Opinion: Daily Journal

New Look at America’s Birth

• David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 564 pages.

RALEIGH – David Hackett Fischer is a first-rate historian. Readers of the Brandeis University professor’s previous works – such as Paul Revere’s Ride and the indispensable Albion’s Seed – already knew that before the arrival of his path-breaking 2004 work Washington’s Crossing. But now a broader audience is likely to discover the delights of reading and cogitating on Fischer’s insights. Washington’s Crossing, a National Book Award finalist, has just earned Fischer a Pulitzer Prize.

The award is richly deserved. As the title suggests, Washington’s Crossing discusses that famous episode in late 1776 when the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, attacked and defeated a Hessian force at Trenton, and then a week later defeated a British force outside the town of Princeton.

But it is about far more than that. For one thing, you might think you know how the battle of Trenton occurred, but unless you’ve read this book you probably don’t. Contrary to myth – and the frequent assertions of previous, biased historians – the battle of Trenton was not simply a happy accident. The Americans didn’t win because of Hessian drunkenness or the fact that it was Christmas. Nor was it an isolated incident, or just a symbolic poke in Britain’s eye.

Instead, the weeks-long winter campaign that began with the crossing of an ice-bound river, success at two battles of Trenton, and the audacious attack at Princeton became a guerilla war that badly bloodied the British forces and probably saved the American Revolution from being nipped in the bud.

Fischer ably describes the qualities that made Washington such an exceptional leader in difficult circumstances. What’s more welcome, in my judgment, is how Fischer rescues the reputations of the commanders on the other side, including the Howe brothers and the Hessian officers who were (unfairly) blamed for the adverse outcomes.

Fischer puts these personalities and events in a useful context. He reveals the critical role of military intelligence in the conduct of the war, including how bad intelligence hurt the Americans in New York and how the good kind helped them in New Jersey. And he explains well what the British strategy was in the early months of the war. It was fashioned largely by British Whigs sympathetic to the American cause, such as the Howes and Lord Cornwallis, and was intended to awe the colonials with overwhelming military might while avoiding excessive casualties that might block the reconciliation they sought.

This is critically important, it seems to me. The British generals made a number of mistakes that Washington was nimble enough to capitalize on, but I think that their basic perception of the military problem in America was spot-on. That is, without the commitment of an impossibly massive number of British and mercenary troops to the war – the expeditionary force that was sent qualified as one of the largest British deployments in history up to that time – it was going to be impossible to conquer and rule the unruly American colonies.

The best plan was to break the back of the Continental Army while simultaneously assisting Tories in seizing control of colonial governments and offering conciliatory gestures towards moderate revolutionaries and the rather-large block of Americans who didn’t really feel much of an allegiance to either side in the initial conflict.

That this strategy fell short is not primarily due to British or Hessian error but due to the resilience of the colonial army, the leadership of Washington, and the key role that noncombatants such as financier Robert Morris and essayist Thomas Paine played in rallying people to the cause and inspiring volunteers to join or remain with the army during its darkest hour. The results were clear: the British started out in August 1776 with about 25,000 effective troops ready for duty in the theater. By January 8, just five months later, they had only 14,000 effective troops. Guerilla activity in the next three months would take that number still lower.

Washington’s Crossing is one of those literary gems that you enjoy from the first page. Fischer makes the good decision to begin his introduction not with a discussion of military history but instead with the history of that famous 1850 painting by Emmanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware. Plenty of smart-alecks have ridiculed the painting as unrealistic hagiography. Fischer reveals that the painting is more accurate than critics admit – for example, Washington probably did stand up in the swaying boat, rather than sitting down in what would have been icy water within it – and that the work was meant to symbolize the nature of the struggle for American Independence.

The soldiers in the boat exemplify the wide span of America: there are farmers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, backwoodsmen from the west, a seaport merchant, a black seaman from New England, a rower that appears to be a woman, plus an older leader (Washington) and a younger, future leader (James Monroe).

Washington “holds a brass telescope and wears a heavy saber, symbolic of a statesman’s vision and a soldier’s strength,” Fischer writes. “The artist invites us to see each of these soldiers as an individual, but he also reminds us that they are all in the same boat, working desperately together against the wind and current. [The artist] has given them a common sense of mission, and in the stormy sky above he has painted a bright prophetic star, shining through a veil of cloud.”

Good stuff. Great book.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.