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One of the Best! This movie is on TWM's short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.
SUBJECTS — U.S./1750-1812; New Jersey & Pennsylvania;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage in War; Leadership;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility; Citizenship.

Age: 13+; No MPAA Rating; Drama; 2000; 135 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.

Description: This film is a dramatization of Washington's victory at Trenton the day after Christmas, 1776. Had Washington not attempted the crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River and had the ill-fed, freezing, poorly trained, and poorly armed Continentals failed to prevail over the feared Hessian mercenaries, the American Revolution would probably have collapsed. This movie presents an account of that battle.

Rationale for Using the Movie: The film shows a key event in the Revolutionary War and gives students a glimpse of one of those extraordinary battles in which a few determined soldiers changed the course of history. It shows some of the difficulties in a revolution against the powerful forces of the British Empire. The movie humanizes George Washington, often seen as distant and aloof, as he contends with vastly superior British forces.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will understand the desperate situation of the Continental Army and of the Revolution in December 1776 and the pivotal role of the Battle of Trenton in saving the Revolution. The film provides opportunities for students to exercise reading, research, thinking and writing skills.

Possible Problems: Several: Substantial historical inaccuracies are described in the Helpful Background Section in the Supplemental Materials. On the whole, however, the movie conveys an accurate picture of the plight of the Continental Army in December of 1776 and the difficulties faced by George Washington in leading the army. There is a moderate amount of blood and violence in the war scenes and a substantial amount of profanity throughout the film.

Portrait of George Washington, 1795
by Gilbert Stuart, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet
      Discussion Questions


Additional Helpful Background
Comprehension Test/Homework Assignment

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Other Sections:
      Bridges to Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.

Enrichment Worksheets are a TWM innovation containing questions designed to get students thinking. Questions are focused on comprehension, application, analysis, syntheses or evaluation. Questions can be answered in class or as homework, as quickwrites, journal entries, formal essays, or research papers. For a version of the Worksheet in word processing format, click here.
Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for The Crossing

During the period between the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July and December 1776, the Continental Army had been repeatedly defeated. The Americans had been routed at Long Island and forced to withdraw from New York City. Two of their most important forts on the Hudson River, Fort Lee and Fort Washington, had fallen to the British. In a desperate attempt to save the army, Washington retreated to "the Jerseys", as the area was then called. The British commander, General Howe, settled in for the winter in Philadelphia, enjoying a romantic dalliance with the wife of a prominent loyalist. He failed to "foreclose the mortgage" on the rebels, as one of his officers later said in disgust.

Since taking command of the Continental Army and forcing the British to retreat from Boston in March of1776, Washington had not had a victory and had lost New York. Deeply discouraged, he wrote to his brother that, "the game is pretty near up." In November, Washington unsuccessfully attempted to raise the New Jersey militia, and when 2026 men had their term of enlistment expire, they refused to reenlist, even though the British army was only a march away. Almost all of the Continental soldiers were ill-fed and poorly clothed. Many were sick. Everyone felt that the crisis had been reached, and that the American army was dissolving in the face of the enemy and the harsh winter. As Colonel Joseph Reed wrote Washington: "Something must be attempted to revive our expiring credit, give our cause some degree of reputation, and prevent a total depreciation of the Continental money."
Question 1: Before the Battle of Trenton, given the recent defeats of the Continental forces, what type of soldier would have risked his life to cross the Delaware and fight to feared Hessians? Explain your answer.
Washington resolved to make one last attempt to prevent the Revolution from being what people were openly calling it: "a noble cause lost." The main force of the Continental Army, would cross the Delaware River at night. They would surprise a 1400 man contingent of the dreaded Hessian mercenaries who had occupied Trenton. Washington divided the attacking force into three groups. He would lead 2400 men across the Delaware, and Generals Ewell and Cadwalader (1,000 and 2,000 men respectively) would each lead other crossings at different locations. With Washington were Major John Glover's Marblehead Men, experts in handling boats. They were responsible for ferrying Washington's troops across the ice-choked river. Ewell and Cadwalader were unable to manage the crossing on time and their soldiers played an active role in the battle. In order to simplify the battle plan, the film does not mention the troops led by Ewel and Cadwalader.

