this purpose.

At the start of 1776, the Marblehead Militia Regiment formally became the 14th Continental Regiment and was ordered in July to march to New York and later to Long Island. Washington had divided his army and posted a sizable force on Long Island. General Sir William Howe took advantage of Washington’s mistake. In a series of maneuvers he outflanked the Americans driving them back against the East River until they were nearly surrounded. Their only hope was to somehow escape across the river to Manhattan.

During the night of August 29, Glover and his Marbleheaders ferried 9,000 Continental troops and all of their equipment, guns, horses, and cannon, at night and under appalling weather conditions. In mid-October, Glover and 750 of his soldiers fought to a standstill a British force of more than 4,000 regulars.

After fleeing across New Jersey into Pennsylvania in late 1776, Washington watched as the British struggled in vain to get across the Delaware River. The Americans had commandeered nearly all the boats up and down the stream for miles, and all bridges were destroyed, so British General Howe decided to bring to a close his campaign for the year and marched the bulk of his army back to winter quarters in New York. To occupy the conquered colony of New Jersey, the British general left behind a chain of garrisons; one of these was at Trenton.

Washington grasped quickly the flaw in the British strategy: exposed enemy posts along the river lay wide open for a surprise raid. The Delaware, which had been a sanctuary from a British assault, could become a springboard for an American attack. Several days before Christmas, he worked out a daring plan to throw four separate forces across the river to attack Trenton on the night of the holiday. The main force led by Washington himself was to cross at McKonkey’s Ferry, nine miles above Trenton, and dash down the opposite shore to smash the Hessian garrison stationed in town. A second detachment under General James Ewing was to pass over the river nearer Trenton and seize the bridge leading out of town to cut off any possibility of retreat in that direction. A third body under Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross farther downstream to divert the attention of a Bordentown garrison. Lastly, Washington called upon General Israel Putnam, commanding the forces in Philadelphia, to march a militia column into New Jersey further to distract the enemy.

The plan was at best a desperate gamble but he felt he had no alternative but attack. The week after Christmas his army would disintegrate as enlistments expired, and he had to get one more battle out of these men before many of them left the service. Unfortunately his four-pronged attack never came off as planned.

Ewing was unable to get across the river because, he reported later, “…the Quantity of Ice was so great.” Cadwalader encountered the same difficulty, but he did not give up as easily as Ewing. Moving to a different location, he managed to ferry a few troops to the Jersey shore. But when he found that he could not get his artillery across, Cadwalader, too, returned to the west bank. Unaware that his other commanders had failed, Washington was preparing to pull out for McKonkey’s Ferry when word reached him that Putnam’s troops would be unable to march as he had ordered.

By now the Trenton operation had narrowed itself down to a single question: could Washington’s own force navigate the ice-strewn river to get into position for the attack?

The answer depended upon Colonel John Glover, a man with drive and intelligence, and whose knowledge and experience of maritime matters made it possible for him to master the difficult art of small-scale amphibious operations. The regiment Glover had recruited, the Fourteenth Continental, was one of the most colorful units in the entire army. It was composed mainly of rugged fishermen and sailors from Marblehead, men who could handle oars as well as muskets. Everything about the regiment smacked of the sea. Clad in blue jackets, white caps, and tarred trousers, typical garb of fishermen, many Marbleheaders marched off to war in the same kind of clothes they wore off the Grand Banks. The discipline for which the unit was famed was a result of the men’s training in taking orders on shipboard.

Washington had come to look upon Glover’s men as a kind of ferrying command ever since the regiment had helped to evacuate the American army from the precarious position on Long Island. When the attack on Trenton first had been discussed, tradition avers that Washington turned to Glover to ask if his mariners could navigate the ice-choked river. Glover murmured quietly that his lads could manage the task. Only after this assurance, it was said, did Washington proceed with his plan.

