Washington's Crossing Characters
by David Hackett Fischer

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Washington's Crossing Characters

The American Revolution was marked by moments of great triumph for the Patriot cause but probably more often by long periods of gloom and misery. Victories were followed by spectacular defeats. David Hackett Fischer takes us to that time in the autumn and winter of late 1776 early 1777.

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For background, while Philadelphia was the seat of government of the Continental Congress, and the most populous city among the thirteen colonies, New York City was a preferred location for the British as an invasion point due to its easier approach from the sea. (Philadelphia was some distance up the Delaware River, making a naval invasion difficult.) With hundreds of ships and 30,000 men, the overall commander of the British Army in America, Sir William Howe (a British viscount) landed on Staten Island with the largest invasion force ever seen in world history. From Staten Island, Howe and his force crossed to Long Island the Brooklyn area in the vicinity of what is today the Varrazano Narrows Bridge) and severely defeated Washington's army at the bloody Battle of Long Island, causing the main body to fall back to the East River, where it looked like they would soon be destroyed. A combination of weather (fog) and wonderful planning permitted the army of George Washington to escape across the river (not far from today's Brooklyn Bridge) to the island of Manhattan, a triumph in saving his encircled army from destruction.

The Patriot Army also experienced defeat at Westchester, New York; a small victory at Haarlem Heights; defeat at Fort Lee, New Jersey; and a huge catastrophe when Washington lost a major part of his army at Fort Washington, New Jersey (just across the Hudson River from New York City), when 3,000 Americans were forced to surrender to the British. (Most would die on prison barges, from starvation and disease.) During these battles, a major component of the British Army were the German mercenaries fighting as paid hires for King George III. Most came from Hesse-Kassel, an independent German state, their monarch "renting" his troops to King George for cash (and a bonus for each one killed or wounded). These German troops were mostly forced into service, and they took out their resentment on the Americans captured, often killing those that surrendered. This was a bitter time when the rules of war were often ignored by the British. Americans were a people in rebellion, and thus, the British felt they were not always deserving of civil treatment.

It was with this background in mind that the American Army had to flee for their lives across New Jersey and back to Pennsylvania, a broken and defeated army at a great low point. It was at this time that Thomas Paine wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls." The British strategy was to send out detachments from New York to occupy key locations. One such location was Trenton, New Jersey. A force of 1,500 Hessians under Colonel Johann Rall (sometimes spelled Rahl) were posted to Trenton to act as a distant force (New York City was about sixty miles from Trenton) at the New Jersey–Pennsylvania border.

It was at this point in the American Revolution— December of 1776—that the Americans came the closest to breaking and defeat. Washington was outnumbered, and his defeats were sometimes due to failures in his strategy. At Brandywine, for instance, Washington let his army be outflanked. Many in the cause thought the end was near, and the British promised no mercy in punishing those who defied the crown.

Rather than fold, Washington decided on a bold move: attack the Hessian garrison in a daring surprise attack on the day following Christmas, when celebrations by the troops would find them groggy and tired. The Trenton attack on that December 26 morning was an overwhelming success, and the boost to American morale and spirits was the result of this bold and daring attack. Washington's army killed or captured the bulk of the Hessians that day. Following that spectacular victory, the British...

(The entire section is 1,652 words.)