In 1781, after the surrender of the British forces at Yorktown ended the Revolutionary War, Charles Cornwallis and George Washington dined together. Lord Cornwallis proposed a toast asserting that Washington would be remembered best for his brilliant maneuvers along the Delaware River in the winter of 1776-1777. That twelve-week campaign is the focus of David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing. If the number of soldiers involved was small by historical standards, Fischer nevertheless believes that the battles of Trenton and Princeton and the famous Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River were significant because they reversed the momentum of the Revolutionary War and demonstrated to the world that a democratic society devoted to freedom could accomplish a great deed through its own conviction, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice.
Professor Fischer has an impressive command not only of the minutiae of these battles but also of their significance. He sees the campaign as a clash not only of three different armies with their own ways of training and sets of tactics but also a conflict of principles. On one hand were the British and Hessians embodying discipline and order. On the other were the Americans, who were struggling to form an army of liberty. To Fischer, the opposing sides were vying for no less than the respect of the free world.
No one felt the difficulties of forging an army of liberty more than Washington. Having served with the British in the French and Indian War, he knew that his opponents were strengthened by the principles of hierarchy, service, loyalty, and discipline. He found that his own soldiers, who were accustomed to unlimited freedom, were difficult to train, and as a consequence, were not reliable under fire. He complained bitterly of the licentious behavior of his men. He also learned to adapt and compromise, and his leadership of the Continental Army would serve as a prototype for the republican model of government crafted after the war. When enlistments expired at crucial points—indeed, in the middle of the Delaware River campaign—he persuaded, rather than commanded, men to stay. He treated even the lowliest private as a gentleman; to Washington, the term “gentleman” described not a social position but a moral condition. Fischer notes that no other army in history had operated on such a principle, certainly not the British or Hessians. Decision making under Washington was not top-down but an open, democratic process of sharing ideas, a process that Fischer believes led him to some winning strategies in the battles of Trenton and Princeton.
In the first chapter of Washington's Crossing, Fischer establishes a context for the Delaware River battles by backing up a year, to March, 1776, and focusing on Washington in New England and, later, New York City. The New Englanders, having successfully resisted the British, wished Washington a pleasant retirement. Washington, Fischer notes, knew better. He expected the enemy to return, this time to New York, nearly indefensible against the greatest naval power in the world. Indeed, he proved correct. Beginning June 29, 1776, the British launched what Fischer estimates was the greatest projection of naval power ever ventured by a European country until that time. Over a six-week period, five hundred transports brought twenty-three thousand British troops and ten thousand Germans. Some seventy warships prowled in American waters. All told, Fischer estimates that two-thirds of the army and one-half of the navy of Great Britain were committed to America to put down the rebellion.
This juggernaut rolled over New York. Its officers and men had an overwhelming advantage in experience, training, and tradition. The fifteen British generals averaged thirty years experience to the Americans’ two. Whereas the typical Continental soldier had only a few months experience, British soldiers were seasoned by the Seven Years War in Europe, the American French and Indian War, not to mention conflicts in India, the West Indies, Cuba, the Mediterranean, the Philippines, and Africa. The British had won every one of these engagements. Moreover, they had recruited a second army to fight with them: the German Hessians were the best-paid military in the world.
Fischer is the first to acknowledge the excellent work done by researchers of the Revolution, including studies of not only the British and American participants but of the Hessians as well. One little-known fact is that the opponents were not so different philosophically as one might assume. Whereas England's George III was pilloried as a tyrant, the men he chose to lead his military in America, the Howe brothers—William, commander in chief of the army, and Richard, of the navy—were both Whigs and sympathetic to the Americans’ desire for their rights. Although longtime friends of George III, they differed with him on this issue and only agreed to the assignment if they could negotiate to resolve the matter peacefully. Likewise, the philosophical interests of Hessian and colonial American leaders were not so far removed from each other. Friedrich Wilhelm II, landgraf of Hesse-Cassel, was as interested in the Enlightenment as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. He thought of himself as humane, enlightened, and a social reformer.
The Howes’ soft touch may have cost the British a quick victory. Rather than pursuing Washington's fleeing army after New York, William Howe was content to quarter his army for the winter in New Jersey, where there was good foraging. General Henry Clinton may have had a better idea: He urged his superior to march on Philadelphia, arrest the Continental Congress, and cut off Washington's army and destroy it. Fischer speculates that Howe rejected his...
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