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Rediscovering George Washington
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Battles of Trenton and Princeton

In 1775 the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously to appoint George Washington commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Its decision was based in part on his experience in the French and Indian War, but even more on an assessment of his character. In his acceptance speech, Washington asked that it "be remembered, by every gentleman in this room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with." Washington realized the depth of the challenge that would face his future army. But in the end his humility, however admirable, would prove to be non-prescient.

Unlike the Continental Congress, the King of England had at his command both seasoned troops and unlimited resources. It is not surprising then that the early stages of the war comprised a series of American defeats and embarrassments. The first break in this pattern began on Christmas night in 1776, when Washington led his army of cold, tired and hungry soldiers, many of them teenagers, across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, where they surprised and defeated a professional army of Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton on December 26.

Eight days later, on January 3, 1777, the Continental Army came unexpectedly upon two British regiments outside Princeton, New Jersey. While the experienced British soldiers formed into lines, Washington's men fell into perilous disarray until their commander rode to the front on his tall white horse. "Parade with me my brave fellows," he called to them, before personally leading the assault on the British lines. Observers remarked with wonder not only that the mounted general survived the subsequent barrage of enemy gunfire, but that he did so in high good spirits: "It's a fine fox chase, my boys," Washington is reported to have called out when the British broke and ran.

A third British regiment inside Princeton surrendered without a fight. Along with Trenton, news of the Battle of Princeton boosted American spirits regarding the war effort.