By David Hackett Fischer
Oxford University Press, $30, 576 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY WOODY WEST
December 1776 was a bitter month, cold and stormy, and bitter as well for the prospects of the new nation’s War of Independence. After the fierce opening by the raggle-taggle American army at Bunker Hill that led the British to withdraw from Boston, the curve had been steeply down: In just 12 weeks, George Washington had lost parts of three states and 90 percent of the army under his command, the British victory at New York a signal defeat. “The Americans were baffled, indecisive, disorganized, undisciplined and soundly defeated” there, writes David Hackett Fischer, University Professor at Brandeis University, in “Washington’s Crossing.”
Thousands of colonists were rethinking their support of the rebellion and returning to allegiance to the crown, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Washington’s two top subordinates, Gens. Charles Lee and Horatio Gates, were lobbying to undermine him, and members of the Continental Congress were unhelpfully and constantly intrusive.
At this time of despond, Thomas Paine accompanying Washington’s army during the retreat was moved to write his pamphlet “The American Crisis.” It begins, writes Mr. Fischer, with the “cadence of a drumbeat” — “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The brilliant rhetorical indictment of the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” was read in every army camp and widely elsewhere. It was Paine’s genius to express a popular feeling that was already stirring in other hearts, the author writes.
Even during these dark days, however, American spirit was not extinguished. Lt. Col. Samuel Blachley Webb, a Connecticut Yankee wounded at Bunker Hill and twice at White Plains who was made an aide to Gen. Washington at the age of 23, replied to a friend’s letter: “You ask me our Situation. It has been the Devil, but is to appearance better. About 2,000 of us had been obliged to run damn’d hard before about 10,000 of the enemy. Never was finer lads at a retreat than we are … No fun for us that I can see; however, I cannot but think we shall drub the dogs.”
And Congress finally concluded that it could not after all manage the smallest details of military operations, and granted the frustrated Washington the full power necessary to rebuild a tattered army.
The “great revival” of American purpose and spirit, writes Mr. Fischer, thus grew from defeat not victory, and the Trenton campaigns would be the evidence.
It does not require a Carlylean view, that history is the actions of heroes, to appreciate that particular individuals at particular times have an indelible effect on events. Today, when heroism is sourly considered eccentric and retrograde and activists agitate to obliterate the name of Washington (and of Jefferson, et al.) from public schools and other institutions because they were slaveholders, Mr. Fischer’s balanced and admiring perspective of George Washington is heartening.
In this vividly documented history, Mr. Fischer begins appropriately with what is one of the most famous paintings in American history, “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” — a massive 20-foot-wide and 12-foot-high canvas that hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copies of this heroic painting used to be standard in American classrooms. When Henry James as a boy of eight saw the painting in New York, he related that no impression in his youth “was half so momentous as that … epoch-making masterpiece.”
Painted by a German immigrant, Emanuel Leutze, in 1850, the details of the painting can provide surprises, the author notes. There are 13 men in the crowded small boat, including a young lieutenant holding the flag, James Monroe, who would be severely wounded at Trenton.
The dress of the occupants shows that the soldiers are from many parts of America. Among them, one is wearing the short jacket of a New England seaman, another is of African descent (Leutze was a strong abolitionist). A third figure pulling an oar is androgynous, perhaps a woman in man’s clothing, the author suggests. There is a Scot in a Balmoral bonnet; hard-faced Western riflemen in hunting shirts are in the bow, and farmers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey huddle in the thwarts. George Washington is of course the dominant figure in Continental uniform of buff and blue.
“The debunkers were right about some of the details in the painting [the flag is not accurate [-] the Stars and Stripes were not adopted until 1777], but they were wrong about others,” Mr. Fischer writes, “and they rarely asked about the accuracy of its major themes. To do so is to discover that the larger ideas in Emanuel Leutze’s art are true to the history that inspired it,” and Mr. Fischer elaborates these in this masterly account.
The first battle of Trenton on Christmas Day would be considered a skirmish in the scale of military actions with which moderns are dolorously familiar. At Trenton, 2,400 Americans fought 1,500 Hessians in a battle lasting about two hours. But as Mr. Fischer emphasizes, “The little battles of the American Revolution were conflicts between large historical processes.”
The British strategy in New Jersey, where there was a sizable Loyalist population, had been one of intended “reconciliation” under Gen. Sir William Howe (whose brother, Adm. Richard Howe, commanded the Royal Navy forces). That the policy had the opposite effect was largely because British and Hessian troops, at the end of their very long supply line, went from foraging to plundering to looting the civilians in New Jersey — including rape in their abuse.
Spontaneously, Mr. Fischer writes, Jerseyans rose increasingly as guerrillas. As a result, the British had to disperse their troops ever wider against these insurgents, a vulnerability Washington’s intelligence network quickly noted and an opportunity he was quick to grasp.
The general called his officers for counsel — the nature of the new army meant one had to lead, not just command — and the plans for a strike at Trenton were developed. The Americans had to win. A draw, Washington said, would be tantamount to a defeat and likely be the knell for “the Cause.”
A night march always is difficult. Now, the reorganized American force, regulars and militiamen, had to embark in the dark as a heavy rain fell, changing to a brutal nor’easter, with howling wind, sleet and snow. The poorly dressed troopers labored to get gear and arms across a river choked with ice flows, always fearing the Hessians would discover them. It was a template of a military nightmare. It was a nasty little fight, with bayonets and musket butts.
As a result of the successes of the attack on Trenton, by the spring of 1777, a “double transformation” occurred. The Americans began to develop fresh confidence in Gen. Washington and to believe that they could match and defeat the British army, and the British were losing confidence that they could win this war against upstart rebels, these “skulking peasants,” as one general derisively characterized his opponents.
There were six more brutal years before Lord Cornwallis would surrender at Yorktown, to be sure. But a promising point had been reached in that winter of 1776 when Washington hammered the Hessian garrison at Trenton (the Germans were not drunk, as often is asserted). The subsequent battle — Trenton II — against Hessians and British regulars and Washington’s assault against Princeton were astute and professionally executed. These were followed in late winter and early spring by the “Forage War” in New Jersey in which units of the maturing American army harassed and mauled the British.
Mr. Fischer, whose previous books include “Albion’s Seed” and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” presents a Washington maturing into a leader appropriate for a democratic army and society — a man of integrity, pride and commitment. The author also emphasizes how an American “way of war” evolved out of the hard war against Britain.
There are splendid profiles of both British and American participants: Robert Morris who was able to keep supplies flowing to the army (there were always sufficient arms and munitions but clothing and food were in direly short supply); Washington’s artillery chief, Henry Knox, whose booming voice could be heard over the roar of his cannons, it was said; a young artilleryman, Alexander Hamilton; and a capable company commander, Charles Wilson Peale, among the large and memorable cast.
Mr. Fischer thoroughly details the orders of battle on both sides; the characteristics of the military formations, British and American; the leaders, tactics and armaments of the time. The maps are excellent, the narrative lucid and vibrant. The author’s command of sources is obvious. This is history presented as inspiriting, informative and a joy to read.
Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.