The U.S. at War at Christmas Time

There won’t likely be peace on earth for those in Ukraine this Christmas, and sadly war seldom stops for the holy days regardless of the soldier’s faith or beliefs. For America’s warfighters that often means that Christmas Day is another day to risk life and limb in honor of their country—a tradition that dates back to the American Revolution.

Washington Crossing The Delaware

Every school child knows—or at least should know unless they stopped teaching such things—that in 1776 General George Washington famously crossed the Delaware River on Christmas and surprised the British forces. There are a few key details to understand about this event.

Washington Crossing the Delaware
This 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze isn’t all that accurate, yet it gets the point across. (Public Domain)

It is very much true that Continental Army had suffered a number of defeats in the early stages of the American Revolution and the cause looked bleak as winter set in. Washington needed to rally the troops and restore hope. Thus, General Washington devised a plan to conduct a raid on Trenton, New Jersey, where a unit of Hessian troops was stationed. These were German troops, essentially mercenaries or private military contractors of the day, who had been hired by the British to bolster their ranks in the American colonies.

What is incorrect about most telling of the story is that Washington struck on Christmas Day. In fact, Washington made the crossing on Christmas evening, catching the Hessians after their holiday celebrations.

What is also important to note is that Christmas was a minor holiday for the American colonists at that point, yet was still often a rowdy affair for the Germans. Washington’s troops essentially caught the Hessians in a state of post-celebration slumber and most of them surrendered within an hour and a half.

Battle of Trenton Painting
The Battle of Trenton, by artist H. Charles McBarron Jr. The battle was a small raid but it made a huge impact for the American cause. (Public Domain)

The raid, which became known as the Battle of Trenton, proved to be as much a propaganda victory as a strategic success. It raised the spirits of Washington’s troops and more importantly revived the hope of the American colonists. It almost didn’t work out. Only one of the three planned river crossings was successful, and even worse, spies and deserters had informed the British that an attack was planned.

Yet, the Hessian commander, Col. Johann Rall dismissed that there was any threat.

As for the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze—it is pure nonsense. It was almost pitch dark, and Washington didn’t stand at the bow of the boat in a historic pose. Leutze finished his work almost 80 years after the famous event, and based the river on the Rhine and not on the Delaware. The German river is far wider than what Washington had to endure on that still very cold evening.

One part of the story not quite suitable for children is that Washington is recorded to have told the portly General Henry Knox, who was already seated on one side, “Shift that fat ass Henry… but slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat.”

In a final Christmas connection to the American Revolution, it should be noted that a legend tells that following the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the British Army band under Lord Cornwallis played the tune “The World Turned Upside Down.” Many history books still propagate the story, though it only 1st appeared about a century after the surrender. What those books fail to note is that the English ballad was 1st published in the 1640s as a protest against the policies of Parliament that banned the celebration of Christmas—and it was hardly considered a military march at the time.

The American Civil War and Christmas

Given that the American Civil War was one described as pitting brother against brother, it is not surprising that the conflict saw numerous engagements at Christmas time—but not like children fighting over a new toy.

“The most significant is Fredericksburg, Dec 11-15, 1862,” suggested Dr. Kent Gramm, professor of Civil War studies at Gettysburg College. “(American poet) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘I Heard the Bells’ is a result of the battle.”

Fredericksburg was arguably the most one-sided battle in the war, and a major Confederate victory. Another battle two years later proved to be a major debacle for the Union. That was the First Battle of Fort Fisher, which Union forces tried to take beginning on Christmas Eve 1864. The battle continued until December 27, when Union Major Benjamin Butler declared the fort to be impregnable.

Large cannon at Fort Fisher
A damaged Confederate gun at Fort Fisher. (Public Domain)

However, that same year, General William Tecumseh Sherman said he had a Christmas gift for President Abraham Lincoln—the city of Savannah, Georgia, which was captured on December 22.

What is also important to note is that Christmas had a different meaning depending on where the soldiers may have been from. By the 1860s, the south tended to celebrate the holiday, while Christmas celebrations were seen as an unnecessary expense in Massachusetts. In reality, Christmas didn’t actually become an official Federal holiday until 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant made it so as an attempt to unite north and south.