The river crossing began at 3 p.m. on Christmas Day. The weather caused tremendous hardship. Washington's aide, Colonel John Fitzgerald, wrote at 6 p.m., as the troops started to cross the river: "It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm is setting in. The wind is northeast and beats into the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for those who have no shoes. Some of them have tied only rags about their feet: others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain." The weather, as challenging as it was, proved an advantage to the Continentals, for it was blowing into the face of the enemy. Also, the severity of the cold convinced the Hessians and the British that the Americans would not attempt a crossing. The normal patrols were cancelled, and the Americans were able to approach undetected.

Washington's troops did not get across the river until 4 a.m., with the result that the Hessian encampment would have to be attacked in daylight. Observing his commander at that hour, a young fifer named John Greenwood wrote: "I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of the troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet, and cuts like a knife."

The Battle of Trenton began at 8 a.m. on December 26th as Hessian sentries opened fire. The Hessians were completely unprepared, though it is a myth that they were expected to be drunk. The Germans celebrated their festivities on Christmas Eve, thus the soldiers would have had a full 36 hours to sober up. The Hessians had been on constant alert for weeks. While the Americans had covered their flintlocks with their cloaks so that their powder would remain dry, the Hessians found most of their guns to be useless. 106 Hessian soldiers were killed or wounded and around 900 were captured. Many escaped. As the film shows, their wounded leader, Colonel Rall, pleaded with Washington for his troops to be treated humanely. Washington agreed, despite the fact that during the Battle of Long Island, the Hessians had slaughtered American soldiers who were attempting to surrender.

The Americans suffered only two fatalities; soldiers who had frozen to death on the march. Two officers and several American soldiers were wounded. (In the movie Washington is told that there were no Continentals killed and none wounded in the battle. It is correct that there were no deaths in the battle itself, but a few officers and soldiers were wounded.) Exuberant Continentals broke into hogsheads full of liquor and began to get drunk as soon as the shooting stopped. This disorderly behavior, along with the fact that the British could attack from Princeton at any moment, made General Washington decide to get his troops back across the river to Pennsylvania. This time they crossed the Delaware with their prisoners, 1,000 weapons, several cannon, and stores of ammunition they had confiscated from the enemy. Glover's Marblehead Men accomplished the task again. The next day, a thousand Continental soldiers reported ill.
2. Washington's decision to break up the victory party after the Battle of Trenton and get the Army back across the river, reveals something important about Washington's abilities as a leader. What does it reveal?
General Washington displayed many of the attributes of good leadership in the Battle of Trenton and some of these are shown in the film. He understood the larger picture and that the Revolution needed a victory. No one on the British side appreciated this fact. If they had, the Hessian troops would have been on alert and Colonel Rall would have reacted to a message he had received that night that the colonists were marching on his position. Furthermore, Washington seized the initiative so that he had some control over events and selected good subordinates to carry out his orders. He knew when to stand steadfast, exemplified by his determination to press on with the attack in the face of the blizzard. Moreover, Washington knew how to inspire his men and his insight into human nature enabled him to accurately forecast the actions of his adversaries.

The success of the Battle of Trenton reversed the psychological dominance achieved by the British since the Declaration of Independence. Edward J. Lowell in his book, The Hessians concluded: "The importance of Trenton to the Americans is not to be reckoned by the mere numerical test of killed, wounded, and prisoners. It was new proof to the unskilled and destitute colonists that they were good for something as soldiers, and that their cause was not hopeless. Coming after a long course of retreat and disaster, it inspired them with fresh courage. Bunker Hill had taught the Americans that British regulars could be resisted. Trenton proved to them in an hour of despondency that the dreaded Hessians could be conquered."

