Washington's Crossing

by David Hackett Fischer
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313

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.

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2353

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 subordinate's idea because he felt the war was all but won. His purpose in New Jersey was to preserve order and allow the loyalists to take back the state rather than to oppress, and thus alienate, the populace. To be in charge of New Jersey, he selected the like-minded Cornwallis, also a Whig who opposed oppressive measures.

While the British were content to wait out the winter, the fall of New York left the colonists in a crisis. Prominent American Whigs turned Tory. Washington's leadership was challenged by his subordinates, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates. The Continental Army was not only defeated, but, with commissions expiring, half of its men returned home. The remaining fighting force was a disorganized mix of Continentals and state militias, with Washington's portion the smallest at 3,765 men. Lee, his second-in-command and rival, commanded 7,540. Like the country at large, the army was a loose collection of fiercely independent parts.

The Americans rallied. Just a couple of weeks before Washington's crossing in December of 1776, Thomas Paine wrote and distributed his two-cent pamphlet titled The Crisis, in which he scorned the summer soldier and sunshine patriot and called for a rebuilt army to oppose the British oppressor. The Continental Congress reorganized the army, giving Washington full command. More attractive incentives made it possible to recruit soldiers for longer commissions. Improved supplying of the army also helped. Even the seeming disaster of General Lee's capture by the British at a tavern where he had unwisely dallied actually strengthened Washington's hand by suddenly bringing Lee's forces under his own direct command. According to Dr. Benjamin Rush, the American response to the crisis typified that of a free republic: It did not rally until almost too late, but when it did, adversity brought out its best.

If Cornwallis was correct, as Fischer implies, then Washington's crossing of the Delaware was the apex of his generalship. Following soon after the rally of the American people, it brought the fame and credibility to the Continental Army that were sorely lacking after the New York fiasco.

The battles of Trenton and Princeton were parts of a web of mischances and opportunities. Washington was adept at adjusting to both. Although he did not direct them, American militia harassed the Hessian and Scottish troops stationed along the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, keeping them in a high state of alert for a week. Washington's plan was to cross the Delaware Christmas night and attack the exhausted and unsuspecting Hessians just before dawn on December 26, 1776. Among the many mischances he encountered were a partially frozen river, a driving snowstorm, eighteen artillery pieces to transport across the icy water, and a stray American regiment commanded by Adam Stephen, whose unauthorized mission of vengeance against the Hessians nearly compromised the surprise attack. Washington, however, benefited from good fortune. The driving snow storm made the ill-clad soldiers miserable but proved essential to retaining the element of surprise. Visibility was so bad that it did not matter that the attack occurred forty minutes after dawn. The artillery, although delaying the implementation of his plans by some four hours, proved to be a decisive factor in the victory. Some nine hundred Hessians were captured, and their commander, Colonel Johann Rall, was killed.

After the victory, more mischances and opportunities presented themselves. As Washington and his generals debated their next move, his men located forty hogsheads of rum, and much having been consumed, no further advance was possible. An annoyed Washington led his men back across the river to Pennsylvania. Along with the missed opportunity, however, came a new one. Colonel John Cadwalader, in charge of two units that were unable to cross the Delaware with Washington Christmas night, notified the commander that he and his men had eventually made it over and were now waiting on the New Jersey side for orders. Although Washington's men were tired and his officers reluctant to re-cross the Delaware, he was convinced that further offensive moves were necessary to deter the British from attacking Philadelphia. Therefore, on the night of December 29, he led his men once again across the river, now completely frozen over.

The plan was to lure eight thousand British troops under Cornwallis into a second battle at Trenton, this time with the Americans firmly established on the heights across Assunpink Creek on the southeast side of town. This second engagement, which occurred January 2, 1777, was less a full-fledged battle than the repulsion of British probes along the creek, including the successful defense of Assunpink Bridge. Fischer estimates 365 British killed or captured. Most important was the morale boost of having held a strong defensive position against the mightiest military power in the world.

The British assumed that the real battle would be fought the following day, but Washington knew that he would eventually be defeated if he stayed in place. He and his officers devised a bold plan to withdraw their troops that night and attack weakly defended Princeton, with a view to moving on to the major garrison at Brunswick and capturing it as well. The maneuver was not an easy one. Some of the continentals were making their third night march in as many nights and actually slept while they walked. Many were barefoot. The Quaker Bridge south of Princeton was not sturdy enough for artillery, so a new bridge had to be constructed during the night. Once again, these delays foiled Washington's plan of attacking before dawn. Ultimately, though, Princeton fell to the Americans, with some 450 British captured, killed, or missing.

Although the exhausted Americans could not finally follow the British to Brunswick and capture that important garrison (Washington felt five hundred fresh soldiers could have done it), the battles of Trenton and Princeton proved to be a turning point in the war. In disarray, the British retreated to Brunswick, not only abandoning Princeton but other outposts as well. They became defensive-minded, the reputation of the Continental Army rapidly rose throughout the colonies and breathed new life into the cause of freedom, and victory in these battles convinced many that the British were not invincible after all.

All through the rest of the winter of 1777, the New Jersey militia, energized by Washington's victories, harassed British foraging parties causing frequent, if not heavy, losses and lowering morale. Although continually annoyed with the militia because they came and went as they pleased, Washington, true to form, made the best of it. In one respect, he had no choice because his own Continentals were reduced to only twenty-five hundred men by March 15, while the militia consisted of some twelve thousand. In another, he must have realized what British colonel William Harcourt pessimistically wrote in a letter: that the colonists would never be defeated because the state militias effectively meant that every man in America was armed and resistant. Victory was not a matter of simply defeating an army, but a whole people.

Washington's Crossing is thoroughly documented. Besides its 379 pages of text are 185 pages of back matter including a thorough index, twenty-four appendices, twenty-seven pages of bibliography, and fifty-five pages of notes. Of particular interest is a thirty-two page historiography section that traces the many different interpretations of Washington's crossing, primarily historical but also fictional and artistic, from the nationalistic to the iconoclastic, from romantic to Marxist. One of the strengths of Fischer as a historian is that he has conscientiously considered these many approaches as well as the considerable body of documentary evidence available.

That he has not ignored folk history of the crossing is evidenced by the preface to this book (and its dust cover), which consider the famous painting of Emmanual Leutze and its effect on ordinary Americans’ imaginations. The work pictures a resplendent George Washington standing in a boat in the middle of the icy Delaware River. Also in the boat are a diversity of figures including farmers, a wounded soldier, a merchant, a western rifleman, an African American seaman, a Scottish immigrant, and even what Fischer terms an androgynous figure that might, he suggests, be a woman in male clothing. This collection of figures celebrates the United States’ democratic values. It is a theme that Fischer follows throughout the book. Primarily through the leadership of George Washington, the Americans were forged by crisis into committed, albeit irregular, fighting units that were able to defeat the mightiest powers of Europe.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 100, no. 11 (February 1, 2004): 946.

Library Journal 129, no. 2 (February 1, 2004): 106.

National Review 56, no. 6 (April 5, 2004): 45.

New Criterion 22, no. 9 (May, 2004): 66.

The New York Review of Books 51, no. 9 (May 27, 2004): 29.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (February 15, 2004): 13.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 2 (January 12, 2004): 49.

School Library Journal 50, no. 5 (May, 2004): 176.

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