The Battle of the Bulge

Being away from family is never easy for military personnel during the holidays, but it was even worse for the American soldiers who were surrounded by the German military during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Just a week before Christmas, the Germans launched the largest counteroffensive in the war.

The fighting has been described as intense, without accounts that the snow literally turned red with blood—and there is even a tragic account of a young American nurse whose body was delivered home swaddled in parachute cloth. The battle lasted six weeks and had come to an apex during the Siege of Bastogne, which began on December 20.

American M36 tank destroyers
M3 90mm gun-armed American M36 tank destroyers of the 703rd TD, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, move forward during heavy fog to stem German spearhead near Werbomont, Belgium, 20 December 1944. (Public Domain)

There are accounts of small “Christmas Truces” that occurred, and by some accounts, it was a season of miracles as the determined U.S. forces successfully held out against repeated German attacks. It also wasn’t until January 28 that the battle ended in a German failure. Yet, the “Bulge” was still the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the United States, with some 19,000 killed. It was also the 3rd-deadliest campaign in American history.

The 11 Days of Christmas — Operation Linebacker II

It was 50 years ago this month, during the Vietnam War that the United States launched the largest aerial bombing campaign in military history. Known officially as Operation Linebacker II, a follow-up to the Operation Linebacker air interdiction campaign, it was designed to be a “maximum effort” bombing campaign that would destroy major target complexes in Hanoi and Haiphong.

Ordered by President Richard Nixon, it was also the largest heavy bomber strike launched by the U.S. military since World War II. Taking part from December 18 to 29, it earned the nickname “the 11 Days of Christmas,” and involved some 207 B-52 Stratofortress bombers along with nearly 2,000 tactical aircraft—with the bombers taking off from and returning to Andersen Air Force Base (AFB), Guam.

B-52 Stratofortress bomber
B-52 dropping bombs over Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The only day that both sides received any reprieve was Christmas Day when American troops were given a 36-hour break to celebrate the holiday. During that brief interlude, Nixon called upon the North Vietnamese to return to the bargaining table, which they initially refused to do. Only when Hanoi agreed to resume peace talks did the bombing campaign come to an end.

During those 11 days, U.S. aircraft dropped 15,000 tons of bombs during 729 U.S. Air Force sorties that involved some 12,000 airmen. According to United States Department of Defense (DoD) figures, the raid destroyed or damaged 1,600 structures, 500 rail targets, and 10 airfields; while 80% of North Vietnam’s electric-generating capacity was impacted by the Linebacker II campaign.

It was a costly endeavor for the Americans as well.

Sixteen B-52s were shot down, while four more suffered heavy damage and five others suffered medium damage. A dozen U.S. tactical aircraft also fell victim to enemy fire. A total of 43 American personnel were killed and 49 more were taken prisoner. The U.S. claimed that six MiG-21s were also shot down, while North Vietnam reported that 1,624 civilians were killed.

“The December bombing, intended largely to break the impasse in the Paris negotiations, demonstrated U.S. President Richard Nixon’s determination—his obstinacy, really—to end the war with ‘honor,’ which by that point meant a palatable negotiated solution,” explained Dr. Pierre Asselin, professor of history at San Diego State University, and author of the Vietnam history book Bitter Peace.

“In acting as he so dramatically did, Nixon dealt a serious blow to Hanoi, equally determined to end its ‘American War’ through decisive military victory if only to avoid the complications that ensued the last time it had negotiated a solution to a war it could conceivably have won, in Geneva in 1954,” Asselin added.

As he noted in his book, the bombing succeeded in the sense that it broke the negotiating impasse by compelling Hanoi to make the seemingly unimportant but substantively consequential concessions necessary for the finalization of a satisfactory settlement.

“However, it left Nixon so politically and diplomatically isolated as to make future enforcement of the settlement’s provisions by the United States virtually impossible,” said Asselin “In this sense, Operation Linebacker II was the battle everyone won, and lost.”

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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