Washington's Crossing

by David Hackett Fischer

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Washington's Crossing was published in 2004 and written by David Hackett Fischer, an author and professor at Brandeis University. The book is a work of historical non-fiction, and won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in History. Washington's Crossing evaluates the 1776 campaign led by George Washington during the American Revolutionary War, with a particular focus on the crossing of the Delaware River and the following battles at Trenton and Princeton. The Delaware Crossing is considered a turning point in the war; on the night of December 25, 1776, Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River to surprise Hessian forces stationed in Trenton, New Jersey. They successfully attacked Hessian forces in Trenton, before moving on to Princeton to attack British forces on January 3, 1777. While relatively small victories, the crossing and subsequent battles critically boosted morale of the revolutionary armies, and many historians argue that this was one of the first points at which Americans began to believe that they could truly win the war.

In Washington's Crossing Hackett Fischer goes beyond simply recounting historical details. He begins by discussing the perception of the war before the crossing and attacks in order to better frame their role in changing American morale. His focus is not centered solely on the American army; Hackett Fisher analyzes the motivation behind British and Hessian forces; analyzing differences that separated them from American soldiers, as well as key similarities between the opposing armies.

He then breaks down the multiple factors (tactical, operational, and strategic) that went into the planning of the crossing; highlighting the intense skills Washington used to successfully complete the maneuver. Hackett Fischer argues that the crossing goes beyond a simple war plan; it symbolizes a distinctly American way of strategizing and organizing. Washington adopted a democratic strategy in planning his attack; working with civil leaders rather than exerting military supremacy. Hackett Fischer argues that the crossing was also motivated by a sense of practicality; Washington wanted to promote the safety of his soldiers and act both quickly and intelligently in order to allow them to return to their ordinary lives. This ethic extended to prisoners captured during the attacks as well, who were treated humanely rather than tortured.

Hackett Fischer completes the book by analyzing the aftermath of the crossing and attacks. He highlights the shift in attitudes as the British army began to view the American army as a true threat. He argues that because of this shift, the crossing represents far more than just a tactical move but rather a fundamental turning point in the war and a key part in the development of an American war ethic focused on humanity and strategy rather than blunt violence.

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