Washington's Crossing

by David Hackett Fischer

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

David Hackett Fischer devotes most of the book to the winter of 1776–1777, especially the decisive battles of the Revolution that George Washington led during a three-month period. Fischer begins, however, by providing the backstory that led the self-declared patriots to declare independence. He does so to emphasize the extent to which the “Americans” initially strongly identified as “British.” In Spring 1776, the American Congress was established to achieve particular ends.

[T]he goal of the American Congress was not yet independence but the restoration of rights within the empire. They still called themselves the United Colonies and flew the Grand Union Flag, which combined thirteen American stripes with the British Union Jack.

Even as this handful of men moved forward with the intent to declare that the colonies were now a separate nation, Fischer points out, the ideas now considered fundamental to the establishment of the new American Republic were not all firmly in place. Rather, the ideas shifted during the course of the war and, to some extent, because of specific events that occurred during the war. In this regard, one member of the Continental Army became especially influential: Thomas Paine. Serving in Washington’s army in fall 1776, Paine saw firsthand that many soldiers had lost faith and many did not re-enlist when their term was up. Fischer points out that the political orientation as Whig was prevalent; they supported gaining for themselves the same rights that English people in England had. In contrast, “Paine was an English radical, fighting for everybody’s rights.” Paine recognized the need for a morale boost. He wrote his new pamphlet while serving in the army.

He watched and worried as continental regiments came to the end of their enlistments and went home. The army was shrinking before his eyes. . . . Paine concluded that something had to be done. “It was necessary,” he decided, that, “the county should be strongly animated.”

This became “The American Crisis,” which begins with some of the most famous words that came out of the revolution: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He went on to disparage those who left service, calling them “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot,” while ardently promoting fidelity among those who stayed.

Fischer devotes considerable time to explaining the structure of the British army of the day, especially the elements that weakened it, as well as the particular strategies the offices employed. One key factor was that, based on their numerical superiority and the victories to date, the British had a low opinion of the Continental Army’s capabilities. The author also explains Washington’s overall strategy leading up to the Trenton attack. The Commander communicated with officers leading troops in key locations throughout the mid-Atlantic. Staying tightly organized and being ready to move quickly were two key elements. Maintaining an active intelligence network was another so that the rebels would have adequate notice of impending British movements. Conversely, the Continentals established checkpoints or “redoubts” at every “suspicious” crossing on the river; in this way, they hoped to prevent intelligence from leaking out from their side. Washington ordered every general

to keep his men together, “night and day,” with three days’ rations, ready to march “at the shortest notice.”

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