John Glover’s Regiment of Marbleheaders accomplished an amazing feat on the night of Dec. 25, 1776. They ferried 2,400 men, plus horses and artillery, across the Delaware River in a blinding snowstorm.
Glover’s Regiment had a well-earned reputation for discipline and teamwork. But not everyone approved of it. Emmanuel Leutze, in his famous painting, showed why: He painted a black soldier in Washington’s boat.
There wasn’t just one African-American in Glover’s Regiment, but several. Indians, too, made up the crack unit. They came together before the war fishing in the North Atlantic, where race didn’t matter in a storm.
Getting rid of the British did matter to them. During the war, the British Navy had closed down the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. The fishermen and sailors of Glover’s Regiment came from the fishing village of Marblehead, Mass., and some nearby towns.
Marblehead especially depended on those fishing grounds, and their closure reduced its people to crushing poverty.
The tough, disciplined members of Glover’s Regiment had nautical skills that proved invaluable during the American Revolution.
When the British defeated the Continental Army on Long Island, George Washington ordered Glover’s Regiment to manage a surprise nighttime operation. On the night of Aug. 29, 1776, the mariners rowed and sailed for six hours across the East River.
They safely landed 9,500 men on Manhattan, along with all their baggage, nearly all their artillery, stores, horses and provisions. Had the evacuation failed, Washington’s army—and probably the war—would have been lost.
Washington and Glover
Nevertheless, a Pennsylvania general was shocked by the ‘number of negroes’ treated as equals in Glover’s Regiment.
Nor did Washington, a Virginian, have any love for African-Americans. He resisted admitting them into the Continental Army, but he did allow the first integrated regiment — Glover’s Regiment — from the very beginning.
Part of the reason may have to do with his personal friendship with John Glover, forged during the Siege of Boston. Glover, like Washington, exercised good taste and decorum. He dressed well, always with two silver pistols and a Scottish broadsword.
Washington also appreciated the discipline of Glover’s Regiment. As seafarers, they were used to instantly obeying their officers — unlike the other New Englanders in the Continental Army.
The mariners did dress funny. They wore clothes practical for duties aboard ship, such as short, wide-bottom pants, work shirts, round blue jackets and tarred, wide brimmed hats that repelled water.
As a ship owner, he had felt British oppression. The British Navy impressed his sailors and searched his ships for smuggled goods without warrants. Plus he had to deal with corrupt British customs officials. So in 1779, hjoined the Marblehead militia in 1759.
After the Boston Massacre Glover was elected to the Committee of Correspondence. He was lieutenant commander of the militia when Col. Jeremiah Lee died in April 1775. Shortly thereafter, Glover’s Regiment marched to the Siege of Boston.
It became the 14th Continental Regiment, known by the generals as an amphibian regiment.
On Christmas Day, 1776, the Americans had suffered a series of defeats since the debacle on Long Island. Washington’s army had grown tired of retreating. Washington desperately needed to motivate his men to re-enlist at the end of the year.
He got some help from Thomas Paine. On Dec. 19, Washington had Thomas Paine’s words from Common Sense read to the men: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Washington wanted his army to cross back over the Delaware River for a surprise attack on Hessian soldiers wintering in Trenton. Winter had set in, and ice floes choked the treacherous river. Washington asked Glover if they could cross the 800-foot-wide river.
Glover told Washington ‘not to be troubled about that, as his boys could manage it.’ They managed.
The night was fearfully cold and dark, with rain turning to sleet, then snow, and the northeast wind beating on the men’s faces. Gen. Henry Knox thought it impossible to cross the river.
The Americans, though, had access to Durham boats designed to carry large amounts of ore. The black-hulled boats were eight feet wide and as long as 60 feet, with pointed ends.
For hours, Glover’s Regiment loaded 40 men at a time along the slippery river banks into the boats. Four or five of Glover’s men muscled each boat across the river using long poles in the shallows and 18-foot oars across the middle. Then they’d return for another load.
Knox realized the wet weather would render the soldier’s powder nearly useless, making the artillery crucial to success. Glover’s Regiment therefore managed to ferry 18 cannons and frightened horses across the Delaware. Knox later wrote, ‘ . . . perseverance accomplished what at first seemed impossible.’
They didn’t make it across the river until 3 am on the 26th. Washington thought about turning back. He knew they couldn’t reach Trenton in the dark and feared they’d lost the element of surprise. He decided to go ahead, since it would probably be harder to go back.
Though the Americans attacked in daylight, they still had surprise on their side. The short battle resulted in 106 Hessians of the 1,200 killed, the rest of captured. Only four of Washington’s men were wounded.
It wasn’t a turning point of the war; that didn’t happen until the Battle of Saratoga in the fall of 1777. But it did lift American morale at a time when it sorely needed lifting.
Glover’s Regiment disbanded after Trenton, as most of the men wanted to join privateers or the new Navy.
Glover went home to Marblehead to take care of his sick wife, who soon died. Washington asked him to stay in the military. He agreed to stay and served with distinction to the end of the war, the only senior officer to serve in both the Army and the Navy.
This story about Glover’s Regiment was updated in 2021.