On a number of occasions I have recommended David Hackett Fischer's "Paul Revere's Ride" as one of the finest American history books I have ever read, a display of deep research, perceptive analysis, and a highly compelling prose narrative. With "Washington's Crossing" Fischer has matched his earlier book. Just as the title incident in "Paul Revere's Ride" served to signify Fischer's broader study of the earliest days of the American Revolution and the battles at Lexington and Concord, here Emmanuel Leutze's 1851 painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" is the emblem chosen to represent the most crucial days at the end of 1776 when that Revolution seemed on the edge of collapse, but George Washington and his army in battles at Trenton and Princeton and in the little-known actions afterwards reversed the course of the war and set the British on the path to ultimate defeat.
Although most Americans probably have at least a passing familiarity with Washington's surprise victory over the Hessians at Trenton on the day after Christmas, 1776, Fischer's account highlights an equally crucial, yet barely remembered, battle at Trenton a week later when the American forces withstood a counterattack by Lord Cornwallis's forces, setting the stage for a daring overnight march by Washington around the British army to win another victory at Princeton. Over the next several weeks, the British and Hessian occupation of central New Jersey collapsed as the Americans, heartened by the events at Trenton and Princeton, struck repeatedly and successfully at detachments of foragers who discovered that the supposedly pacified countryside was suddenly hostile territory. Within a few months British generals who had believed the rebellion almost crushed found that the path to victory had vanished in the snow and mud.
Fischer presents vivid portraits of the generals and common soldiers on both sides of the conflict, while dispelling old myths. The Hessians at Trenton were not awakened from drunken sleep after Christmas carousing. The American army, although sometimes short of clothing and food, was well-armed and typically enjoyed a battlefield superiority in artillery. Washington comes across as a far more complex and flexible character than he is usually depicted (in a lengthy appended essay, Fischer surveys more than two centuries of artistic representations of Washington and the victories at Trenton and Princeton), but the real heroes of Fischer's narrative are the ordinary soldiers of the Continental Army and the local militias. He argues persuasively that these men were genuinely motivated by their ideals of liberty (although a New Englander of Glover's Marblehead Regiment might differ from a Pennsylvanian frontiersman or a Virginian planter as to exactly what constituted liberty and a proper society) and it is they, not just the generals riding boldly across painted canvases, who deserve much of the credit for maintaining the Revolution and seizing the initiative to take the war to the British and Hessian garrisons and thus reverse the course of events. And Fischer highlights a consequence of the American commitment to the ideals of liberty: while Hessians and even British troops were regularly offered to take no prisoners, the Americans in general during these campaigns treated their prisoners with compassion and even generosity because of their belief that it was the right thing to do.
In his closing, Fischer writes: "The most remarkable fact about American soldiers and civilians in the New Jersey campaign is that 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. 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."
on January 10, 2005
Washington's Crossing is at once both rich with detail and eminently readable, scholarly, yet approachable. In it, the author covers the period from which Washington took control of the Colonial army, through the disastrous, nearly fatal campaign in New York, to the Battles of Trenton, Princeton, and finally the forage war skirmishes that rage through the end of the winter of 1776-77. He illustrates how this winter campaign of Washington's was much more than the small, symbolic victory that it has often been characterized as; that it in fact had a major impact on the war by destroying the Howe brother's strategy of ending the Revolution through conciliation, and reviving the spirits of the Americans to fight on.
Fischer begins with an examination of the make up of the Colonial army, with its wide sectional and cultural differences, and examines the daunting task Washington had in forging it into an effective fighting force capable of fighting the world's most professional and successful army. He then goes into some detail describing the make up and culture of the British army and the Hessian forces that the Americans faced, giving a context to the challenge. Washington emerges from his pages as a genius simply for being able to adapt to the situation at hand and create and lead what became the Continental Army.
Fischer is vividly descriptive in his portraits of Washington and his officers, the Howe brothers and their principle officers, and the commanders of the Hessian forces. In addition, he provides the perspectives of common soldiers from all the armies, private citizens, members of the Continental Congress, and Tom Paine, the Revolution's propagandist who was pivotal in the success of the winter campaign.
Washington's Crossing is rich in illustrations and contains adequate and readable maps. It has copious note, an excellent bibliography, and several fascinating and useful appendices that add many additional layers of information to the text.
