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Dr. William Wroten

Delmarva Heritage Series

* Delawarean Took Part In Famous Crossing Of River

Salisbury Times – May 4, 1962

One of the most famous scenes of early American history is that crossing the Delaware River in 1776. The result of this famous military maneuver was the surprise capture of the Hessians (Germans) in the town of Trenton, NJ.

And, seemingly a Delawarean from Sussex County played a major role in the  

military raid.

John Hazard may have been the man who piloted the American patriots across the treacherous river. Although neither Henry C. Conrad in his History of the State of Delaware nor Christopher L. Ward in his The Delaware Continentals mentions the part played by John Hazzard, an article appeared in the Wilmington Sunday Star, March 25, 1934 (reprinted in the Delaware Cavalcade, Winter, 1950) claiming that this "Delawarean held the tiller of the ship of State in his hand that night—and the American cause went forward to success."

Legend, half-truth or whole-truth?  Maybe some present day Delawarean has definite evidence. Fact or myth, the story of John Hazzard belongs to Delmarva Heritage.

JOHN HAZZARD was the son of Joseph Hazzard of Indian River Hundred, Sussex County. He had received some schooling of a sort, and for that day and time was considered an educated young man. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775 he was considering a life of service in the Episcopal Church; he had already taken holy orders. Even though he was engaged to marry Mary Houston, this you lad of 22 was among the first of southern Delaware to join the militia throughout the colony.

In 1776, John Hazzard was a member of Col. John Haslet's regiment. Until late summer the troops were quartered in Delaware. Finally orders were received to join General Washington's Army at headquarters in New York. After their arrival they were camped for a short time on Manhattan Island, just a short distance north of New York City.

The famous and honored Delaware Regiment fought its first major battle near the end of August, 1776. Under the command of Lord Stirling, the Delaware and Maryland units fought in the Battle of Long Island. It was during this engagement that these two units held their ground and permitted the main body of Gen. Washington's Army to escape the British encirclement.

AFTER several more engagements in the vicinity of New York City, General Washington and his army were forced to move southward across New Jersey in the direction of Philadelphia. It was, as Tom Paine wrote, "a time to try men's souls." It was one of many crises that the patriots were to experience during the War for Independence. Many were heartbroken because of our various debts, and seemingly public opinion was growing against what appeared to be a losing struggle. Morale among the soldiers and citizens was at low ebb. But the needed morale and encouragement to carry on against the uneven odds came near the end of the year, 1776.

In December, about 1,500 Hessians, German troops hired by King George of England to help fight the Americans, were stationed in Trenton. Yet, just a few days before, on Dec. 7, the American Forces had spent the night in Trenton, and the next afternoon crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The Delaware historian, Henry C. Conrad, wrote:

"A few hours later, the British appeared on the opposite bank but could not cross, for Washington had taken all the boats. But their intention was to cross as soon as the river froze over. This was the crisis of American danger. ‘This night we lay among the leaves without tents or blankets, laying down with our feet to the fire. It was very cold. We had meat but no bread. We had nothing to cook with but our ramrods which we ran through a piece of meat and roasted over the fire, and to hungry soldiers it tasted sweet."

The cold and hungry American troops could hear the Hessians across the river enjoying warmth and food. General Washington must have thought then that the time was ripe for a surprise attack, the success of which would bring both a needed victory to the American cause and some other cheer to the downhearted men.

General Washington laid his plans well. On Dec. 26, 1776, at three o'clock in the morning, the American units were to recross the Delaware River. The night was dark and the river was filled with floating cakes of ice, thus one little mistake or miscalculation could have brought about disaster for the Americans. An experienced river man was needed to see that the small boats were safely steered to the other side. It was then that John Hazzard was called for conference with Washington and his staff.

According to the Wilmington Sunday Star and Delaware Calvacade, the stage was set and the following drama enacted.

"You are a river man, I believe, Captain?" asked Washington.

"Yes sir, I was raised in tidewater Delaware," answered Hazzard.

"Do you think you could take the lead boat across if we should attack?"

Young Hazzard drew himself up grimly. He thought of the great flows of ice drifting down—submerged lots of it. His answer gave no hint of what was on his mind.

"Yes sir, we shall get through."

"Good enough," Washington laughed. "I like your spirit. You take the first boat and I shall ride with you. This is life or death for the cause!"

The plan was to have two columns make the crossing, one above the town and one below. The lower corps never crossed—but Hazzard poled his precious skiff through. The channel marked, the remainder followed Hazzard's lead.

Washington, setting foot on Jersey shore, separated his force into two divisions. One under Greene took an inland route so as to reach the head of the village street. The other, under Sullivan, took the river trail. Progress was painful, for the roads were in utter darkness, the snow knee-deep.

Just at dawn the two columns reached the village, the Hessians awakened to find bullets flying through the icy streets. A thousand of them surrendered. The Americans last four men, two of them frozen to death. Captain Hazzard's hand had been steady.

After the Revolutionary War, John Hazzard was engaged in farming and later he lived at Milton, where he was in the mercantile, commerce, and shipbuilding activities. His son, David, also born in Sussex County, became governor of Delaware and later associate Justice of the Superior Court.

Near Milton in a churchyard cemetery is buried John Hazzard.<


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