Chapter Eighteen


Christmas 1776, Peekskill Encampment


"Merry Christmas, called out the Officer as he approached the blacksmith's stable.

"Merry Christmas, replied the ragged smith in greeting as he hammered the cherry-red shoe for Lieutenant Nathaniel Gunn's steed.

Merry Christmas, indeed, thought the Lieutenant, but he had to say something to keep up the men's spirits.  The devil could not have conjured up a more miserable day. A mixture of freezing rain, sleet and snow had been falling all day.  Mere walking was treacherous, running impossible and warfare incomprehensible.  All through the Peekskill encampment shivering men under blankets, stiff with ice, huddled around campfires, trying to keep their blood from freezing.

"How long before he's ready?" asked Lieutenant Gunn.

The smith pumped the bellows until the iron shoe turned cherry ripe for forging again.

"Only a few more minutes, he replied. The blacksmith had the best job of all, a little dirty, but plenty of warmth.

The Lieutenant was impatient. Being without his horse was almost like being unarmed. Something in his bones made him shiver, only it wasn't the cold. The Hudson was too calm, the valley too quiet, too peaceful.  He sensed something momentous about to happen.  He felt he was in the centerpiece of history and when the event was one day celebrated, he would prefer to be remembered as the victor, rather than the vanquished.

What better a day for a surprise attack? he thought.  All our men celebrating Christmas, or if not quietly rejoicing on this otherwise holy day, their attentions diverted inward towards their discomfort and away from their duty.

Only a few miles south a month earlier, the British had taken Fort Washington, and those beasts, the Hessians, had scaled the Palisades and taken Fort Lee. The enemy controlled the lower Hudson Valley and a large-scale assault on Peekskill was imminent.

Be watchful, Nathaniel, he thought, and mounting his stallion, headed for the camp's perimeters.  On guard duty overlooking the river was his son, Moses, and his nephew, Asahel.  Guard posts and sentry pickets did not have the luxury of a fire. Their job was to see, not be seen, even if it meant frostbitten extremities.

"Merry Christmas, men, he called out as he neared the redoubt continuing his wholehearted attempt to spread some degree of cheer which the camp so woefully lacked.

"Merry Christmas, sir," they responded, soulfully.

"Be alert men, all eyes and ears, he instructed.  "War takes no holidays. We don't want the British to catch us napping, now do we?"

"No sir," they replied.

"Had your dinner yet, men?" he inquired.

"The usual, sir, our ration of hardtack and salt pork."

"Almost as tasty as a Christmas goose in Montague, eh?" he laughed.

"Yes sir," they forced a laugh, "almost as tasty."

"Well lads, maybe our future Christmases will be the better for it. Let's all outlive this one and come safe home first though, eh?  he cheered.  "Keep alert now men, listen for their oars slipping through the water, and be merry. With that, he turned and galloped to the guard posts on the river road.

"Yes sir," echoed and faded behind him.

"Merry Christmas, Moses," said Asahel.

"Merry Christmas, cousin, replied the lad, his thoughts of Montague, home, the Christmas goose, the smells of sage and cinnamon, the berry wine, the warmth of the fire, and Olive, his sweet, warm, loving Olive, his Olive sweeter than the wine, warmer than the glowing hearth. His face flushed and for a moment there was no snow, no winter, no bitter cold, no war.

Black of night quietly enveloped the silent guardians, while forest-trained ears and eyes kept watch over every ripple in the water and falling snowflake, until dawn finally drove away their shroud of gloom.

On the eve of the third day following, a messenger arrived at camp headquarters full gallop.  The message was from General Washington. After delivering it to General Heath, the rider absented himself from the officers and searched out some warm rum and eager ears.

"You wouldn't believe what happened lads, he started.  "With a handful of men, General Washington crossed the ice-filled Delaware Christmas night and caught the dirty Hessians drunk and sleeping.  Who would have thought an army could be moved that night?  In that weather? Why the hail and sleet was so thick you couldn't see the end of your musket.  And the river!  The ice was too thin to walk on but thick enough that we had to break our way through in the boats.  It took all night to get the army across.  But that's what did it by God, that's what did it.  Why, who would've thought it?  Took the buggers by surprise, complete surprise. Caught 'em napping, he did. Took almost a thousand prisoners, killed dozens. And not one of our boys killed - not a one.  Only four of our men wounded.  Imagine!  A thousand prisoners and only four men wounded.  Complete surprise it was!  Who would've thought it?"

Inside headquarters, Lieutenant Nathaniel Gunn listened  to Washington's report.

I was right after all, he thought. I just had the wrong river.

"Lieutenant Gunn, said General Heath.  "Assemble your units of the Massachusetts Militia. General Washington needs more men without delay. General Lee has been taken prisoner and Philadelphia is in danger.  You leave at first light."

Go to Chapter Nineteen.

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