I would rank this as one of the most informative, well-written, and fascinating books that I have ever read on the American Revolution, and I would consider it essential to a full understanding of the Revolution. Fischer has crafted a masterpiece that you cannot afford to miss. This book receives my highest recommendation.
on March 7, 2004
There are a number of authors whose books you pick up to read despite the purported subject matter. David Hackett Fischer is one of those authors. Having read Albion's Seed, which I thought was a truly outstanding book, I was not thrilled to see that he had written a book titled Paul Revere's Ride. What could someone have to say that would make this overworked piece of historical minutia worth reading? Wrong! Hiding behind the bland title was another gem about colonial American culture. All this is background to explain why I wasn't surprised by Washington's Crossing. Once again, he has produced an amazingly informative and well-written book book and disguised it with a pablum title.
I thought I knew this part of Revolutionary history very well. However, Washington's Crossing not only brought out details about Trenton and Princeton that I had never known before, it presented a lot of very germane background material that I had never seen before, and most importantly, it explained why these were really significant engagements. They were not minor skirmishes, or as one historian had described them "Washington beating up Howe's outposts". True, the numbers of men involved were small, but then so were the armies, and for that matter so was the population of the colonies. As important as the physical beating the British took in these battles was the psychological damage. These were not minor skirmishes that were blown up as propaganda victories, they inflicted real losses on the British and showed that under the right circumstances, the Americans could stand up to both the Hessians and the British. As Fischer shows, the immediate outcome of the battles was to force the British to withdraw inside a defended perimeter, and to encourage the guerilla war fought by the New Jersey militia, which Fisher titles the "Forage war".
When reading the final chapters of this book, I could not help drawing connections with the Vietnam War. Although the Tet offensive was a lost battle, it brought up the idea that winning the war might be too costly to support. Similar ideas must have gone through the British mind after Trenton and Princeton, with the difference that Washington actually won those battles. To his credit, Fischer does not draw the parallels, or even mention the Vietnam War. He limits himself to the facts of the Revolution, and leaves the speculation entirely to the reader.
on March 7, 2004
David Hackett Fischer's latest ode to the American Revolution extends far beyond the limitations in scope and time implied by its title. And it is hardly the over-simplification you might fear when reading in the Editor's Note that "no single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776."
It is difficult to sum up a book that treats of so many events, topics, and themes, but I saw it primarily as a military history of the Revolution's opening act, covering the one year period beginning mid-March of 1776. The Crossing of the title could not even be termed the centerpiece of the account. After the Introduction, it is not mentioned again until p. 203, and then occupies only about 13 of the main text's 370-odd pages.
We learn first - in detail - of the recruitment and make-up of the opposing armies (with the British and Hessian contingents treated separately), the backgrounds of their principal commanders, of the competing strategies that each side considered and the differing processes of choosing from them, and then of the campaigns that ensued. The Americans chose to defend New York City, are routed, and then are chased across New Jersey and into Philadelphia. Then the decision to mount an attack back across the Delaware River at Trenton is made. The Americans succeed, repulse a counterattack, and follow-up with a march north against the enemy encampment at Princeton. After this third American success, the wearied armies withdraw into their winter quarters. Many "crossings" are documented, many as perilous and significant as that of the title. They just don't have famous paintings to heroicize them.
When covering the troop make-up and the like, Fischer's detail can be mind-numbing. But when writing of the battles themselves, he excels. A three-hour made-for-TV movie could not equal in drama the force of Fischer's one paragraph describing the moment the Hessian outpost commander realized the dimensions of the American force advancing on Trenton.
Embedded in these discussions is the informed development of what I see to be Fischer's two main, interlocking themes. The first is the tension in the American forces between the need for military discipline and the belief among the troops that liberty was a "voluntary agreement." The second is Gen. Washington's evolving skills as a commander and strategist. These and other "lessons to be learned" from the events are then explicitly laid out in a concluding Chapter.
Well, hardly "concluding". Following are 24 Appendices dealing mostly with subsidiary military topics (duty rosters, casualty lists, etc.) that will be of interest mainly to those whose ancestors served in the fighting. Then come a Historiography, Bibliography, Abbreviations, Notes, Sources for Maps, Acknowledgements, and the comprehensive Index. This book is nothing if not well-documented.
At the risk of making this review far too lengthy, I must add that the maps are brilliantly executed - frequent, comprehensive but precisely drawn, and with an underlay of modern landmarks.
For this student, however, what emerged in greatest relief was the theme of historical contingency. Fischer acknowledges that major events such as these are the product of a nexus of forces, no one force a sufficient cause in itself. But here he defines contingency as "people making choices, and choices making a difference." He clearly feels it was these choices that determined the outcome. As important as those choices - by Washington, Howe, Cornwallis, others - were, Fischer's account itself strongly suggests a more significant, purely fortuitous element: the weather.
