By Bill Miller
One of the special joys of doing genealogy is that it makes history come alive. Behind the events of history which have shaped our lives are real people who shaped those events. When we find our own ancestors as participants in those great moments history comes alive. This Christmas story of my wife’s 3rd great-grandfather, Nicholas Linger, is one such moment.
It was Christmas Day, December 25, 1776, a very cold, snowy and miserable day in Trenton, New Jersey. Thirteen year old Nicholas Linger, a young lad from Hesse, Germany, along with his older brother Thomas and their friend, Henry Hinzman, were probably just trying to survive. They had been sold into service as mercenaries for King George III in the American colonies. They were part of a German Hessian force, comprised of three regiments (about 1400 men) commanded by Col. Johann Rall. They were encamped near the Delaware River north of Trenton, NJ. The weather was so severe that no patrol was sent out. It was a white Christmas!
They were about to meet two future Presidents of the United States (Washington and Monroe), future Chief Justice John Marshall and future Secretary of the US Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, but they clearly were not dressed for the occasion. It was Christmas! An officer in Washington’s staff wrote before the Battle of Trenton, “They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance tonight. They will be sleepy tomorrow morning.” Popular history commonly portrays the Hessians as drunk from Christmas celebrations. However, historians David Hackett Fischer and Edward Lengel, after hearing testimonies from survivors of that battle, concluded, “The Germans were dazed and tired but there is no truth to the legend claiming that they were helplessly drunk.” In any case, while the Hessians and great-grandfather Linger were doing a German Christmas, Gen. Washington and his 2400 man Continental Army were loading their small boats for a short cruise across the ice-filled Delaware.
It took them until 3 am on the 26th to assemble troops on the other shore. Five hours later the after-Christmas event that changed the course of the War of Independence began. In a short, fierce, surprise battle the Hessian army was defeated. Twenty-two Hessians were killed, 33 wounded and great-grandfather, his brother and their friend, along with 893 others were taken as prisoners. Two Americans died from exposure and 5 were wounded in battle, including near fatal wounds to future president James Monroe. The Linger brothers and others were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia and then put in a prison camp there. It was a Christmas that would never be forgotten – the Christmas in prison!
Brother Thomas and friend Henry later joined the Continental Army. Young Nicholas was eventually released, became an American citizen, took Washington’s offer of 50 acres for defectors and was granted a small farm in Western Maryland, which would much later become part of West Virginia. He became a surveyor of roads through the wilderness, and later became a hatter in Weston, Virginia. He married a neighboring farmer’s daughter, Peggy McNemar, and they raised a family of 9 children. Four generations later Roy and Edith Linger would produce a wife for me.
Most all of our ancestors were just ordinary people, participating in events over which they had little control, often times just struggling to survive, but in the process they shaped our nation, shared their DNA and brought us into the story. Nicholas’ terrible Christmas was an important chapter in our national history. If you would like to discover some wonderful family stories, or have some to share, you are invited to attend the Lake Lure Genealogy Club meeting the 2nd Tuesday of each month at 3 PM in Mountains Branch Library.
Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851
Battle of Trenton by H. Charles McBarron, Jr. 1975
Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, by John Trumbull