Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia.
Yet, as David Hackett Fischer recounts in this riveting history, George Washington--and many other Americans--refused to let the Revolution die. On Christmas night, as a howling nor'easter struck the Delaware Valley, he led his men across the river and attacked the exhausted Hessian garrison at
Trenton, killing or capturing nearly a thousand men. A second battle of Trenton followed within days. The Americans held off a counterattack by Lord Cornwallis's best troops, then were almost trapped by the British force. Under cover of night, Washington's men stole behind the enemy and struck them
again, defeating a brigade at Princeton. The British were badly shaken. In twelve weeks of winter fighting, their army suffered severe damage, their hold on New Jersey was broken, and their strategy was ruined.
Fischer's richly textured narrative reveals the crucial role of contingency in these events. We see how the campaign unfolded in a sequence of difficult choices by many actors, from generals to civilians, on both sides. While British and German forces remained rigid and hierarchical, Americans
evolved an open and flexible system that was fundamental to their success. The startling success of Washington and his compatriots not only saved the faltering American Revolution, but helped to give it new meaning.
At the core of an impeccably researched, brilliantly executed military history is an analysis of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776 and the resulting destruction of the Hessian garrison of Trenton and defeat of a British brigade at Princeton. Fischer's perceptive discussion of the strategic, operational and tactical factors involved is by itself worth the book's purchase. He demonstrates Washington's insight into the revolution's desperate political circumstances, shows how that influenced the idea of a riposte against an enemy grown overconfident with success and presents Washington's skillful use of what his army could do well. Even more useful is Fischer's analysis of the internal dynamics of the combatants. He demonstrates mastery of the character of the American, British and Hessian armies, highlighting that British troops, too, fought for ideals, sacred to them, of loyalty and service. Above all, Brandeis historian Fischer (Albion's Seed) uses the Trenton campaign to reveal the existence, even in the revolution's early stage, of a distinctively American way of war, much of it based on a single fact: civil and military leaders were accountable to a citizenry through their representatives. From Washington down, Fischer shows, military leaders acknowledged civil supremacy and worked with civil officials. Washington used firepower and intelligence as force multipliers to speed the war for a practical people who wanted to win quickly in order to return to their ordinary lives. Tempo, initiative and speed marked the Trenton campaign from first to last. And Washington fought humanely, extending quarter in battle and insisting on decent treatment of prisoners. The crossing of the Delaware, Fischer teaches, should be seen as emblematic of more than a turning of the war's tide. 91 halftone, 15 maps. 3-city author tour.
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Adult/High School-Another stirring effort by the author of Paul Revere's Ride (Oxford, 1994). Readers will again cheer American perseverance, inventiveness, and improvisation as Washington, his officers, and their men turn the early military defeats of Long Island and New York City into victory at Trenton and Princeton. The opening chapter is devoted to the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. Then the author discusses the British, Hessian, and American military units that were involved in these campaigns and gives background on their officers. This is Fischer's strong suit: he tells stories and gives details that bring history alive. He makes the point that decisions made for varying reasons by converging sets of people determine history. In the hands of such a thorough researcher and talented writer, this is powerful stuff. The bulk of the book deals with the battles and their aftermath. The text is enriched by small reproductions of portraits, many by Charles Willson Peale, of the major players. The last chapter summarizes Fischer's points and would make a good teaching tool by itself.
Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
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On December 22, 1776, Washington's adjutant wrote him that their affairs "were hasting fast to ruin." Two weeks later, after a harrowing nighttime crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River, Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton so shocked the British that the price of government securities fell. Fischer's thoughtful account describes how Washington, in a frantic, desperate month, turned his collection of troops into a professional force, not by emulating the Europeans but by coming up with a model that was distinctly American. The army Washington fielded had innovative artillery, moved with startling speed, and even, in one of the first recorded instances, synchronized its watches. Trenton convinced many Britons that they were caught in a quagmire, and Americans that they could win. "A few days ago they had given up the cause for lost," a British businessman wrote. "Now they are all liberty mad again."
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Washington's Crossing moves from myth to history by offering a convincing corrective to Leutze's painting. (Washington really did stand in the boat, since it was filled with ankle-deep water, but the crossing occurred at night. Nor were the Hessians drunk.) By framing "the fog of war, the chaos and confusion" of the crossing within its largest context--that of America's revolutionary struggle--Fischer interprets this event as a strategic, rather than merely symbolic or psychological, triumph ( New York Times Book Review). It's a compelling argument, well supported by a cast of vivid, compassionate characters and good writing--even if Fischer sometimes gets carried away. And its message, about Americans fighting "for ideas of liberty and freedom," couldn't be more timely.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
*Starred Review* Victorious since landing at New York in the summer of 1776, the British, by winter, were succeeding in their strategy to squelch the American rebellion. Many sunshine patriots, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, accepted amnesty, while the small American army, ravaged by defeats in New York and the retreat across New Jersey, huddled along the Pennsylvania bank of the Delaware River. From this nadir in the rebels' affairs, Fischer launches his subject--how the Americans reversed their fortunes in a short, sharp campaign that impressed military professionals at the time and since. An eminent, readable historian, Fischer ( Paul Revere's Ride, 1994) here delivers an outstanding analytical narrative. He opens with commentary about Emmanuel Leutze's iconic painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, whose unapologetic heroism induces mockery from deconstructing sophisticates. The painting captures much historical truth, counters Fischer, which he uncovers in functional yet transfixing prose. Fischer's exhaustive research, right down to the Americans' collection of supplies, captures the utter precariousness of the Americans' situation. A must-read for military-history fans, Fischer's work will also draw those who want to know more about the historical reality behind a celebrated image. Gilbert Taylor
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"A meticulous and brilliantly colored account of the period surrounding George Washington's famous sally across the Delaware river in 1776." -- Wall Street Journal
David Hackett Fischer is University Professor at Brandeis University, and the author of such acclaimed volumes as Albion's Seed, The Great Wave, Paul Revere's Ride and Liberty and Freedom.