It seems that at every critical point in almost every battle described here, the weather made turns in the Americans' favor. Just as Washington's army appears trapped and doomed on Brooklyn Heights, a Nor'easter swoops in and halts the British assault. When fog is needed to cloak the American advance on Trenton, it appears. As difficult as river ice made it for both armies, it solidifies at a greater disadvantage for the British. The Revolutionaries viewed this as Providence warming to their cause. More likely, they were lucky. One might consider the altered course of history had that Nor'easter been one day later.
The value of the ineptly titled "Washington's Crossing" is that it provides both excitement and detail enough for readers to make up their own minds.
Until now, Richard M. Ketchum's The Winter Soldiers written in 1973, was probably one of the best accounts available of the dramatic campaign of Trenton and Princeton in 1776-1777. However, Brandeis University Professor David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing is clearly superior in the quality of its narrative and maps, as well as depth of supporting research. Fischer's Washington's Crossing is in fact, the best campaign narrative now available on the subject. Fischer's work is particularly valuable for the many new details he brings to this telling, such as the role of the Pennsylvania Navy on the Delaware River, the key role of American artillery in the campaign and the "Forage War" fought in New Jersey in the first three months of 1777. However, Fischer attempts to use this campaign to present general theories about the American Revolution that are flimsy at best, as well as a attempt to challenge various historiographical versions of the campaign.
Washington's Crossing consists of nineteen chapters that begin with the New York Campaign and end with the "Forage War" in 1777. Fischer also provides nineteen excellent maps that effectively support the narrative, except for parts of the New York campaign. Equally interesting are the author's 24 appendices, which range from orders of battle for New York, Trenton and Princeton, to casualty records, weather records on the Delaware River and notes on river fords. Taken together, the author's documentation is superb. As for the campaign narrative, Fischer writes well and is able to effectively paint the "dark period" that made these ten days so pivotal for American history. Yet while Fischer conclusively proves that the Hessians were not caught napping or drunk at Trenton, his assertion that they put up stiffer resistance than most accounts suggest lacks analysis. Despite two Hessian counterattacks with artillery support, Colonel Rall's 1,000 troops and six cannon were unable to kill a single American soldier in about one hour of close-quarter combat; this was a pretty pathetic effort. While Fischer paints the Hessian troops as exhausted after weeks of harassment, they were certainly better rested than the American troops who had just made a river crossing and forced march in severe weather.
Fischer's rationale for including or excluding information is not always compelling; for example, he banishes John Honeyman - supposedly one of Washington's spies in New Jersey - to the footnotes. Fischer acknowledges that many other historians have included Honeyman as an important figure in the events at Trenton, but he regards the evidence as flimsy and simply discounts it, even as he admits that there is little hard data available on Washington's spy system. However, on even flimsier anecdotal evidence, Fischer suggests that an "unknown American woman" - and he suggests Betsy Ross - helped to delay Hessians at Mount Holly by entertaining the brigade commander. Fischer also includes an unsubstantiated Hessian account that they were bombarded from the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware by seven American batteries during Washington's attack on Trenton, despite the lack of any American sources on this incident. Why are these batteries not listed in the order of battle? Furthermore, how could American cannon engage targets across a 700-meter wide river when Fischer admits that visibility was down to perhaps 500 meters due to the snowstorm?
The author also annoyingly tries to score political correctness points by sprinkling cameo appearances by blacks and women in the campaign narrative, but the significance (if any) of their actions often appears strained. For example, Fischer notes the close bond that George Washington had with his slave, William Lee, but how is this significant to the Trenton campaign? The author also notes that a number of slave revolts broke out in New Jersey in the winter of 1776, with groups such as the "Black Pioneers" active, but so what? Women such as Margaret Morris appear frequently in the text because she kept a diary, but would the campaign narrative suffer if she had been omitted?
Fischer also attempts to draw dangerous general conclusions from a ten-day campaign. First, he asserts that the "British and German forces remained rigid and hierarchical, Americans evolved an open and flexible system that was fundamental to their success," for which he presents the American victories at Trenton and Princeton as proof. Yet why, when a British brigade surprised and routed a good quality American brigade under Anthony Wayne at Paoli nine months later, did this not indicate the opposite? Indeed, British forces were able to outmaneuver Washington himself at Germantown, and Gates at Camden, so the idea that the Trenton campaign gave American forces an intrinsic tactical edge is silly. Fischer's second broad assertion is that Americans developed a higher ethical standard in warfare that was demonstrated by Washington's humane treatment of German and British prisoners in the Trenton campaign. However, the treatment of the much larger number of Anglo-German prisoners after Saratoga was much less humane and it would be premature to assert that a "policy of humanity" was in effect when in fact, Trenton represented the first large haul of enemy prisoners.
While Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton were "pivotal moments in American history" as Fischer concludes these victories were not decisive militarily or politically. In fact, the decisive victory would come ten months later at Saratoga. Fischer's assessment that British commanders came to see the war as lost after Trenton is specious; Howe easily brushed aside Washington's army in 1777 and seized Philadelphia. (...). Indeed, the American financial situation seriously deteriorated as the war dragged on and as late as 1780 - over three years after Trenton - the British were still able to inflict crushing defeats on the Americans at Charleston and Camden.
A monumental tome, "Washington's Crossing" provides an extensive and thorough examination of the people and events leading up to and surrounding the crossing of the Delaware River as well as the results of the successful New Jersey campaign of which this was one small part. For those who are serious historians and wish to check primary sources or other information the author provides documentation in the form of 45 pages of appendices, 33 pages of histography, a 27 page bibliography, and 56 pages of notes. For those less inclined to study at that level the easy-to-read style of David Fischer makes the book a great read. He closely examines the makeup of the various military units including the Hessian regiments, British regulars, Scottish Highland regiments, Connecticut Light Horse regiment, Hamilton's Artillery, regiments of riflemen, etc. He also examines the background and history of Washington, the Howe brothers, Cornwallis, and many other major players in the war. After reading "Washington's Crossing" you come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for what the American and British forces went through and what each was trying to accomplish at various stages of the war. This was a critical time for the American militia and David Fischer drives the point home well as he takes you through one unsuccessful campaign after another until the tide finally turned for the American troops. Each side is carefully examined in terms of fatigue, moral, military planning. What happened, why it happened and the effect it had on the war at that point. A fascinating trip into history it is an excellent read and highly recommended.
on February 17, 2004
Ever wonder how it is that you're not about to sit down for tea and crumpets, looking forward to your wife cooking you a dinner of stuffed cow intestines? Don't laugh. For as David Hackett Fischer's landmark book illustrates, the fledgling Continental Army (not to mention a few idiosyncratic bands of state militia) came perilously close to losing the War of Independence.
Joe Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of FOUNDING BROTHERS, heaped scores of praise on WASHINGTON'S CROSSING in the February 15, 2004 edition of the New York Times Book Review:
"For reasons beyond my comprehension, there has never been a great film about the War of Independence. The Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam have all been captured memorably, but the American Revolution seems to resists cinematic treatment. More than any other book, 'Washington's Crossing' provides the opportunity to correct this strange oversight, for in a confined chronological space we have the makings of both 'Patton' and 'Saving Private Ryan,' starring none other than George Washington. Fischer has provided the script. And it's all true."
David Hackett Fischer has indeed done that, Mr. Ellis. And the canon of Revolutionary War literature has a new cornerstone
on January 18, 2004
Even before the smoke from the battle cleared, the victorious infantry swarmed onto the battlefield to shoot or bayonet injured American troops, stripping the dead of their valuables.
They "dashed out their brains with their muskets and ran them through with their bayonets, made them like sieves." As American soldiers lay dying, their bodies were plundered with great violence. American prisoners, when captured, were housed in appalling conditions of cruelty, suffering and starvation. Most died. As one victorious officer pointed out, "Wherever our armies have marched, wherever they have been encamped during the last campaign, every species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrevocable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measures will be able to eradicate."
Those victorious troops were British and Hessian, they were fighting American rebels. By December 1776, General Washington had lost 90 percent of the men who were in his army during the previous summer. British commanders were moving hard, fast and decisively, defeating the Americans in battle after after. Had colonists dug in to fight, the rebellion would have ended in one quick charge by "the thin red line."
Instead, Washington kept running. At least one spy in his headquarters kept the English fully up-to-date. By any reasonable standard, the rebellion was over. The Hessians, by any standard the best troops in the world, settled in comfortably at Trenton for the winter. They had fought hard, won much, deserved a rest and expected to be going home soon. The Revolution was all but lost.
Instead, during a howling nor'easter storm, Washington led the tattered remnants of his shattered army across the Delaware River. This time, when the smoke cleared at Trenton on Christmas Day, nearly a thousand Hessians were either dead or prisoners. Instead of revenge, Washington issued orders that the Hessians "were innocent people in this war, and were not volunteers, but forced into this war." He ordered them to be treated as friends.
In 12 weeks after Trenton, Washington won battle after skirmish after skirmish. He wrecked the British plans for a quick end to the war, and revived the forlorn hopes of the rebels. Washington went on to lose battle after battle, but Americans never again lost hope. Eventually, English politicians got tired of the American quagmire and quit.