The Battle of Trenton proved to the Americans, the British, and the rest of Europe that an army of American Colonists could beat the best soldiers of the British Empire; it demonstrated that the rebels had a chance to win the war. The fact that the Continentals outnumbered the Hessians by almost two to one and had the advantage of surprise didn't matter because until this battle most people thought that the Hessians could not be beaten by any force of Continentals. The Battle of Trenton also demonstrated that Washington was a clever and resourceful general who could move his troops quickly to take advantage of a mistake by the other side. In this case, the mistake was that the British had allowed their lines to become overextended and they were overconfident.

At the Battle of Trenton, a little more than 2000 Continentals and 1200 Hessians were involved. Present at the Battle of Trenton were three future presidents (Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe), a future vice-president (Aaron Burr), a future Secretary of the Treasury (Alexander Hamilton), and the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (John Marshall).
Question 3: George Washington probably contributed more to his country than any person who has ever lived. Name one of his really great contributions, other than the decision to surprise the Hessians on the day after Christmas, 1776.
The Battle of Trenton was followed up by another success at Princeton. Together these victories established General Washington's reputation as an exemplary leader. The victories at Trenton and Princeton encouraged France and Spain to intervene on the American side, a development that proved decisive in defeating the British.

[End of Handout]


Discussion Questions:

After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

1.   After the battle, General Greene asks General Washington to speak with Colonel Rall before Rall dies. Washington replies: "Do you want me to weep for those bastards, men who kill for profit?" General Greene responds: "Our own cause at its heart is a fight against taxation is it not? In the end, we all kill for profit, the British and the Hessians and us." Do you agree with the character of General Greene that the American Revolution was fought for money? Suggested Response: All well reasoned responses are acceptable. It should be acknowledged that commercial interests were very important to the men who were fighting in the revolution. For example, many Southerners joined the revolution because it was apparent that the British Empire was going to outlaw slavery and they made a bargain with the Northern revolutionaries that slavery would be protected in the new United States of America. The colonists also objected to various taxes imposed by Parliament such as the Stamp Act, taxes on glass, paper and tea (the Townshend Ats).

2.   Washington's self confidence is often cited as his finest characteristic. David McCullough, in his book 1776, writes: "often in the dark year of 1776, [Washington] would not only overcome his own fears but help his countrymen conquer theirs, too -- a supreme act of providential leadership." Which scenes from the film show this confidence? Suggested Response: Any well supported scene the students mention is acceptable.

3.  George Washington probably contributed more to his country than any person who has ever lived. What was his greatest contribution? Suggested Response: Washington made so many major contributions to the United States that there is no one right response. Any thoughtful response would be correct. Examples are: stepping down as Commander in Chief at the end of the Revolutionary War; agreeing to take on the post of Commander in Chief of the Continental Army; stepping down as President at the end of two terms; agreeing to come out of retirement to serve as President; placing his prestige behind the new constitution, etc.

For a comprehension test, click here.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1.  Select one of the following participants in the Battle of Trenton, research the biographical information, determine his value in terms of the birth and early development of the nation and write an expository essay presentingthe information you have gathered. Then prepare a three minute power point presentation for the class as a whole.
  • Charles Lee
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Horatio Gates
  • John Glover
  • Nathaniel Green
  • William Howe
  • Henry Knox
  • Hugh Mercer
  • Johann Rall
  • John Sullivan
2.  Write an account of the Battle of Trenton from the point of view of the Hessians in which you seek to explain their loss to Washington's forces.

3.  Research information about other significant battles in the rebel victory over British forces. Write an expository essay about the battles and compare them to the Battle of Trenton in terms of their value in the war effort. 4.   List three separate actions of George Washington which were pivotally impportant in the history of the United States. Describe what he did and how these actions affected the history of the nation.


Review the worksheet for suitability for your classes. Modify as appropriate.

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Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us

Parenting Points: Before watching the film, tell your children about the importance of the Battle of Trenton.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.


Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Acknowledgments: This Learning Guide written by Dr. Kathleen Minnix and the staff of TeachWithMovies.com and was last revised on July 21, 2013.


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