Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Washington's Crossing • David Hackett Fischer • New York: Oxford University Press, 2004 • xii, 564 pp. • $35.00
Reviewed by Jean B. Lee, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of several works, including "Historical Memory, Sectional Strife, and the American Mecca: Mount Vernon, 1783–1853," VMHB (vol. 109, no. 3).
In desperate condition and at the point of disbanding, the Continental army huddled in eastern Pennsylvania in December 1776, while British forces, having taken New York City in a massive invasion, ravaged much of New Jersey. On Christmas Day, General George Washington led his bedraggled troops in a dangerous crossing of the Delaware River and fell upon the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. The German mercenaries, most of them sleeping off holiday reveries, failed to mount a defense and surrendered to the Continentals, who then returned to Pennsylvania. A few days later Washington again led his men across the river and defeated a second enemy force, at Princeton. These events loom large in the history of the American Revolution, for they saved the Continentals from imminent, ignominious defeat and revitalized their cause. So read textbook accounts of the first major American military successes in the War for Independence.
David Hackett Fischer affirms the vital importance of these victories, Washington's wisdom and effectiveness as commander-in-chief, and the extraordinary courage and tenacity of his troops. At the same time, in the book's most important scholarly contributions, the author challenges conventional understandings of the battles, debunks claims of Hessian incompetence, and deftly situates Trenton and Princeton within a matrix of insurgency in New Jersey throughout the winter of 1776–77. The result is a complicated, compelling, sometimes breathtaking, narrative of events and their impact, which is interspersed with leisurely paced biographical sketches and other digressions.
British and Hessian forces moved from New York into New Jersey in November 1776 intent on rapidly suppressing the American rebellion. They found it impossible to control the countryside, however, because their plundering and attacks on local inhabitants aroused intense resistance and, secondly, because they were ineffectively dispersed in small garrisons spread out over three hundred square miles. These circumstances enabled Washington's army, after an incredibly arduous trek across the Delaware River and through rugged terrain, to attack well-trained but edgy and weary Hessian troops at Trenton, a militarily untenable site. Fischer's detailed description of the battle attributes the American victory not to intoxicated mercenaries who surrendered without a fight, but to ample Continental firepower and ferocious engagement.
The army's return to Pennsylvania proved short-lived because Washington soon received word of an enemy in disarray, constantly threatened by marauding bands of Americans, and susceptible to being forced out of western New Jersey. Once again men, horses, artillery, and other supplies made the Delaware crossing, and this time a more confident, much larger body of Continentals and militiamen prevailed in a little-known second battle at Trenton on 2 January 1777. Afterward, one American reported that British bodies "lay thicker and closer together . . . than I ever beheld sheaves of wheat lying in a field which the reapers had just passed" (p. 307). With a third British defeat the following day at Princeton, the cause of Independence was rescued, if not yet secured, while British hopes of ending the rebellion and returning America to the imperial fold gave way to prospects of a long, difficult war against an army "now become a formidable enemy" (p. 358).
Washington's Crossing is history in the heroic mode. In this, the book is convincing when Fischer, a master storyteller, offers ample evidence of the tenacity and bravery of Continental troops and militia, the determined efforts of New Jerseyites to drive the enemy from the state, and the sheer brutality of eighteenth-century warfare. Less persuasive are the author's contentions about the world-changing singularity of the Trenton-Princeton campaign, which ignores the continuum of a long war. For example, to argue that Continentals' treatment of captured soldiers signaled a more humane kind of warfare, one reflecting ideals of the Revolution, ignores the conflict's continuing savagery on both sides. Witness prolonged fighting in the South and the backcountry as late as 1781. Furthermore, although Fischer is hardly alone in thinking that defeat of the Continental army in New Jersey would have ended the American struggle for Independence, his own evidence of intense civilian harassment of the king's forces, to say nothing of the territorial vastness of the new nation, calls into question this long-standing assumption. Trenton and Princeton surely saved Washington's army from demoralization and even dispersal, but would the liberty-loving people whom Fischer portrays have so readily given up the fight?