Washington's policy reflected the attitude of the Continental Congress. As John Adams explained, "I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this -- Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the Best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won't prevail against America, in this contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed."
How effective was it? Well, almost 14,000 Hessians survived the war in America. Of these, almost 3,200 chose to stay in America. Others went home to Hesse to persuade their entire families to emigrate to America.
The book expresses more than the marching and counter-marching we expect of military campaign books. Fischer describes the attitudes which made the Revolution a success and attracted the admiration, support and envy of the world, including many in England and Germany. It is no accident America became a shining example to people everywhere looking for freedom. It began, not with "shock and awe," but with kindness and humility.
It's an outstanding book. Americans invented an entirely new way of war, based on "the policy of humanity" which gave an entirely new meaning to the Revolution. The Battle of Trenton was a pivotal event, but the real diference was in humanitarin policies instead of punitive military revenge.
Most of the reviewers have already touched upon the key points that Mr. Fisher brings forth in this remarkably well researched book. Reaching well beyond the standard assumptions that Washington's crossing of the Delaware was simply rowing a boat across the Delaware to catch and overpower an unsuspecting Hessian force only fed a mysterious myth. "Washington's Crossing" has pulled back the mythological curtain enabling anyone who is interested in facts and details to dig in for an engrossing and highly interesting read.
I had no idea of the details that were involved in the Trenton campaign, especially the involvement of the Hunterdon men, lead by General Philemon Dickinson who picked apart the Hessian scouting parties along the northern Delaware banks, nor of the involvment of the Ewing River Raiders whos exploits encompassed crossing the river on raiding and spying missions before the December 25th crossing.
Mr Fisher clarifies many aspects of what the Contential Army was up against, describing the different units sent from Britian to engage the rebellion.
Interesting to note that the Howe Brothers were firm in their believe that the insurrection had some merit and fought for a peacefull solution to the conflict throughout the campaign.
An amazing book that refuses to allow you to put it down........
on February 23, 2005
Anyone who has tried to arrange photos in an album knows what a pain it is to put history in order, even when you were part of it. What you have done for your photos, David Hackett Fischer has done to the New York and New Jersey campaigns of 1776-1777. Fischer has brought order to the diaries, dispatches and reminiscences of many of the actors who played roles in the Trenton-Princeton campaign -- a campaign that gave new hope to a revolution that was faltering and on the verge of failure.
Fischer masterfully lays out his tale, using a trove of evidence about the players, describing how their competence and worldview played into the way events turned on December 26, 1776. Fischer describes the British way of fighting, rightly considered the most professional and feared of its day. His chapter on the Hessians makes it clear that Washington was not fighting a band of drunks at Trenton, but a regiment of proud, able professionals who had withstood a wearying week of harassment by American raiding parties. Americans are described in their varied rambunctiousness, anxious enough to fight, but loathe to be led. Washington is portrayed as an eminent aristocratic Virginian, initially at a loss to lead the fractious rebels under his command.
Fischer brilliantly evokes the battles leading up to Trenton and those that followed. He makes it easy to imagine oneself on the fields of battle. Along the way, one shares the miseries of the Americans revolutionaries -- trudging barefoot over icy ground, sleeping without the tents they had to abandon when New York fell, enduring bitterly cold night marches in blinding snow. The crossing of the Delaware is depicted as enormously difficult: 2 of 3 crossings failed entirely due to the impossibility of maneuvering around house-size ice floes barreling down the river. Fischer shows great respect for the fighting style and bravery of all armies. He does not shrink from detailing the atrocities that lost the British whatever public support they might have had. Neither does he shrink from expressing his deep admiration of George Washington, the commander of towering determination, flexibility and action, who brilliantly out-generaled the British and Hessians and managed to forge his undisciplined troops into a potent fighting force.
Nelson Runger, who read the book for the audio CD, was excellent, adopting light accents (British, German, Celtic, Yankee, Virginian) for different characters. Keeping this up over 15 CDs was an amazing feat, and helped to bring the story alive.
"Washington's Crossing" is an awesome work. It ably illustrates Fischer's thesis that decisions by individuals can have enormous effects on history. Washington's crossing of the Delaware, and the succeeding victories in Trenton, Princeton, and the New Jersey "Forage War" succeeded in large part because of the unsummoned contributions of men and women to the Cause. Whether as militia, spies, pamphleteers or soldiers under arms, each heeded the call in the fight for liberty. Fischer's work is a fitting tribute to their efforts.