Reviewed by Steven Martinovich
By David Hackett Fischer
Oxford University Press, 2004
Looking back on history, Americans tend to view the year 1776 through a Vaseline-coated lens. Determined to forge a new nation and throw off the shackles of British imperial rule, Americans united and defeated a powerful, well-trained military. Heroic images, such as Emmanuel Leutze’s famed 1850 painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, merely reinforce the warm feelings of patriotism Americans justifiably feel about the Revolution.
The reality, however, was far different during the early days of the war. Not long after the British landed 33,000 soldiers near New York in the summer of 1776, the far smaller, ragtag force that made up the American military was on its heels. It was pushed off Long Island and Manhattan, barely escaping to fight another day, and then proceeded to lose most of New Jersey and Rhode Island. To add to Washington’s misery, thousands of Americans began signing loyalty oaths to the English crown, and his own military was faced with constant shortages of manpower. What remained of Washington’s battered and demoralized army retreated to the western shore of the Hudson River.
As David Hackett Fischer’s engaging Washington’s Crossing chronicles, by December 1776 Washington realized that he needed to gain the initiative. On Christmas night, Washington and his army made a risky crossing of the frozen Delaware River. Attacking Trenton, which was guarded by a force of Hessians, he managed to win control of the town before retreating back across the river. Early in the new year he stunned a combined force of British and Hessian soldiers once again at Trenton and then a day later captured a key British base at Princeton.
Fischer argues that these battlefield successes, coming after a series of defeats, revitalized the American cause. After Washington led his men to winter quarters, militia groups began prowling the countryside in New Jersey, attacking British and Hessian units seemingly at will in what later became known as the “forage war.” Overnight the British were forced to concentrate their forces, leaving wide swaths of territory under the control of the rebels. While American morale climbed, many on the British side began to question whether the war against the colonials was even winnable.
Why the astounding turnaround? Fischer believes that, given their knowledge of their home ground and several important lessons learned from their defeats, the Americans were better able to adapt. Realizing that they were rarely able to win a stand-up fight against the better-trained and disciplined British regulars and Hessian mercenaries, they instead emphasized what were then considered unorthodox — and ungentlemanly — tactics.
Fischer writes: “In a desperate struggle they found a way to defeat a formidable enemy, not merely once at Trenton but many times in twelve weeks of continued combat. They reversed the momentum of the war. They improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition. And they chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution.”
If Washington’s Crossing has a major flaw it is perhaps Fischer’s apparent enthusiasm for the notion that the Delaware crossing and the battles at Trenton and Princeton were the turning points of the war. History records, however, that Washington continued to suffer from chronic shortages of manpower even after the inspirational events Fischer recounts. While the British did suffer a loss of manpower and morale after those battles, it should also be noted that they managed to capture Philadelphia and dealt Washington serious blows on the battlefield in later years. To steal a line from another famous wartime leader, the events of Washington’s Crossing did not signify the beginning of the end, rather the end of the beginning.
Despite that failing, Washington’s Crossing is a superb effort that combines a winning and accessible narrative style with comprehensive research, turning the common and extraordinary people on both sides into real human beings. Fischer crafts a stirring story that should remind Americans of the price paid to create their unique nation and perhaps inspire them in these troubling times. As Fischer reminds us: “They set a high example, and we have much to learn from them. Much recent historical writing has served us ill in that respect. In the late twentieth century, too many scholars tried to make the American past into a record of crime and folly. Too many writers have told us we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn’t so, and never was. The story of Washington’s Crossing tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit — and so are we.”