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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.
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From The Washington Post:
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
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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