Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Washington's Crossing, historian David Hackett Fischer uses Emanuel Leutze's highly romantic depiction of this famed event to reveal the gritty reality of the challenge faced by General Washington's Continental Army during the harsh winter of 1776, and the pivotal importance of the subsequent battles at Trenton and Princeton in turning the tide of the war.
His narrative begins in the summer of 1776 with the arrival of 33,000 fresh British and Hessian troops in New York. Intent on striking a crushing blow against the nascent Revolution, the British generals launched a massive and merciless assault against the bedraggled and comparatively untrained American forces, driving them out of the New York and Long Island area, ultimately to southern New Jersey.
By winter, Washington's battered troops, already depleted by defections and desertions, with many unfit due to illness, had retreated as far as Pennsylvania. At length, the arrival of limited, but sufficient reinforcements emboldened the general to consider an attack on a British position. On Christmas night, Washington led a force of 2,400 across the ice-covered Delaware River in a surprise attack on the combined British and Hessian troops based in Trenton, putting the town under his control. Within weeks, after again defeating the British at Trenton, the Americans seized another valuable British base at Princeton.
After both sides retreated to winter quarters, the American troops maintained an essentially guerrilla-style offensive, forcing the British and Hessians to concentrate their troops, which left the Americans in control of large parts of the mid-Atlantic region. This new type of "ungentlemanly" hit-and-run combat was well-adapted to the abilities of the Continental army, which had fared so badly against disciplined enemy troops with extensive experience in European-style line formation. For the first time, the Americans, who had heretofore always been on the defensive, began to regain territory on the attack, thus permanently reversing the momentum of the war.