As dusk fell early on that bleak December afternoon, the boats that Washington had collected and concealed from enemy view were brought down to McKonkey’s Ferry. The Durham boats used for ferrying the troops normally carried cargoes of iron, grain, and whisky. Built for river commerce, they were ideally suited for military operations because of their large size and light draft. Even when fully loaded they drew only twenty-four to thirty inches, so that troops would be able to wade to shore. Pointed at both ends and looking like cumbersome canoes, the boats were propelled downstream by eighteen-foot oars and upstream by poles. While the boats were being rowed into position, the 2400 men in Washington’s force reluctantly left the warmth of their small fires in the camp opposite Trenton and started their nine-mile trek to the ferry. It was a cruel march for thinly clad troops. One young major who trailed the column to deliver dispatches recalled that the route was easily traced in the snow by bloodstains “from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.” But the men bore up under these painful conditions without a murmur.

Reaching the river’s edge, the soldiers were hustled aboard waiting craft. Christmas night brought with it a howling storm; the first phase of the battle of Trenton became a struggle against the elements, not the enemy. An angry wind roared down, churning the river waters and making difficult the handling of pitching craft. The river was high; the swift and surging current was littered with ice. As the night turned colder and the wind more piercing, new ice formed on the gear, and Glover’s men undoubtedly cursed as oars and poles slipped from numb hands. The Delaware at the ferrying place was only about 1000 feet wide, yet Glover’s soldiers were forced to call upon all of their seamen’s skill to navigate this short span. Great chunks of ice came surging downstream to hit against the boats. As they ground to a halt, the huge slabs became obstacles as they clung alongside and impeded the forward progress of the craft. Each cake of ice had to be wrestled out of the way before the boats could continue their passage. ‘The floating ice in the river,” reported one participant, “made the labor almost incredible’.

As if river conditions were not bad enough, about eleven o’clock it began to snow. What little visibility there had been to steer through the treacherous waters was now obscured. Peering into the blinding storm, Glover’s men had to strain their eyes to pick out ice floes from the mass of white flakes that whirled across their vision. Despite these difficulties, the men of the Fourteenth worked away, and the patriot force on the east side of the Delaware gradually swelled in size. Ferrying the heavy howitzers and guns became the most critical part of the entire operation. After all, Cadwalader had been able to get his men across the river; it was the artillery that had proved his downfall. With much sweating and swearing, Glover’s men succeeded where Cadwalader had failed. As Henry Knox notedso aptly, “…perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible.

After the crossing came the surprise victory at Trenton, which reinvigorated the American cause at its lowest point and quite likely saved the Revolution. The tale of Washington crossing the Delaware passed into legend as well as history, and became the subject of probably the best known American historical painting.

The crossing of the Delaware was the Marblehead regiment’s last act in the Revolution. With enlistments expiring at the end of 1776, the regiment was disbanded and Glover went home. In April 1777 Washington wrote a personal letter to him asking that he return to duty. Glover agreed and took command of a brigade at Peekskill. He served in the Saratoga campaign under General Horatio Gates. Following the surrender of Burgoyne’s army, Glover accompanied the prisoners of war to Cambridge. In the summer of 1778 Glover and his brigade were sent to Rhode Island to participate in a combined American-French attack on the British at Newport. When the French elected to withdraw, the campaign failed. Glover remained for a time in Providence as commander of the American forces, then was posted to the Hudson River highlands where he served with units assigned to watch the British in New York City and, if necessary, to block their movement up the river. He remained there until 1782.

Glover’s health took a turn for the worse in 1782, and on June 18 he wrote Washington with a request to retire. “Permit me to ask the favor of your Excellency to state my case, and transmit with it a copy of this, with the enclosed certificate, to the President of Congress, who I do most earnestly request, urge would be pleased to lay them before that Honorable body, and urge the necessity of my being permitted to retire…” Only July 10, General Washington acknowledged receiving his request and paperwork, and stated that he had sent it on to Congress and recommended “a compliance with your desire.” Then, on July 30, Washington officially notified Glover that Congress had acceded to his request, and went on to bid him an affectionate farewell.

Letter Signed, Headquarters, Newburgh, July 30, 1782, to General Glover. “The enclosed Resolution of Congress [not present] having been transmitted to me, I take this earliest opportunity to communicate it for your information. Sincerely wishing you a restoration of health, attended with every happiness in your future walks of life, I have the honor to be, Sir, your very humble servant, G. Washington.” The letter is in the hand of John Trumbull, Jr. It was originally obtained by us direct from the Glover descendants and has long by in a private collection.

Purchase $75,000

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