The past few years saw a flurry of books on Benjamin Franklin. Now, it seems, attention is shifting to George Washington. Henry Wiencek's An Imperfect God, on Washington and his slaves, heralded the change. Now David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing continues the trend, and there's more to come.
Fischer, a historian at Brandeis University whose previous books include Albion's Seed and Paul Revere's Ride, describes in moving detail the military campaign of 1776-1777 and the British, German and American soldiers who fought it. As in the familiar 1850 painting by Emmanuel Leutze that inspired Fischer's title, Washington stands firmly at the book's center. His actions as commander of the American army were pivotal for both his future and that of the fledgling American republic. At first, their futures looked unpromising.
In the summer of 1776, the British Army began a massive campaign to smash the colonists' "rebellion" once and for all. The 33,000 British and German soldiers sent to New York constituted, Fischer says, a "modern professional army" commanded by generals with three decades of military experience. Even privates had on average nine years of service. By contrast, the American army was substantially smaller and pathetically inexperienced: Most soldiers had been on active duty only a few months, and even Washington had relatively little combat experience. The British, moreover, had 70 warships in America. The United States had none.
A predictable disaster followed. The American army barely escaped capture after losing the battle of Long Island in August of 1776, and it failed to hold Manhattan. Washington moved his men north onto the mainland in October, briefly engaged the British at White Plains, and then, in early November, crossed to the western side of the Hudson. Soon the British seized the American Forts Washington and Lee on the opposite sides of that river, and began invading New Jersey. As a dwindling American army retreated south, more than 3,000 people in that state signed loyalty oaths to the Crown.
Washington was near despair. He had lost substantial territory and most of his army. Rivals vied to replace him, and the revolution itself seemed on the verge of failure. But after he led his army across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania in early December, his fortunes took a turn for the better. New recruits began joining the American army, and Thomas Paine's The American Crisis, with its moving reference to the "times that try men's souls," rallied further support. Meanwhile, militiamen from New Jersey and Pennsylvania gradually retook the Jersey countryside.
Washington suddenly saw an opportunity for a "counterstroke." On Christmas night, he again crossed the half-frozen Delaware River -- the event Leutze's painting recalled -- and on Dec. 26 won a stunning victory over Hessians at Trenton. After returning to Pennsylvania, Washington again crossed the Delaware, defeated British and Hessian forces in a second battle of Trenton on Jan. 2, 1777, and the next day, in a brilliant maneuver, marched his men behind the lines of an advancing British army and took the British base at Princeton.
The fighting continued even after Washington led his exhausted men to winter quarters at Morristown. Groups of militiamen repeatedly attacked British soldiers seeking feed for their horses. That "forage war" compelled the King's army to further concentrate its forces, abandoning Loyalist supporters dependent on its protection. By the spring Howe had lost more than half his army and was on the defensive. American morale surged; Washington became a hero with some job security; and in London commentators began to question the wisdom of continuing a war that it suddenly seemed the British might lose.
Why the change? Washington had learned a lot fast. Fischer also emphasizes the spirit of the 13 major figures in Leutze's "Washington's Crossing." That painting, he concedes, is inaccurate in certain details: The crossing occurred, for example, at night during a fierce nor'easter, not in clear daylight. (The men were, however, standing up: The boats had no benches and several inches of slush in their bottoms.) But the soldiers' heroic determination, which the artist hoped would inspire 19th-century European revolutionaries, is for Fischer historically correct. Success depended on the commitment of Americans who "were fighting on their own ground, in defense of homes and families, for ideas of liberty and freedom."
Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to win the victory dimly glimpsed in early 1777, as Washington understood. Militiamen who defended their homes and families against the wholesale plunder, rapes and other atrocities committed by the British and their allies in New Jersey were fine for short-term campaigns such as those of the "forage war," but they could not hold the field against British regulars. That demanded what Washington called a "respectable army," with trained officers and men who agreed to serve on a permanent basis, not the short-term recruits of 1776. The only way to get such an army, Washington told Congress, was by offering material incentives.
His proposal went against American fears of "standing armies." But in late 1776 and early 1777, Congress let Washington recruit men -- who were drawn disproportionately from the poor -- for three years or the duration of the war with bounties and other incentives, and it endorsed harsher punishments for infractions of military discipline. That newly formed Continental Army was more like a European "army of order" than Fischer seems prepared to admit.
In fact, the "new kind of war" that emerged from the trials of 1776-77 was remarkably conventional, unlike the petit guerre of irregular bands that Washington's rival Charles Lee favored and Fischer celebrates. In October 1777, this new Continental Army -- albeit with the help of local militiamen -- won the battle of Saratoga, which led to the French alliance. Four years later, that same Continental Army defeated the British at Yorktown with a standard siege operation, which depended on the protection of the French navy and both manpower and technical advice from the French army.
Fischer ends his book, as Leutze designed his canvas, with a lesson for today. "The story of Washington's Crossing," he says, "tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit, and so are we." True. But to win independence, the Americans also needed a trained professional army and the help of the French. That, too, has meaning for our time.
Reviewed by Pauline Maier
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