Washington's Crossing

by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press)

(This column first appeared in the June 17, 2004 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

 

Washington's Crossing is the fifth in a series of books entitled Pivotal Moments in American History. Indeed, that 1776 Christmas night passage from Pennsylvania to attack Trenton, New Jersey, immortalized in Emmanuel Leutze's painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, remains one of the keys to this country's founding and survival. Fischer retraces for us the discouraging events leading up to that night: our forces driven from Long Island, then from Manhattan, and then back across New Jersey beyond the Delaware River. As the year-end neared, morale was at rock bottom and enlistments were ending. But then came that remarkable episode: a difficult river crossing beset with floating ice (two other crossings on the same night failed), despite long delays a forced march to Trenton and then a successful attack on that British and Hessian stronghold. Fischer clarifies several points here: the defenders were not drunk and put up a strong resistance; the Americans simply outmaneuvered and overpowered them; and the defenders, so used to easy victories, made a serious defensive error in not retreating to nearby high ground. Then the follow-up: after a retreat back across the river to regroup, the return to Trenton, a defensive battle there against Cornwallis, a night flanking move around superior forces, and a series of battles leading to Princeton. During this pivotal month Washington outsmarted the British at every turn. Morale rose, soldiers agreed to extend enlistments and we had an army. Tough times lay ahead but we now had a military ready to fight.-- Gerry Rising