by David Hacket Fischer
New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. x, 564.
Illus., maps, append, historiography, notes, biblio., index. $19.95 paper. ISBN:0-19518-151-X
Washington?s Crossing part of the series ?Pivotal Moments in American History? from Oxford University Press, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2005.
Fischer opens the book with, ?No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776,?and then in doing so explains the importance of the moment and sets the reader for an enthralling account of what happened.
Many are familiar with Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze?s painting ?Washington Crossing the Delaware,? but the true story behind the crossing has been told in many different ways, and not all of them accurately. Fischer sets out to set the record straight on the most the critical battles of 1776.
The book shows the plight of the American army well; defeat after defeat, and running instead of fighting. The odds of winning the war looked grim by Christmastime of 1776. Yet Washington, the biggest player in the turning of the tide of war, didn?t give up on either himself or his men, even with all the frustrations. As described in the book, it?s surprising he even survived all the battles, as he wasn?t shy about getting in the front lines.
By Christmas, following several defeats around New York, and being pushed into and across New Jersey, the Continental Army seemed poised to succumb to the British Army. Still, there was a strange optimism brewing. The Patriots seemed to sense that things would change. For one, the people of New Jersey didn?t look kindly on the brutal British and the looting Hessians. Also, the British Army had spread itself out across the state, seeking winter quarters. All of this gave Washington and the ragged Continentals a chance.
The chances of winning on the open field with an amateur army against a group of seasoned troops gave Washington few options. He decided a surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton. The Hessians are analyzed in detail in the book; but there is one myth that should be forever done in with the publication of Washington?s Crossing: They were not drunk. Continental soldier John Greenwood wrote in his memoir, ?During the battle I did not see a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy.?
The battles come and Washington, seizing the opportunities, decides to stay on the offensive for the most part. After winning the famous Battle of Trenton, there is a Second Battle of Trenton, usually overlooked, where the regulars of the British army were repulsed by the Continentals. And then came Princeton. Washington made his name in this campaign, for after it there could be no doubt that he would forever be remembered in American history.
By focusing on a few months of the war, when the battles could go either way, Washington?s Crossing is a hallmark of historical writing. Fischer brings hundreds of eyewitness letters into the book, using them as evidence of what really happened. The maps are excellent, brought from various libraries; the notes extensive, consuming almost a hundred pages; and Washington?s Crossing has a vast bibliography as well.
In the end, the battles of Trenton and Princeton showed the critical triumph of the indomitable American spirit. Fischer captures how hard the years of misfortune were, and how glorious the Continentals were after the battle of Princeton. The revolutionary war was years from being over, but the superiority of the British army was in question.