Washington's Crossing

Washington's Crossing

4.3 26
by David Fischer

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Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia. Yet, as David Hackett Fischer recounts in this riveting history, George Washington--and many other Americans--refused to let the Revolution die.…  See more details below


Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia. Yet, as David Hackett Fischer recounts in this riveting history, George Washington--and many other Americans--refused to let the Revolution die. On Christmas night, as a howling nor'easter struck the Delaware Valley, he led his men across the river and attacked the exhausted Hessian garrison at Trenton, killing or capturing nearly a thousand men. A second battle of Trenton followed within days. The Americans held off a counterattack by Lord Cornwallis's best troops, then were almost trapped by the British force. Under cover of night, Washington's men stole behind the enemy and struck them again, defeating a brigade at Princeton. The British were badly shaken. In twelve weeks of winter fighting, their army suffered severe damage, their hold on New Jersey was broken, and their strategy was ruined. Fischer's richly textured narrative reveals the crucial role of contingency in these events. We see how the campaign unfolded in a sequence of difficult choices by many actors, from generals to civilians, on both sides. While British and German forces remained rigid and hierarchical, Americans evolved an open and flexible system that was fundamental to their success. The startling success of Washington and his compatriots not only saved the faltering American Revolution, but helped to give it new meaning.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Leutze's ''Washington Crossing the Delaware'' is a highly romanticized rendition of a pivotal moment in American history, Christmas night of 1776, painted 75 years after the event. David Hackett Fischer's new book, Washington's Crossing, is a highly realistic and wonderfully readable narrative of the same moment that corrects all the inaccuracies in the Leutze painting but preserves the overarching sense of drama. — Joseph J. Ellis
The New Yorker
On December 22, 1776, Washington’s adjutant wrote him that their affairs “were hasting fast to ruin.” Two weeks later, after a harrowing nighttime crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River, Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton so shocked the British that the price of government securities fell. Fischer’s thoughtful account describes how Washington, in a frantic, desperate month, turned his collection of troops into a professional force, not by emulating the Europeans but by coming up with a model that was distinctly American. The army Washington fielded had innovative artillery, moved with startling speed, and even, in one of the first recorded instances, synchronized its watches. Trenton convinced many Britons that they were caught in a quagmire, and Americans that they could win. “A few days ago they had given up the cause for lost,” a British businessman wrote. “Now they are all liberty mad again.”
This has been an especially good reading summer for devotees of American Colonial and Revolutionary his-tory. First and, in my opinion, the best of the many new books covering this period is Washington's Crossing--by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, $35). Professor Fischer is a noted historian, whose Albion's Seed, published in 1989, tells the story of those descendants of the British who settled here and helped create the United States. His Paul Revere's Ride has also been widely and justly praised.

Washington's Crossing tells the complete story of General George Washington's most daring, risky and successful venture early in the war. Following a succession of victories by the British and their mercenary forces, which had resultedin the loss of New York for the Americans, the British were within sight of Philadelphia, where the new American Congress was sitting.

Washington's army had been all but destroyed, and the British were surging across New Jersey. Washington's decision to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776, when it was considered virtually impossible, was a move both bold and foolhardy. A flotilla of small boats crammed with soldiers, guns and horses somehow rowed across the river through one of the East's worst winter snow and ice storms. (The crossing as painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1851 captured this event spiritually and has become a great icon of the Revolution.) By crossing the Delaware, Washington placed the remnants of his army in a position to trap the British behind Trenton and, a few days later, to give that army and the cause for which it fought its first real victory. In many ways the shots fired atTrenton were the shots "heard round the world."

Professor Fischer conveys in a remarkably realistic way what combat and the fog of war are actually like. But, more important, he tells the story of what it was like for Washington to lead a discouraged, underequipped army that was constantly being micromanaged by a divided Congress that couldn't--at least at the beginning--decide whether it wanted independence or, simply, to get the Stamp Act repealed.

For those who still wonder how the Revolutionaries ever defeated the huge British forces arrayed against them, both on land and at sea, this book makes clear that it was the military genius and leadership of George Washing-ton that turned almost certain defeat into victory. Washington's Crossing is an essential and exciting key to a more complete understanding and appreciation of what our ancestors did to win the Revolution.

A new biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, $35), is another superb book I read this summer. Hamilton served as principal aide to General Washington from the early days of the Revolu-tion. This gave him a ringside seat at the formation of the United States and its implausible victory over the British, who had deployed one of the world's finest military machines but lost to a ragtag army of upstarts.

Chernow's splendid, thorough and brilliantly written biography gives us a new understanding of Hamilton's vi-tal role during the war and immediately after as Secretary of the Treasury of this new entity on the world's stage. I doubt that many people realize how much of our country's financial structure we owe to Alexander Hamilton. This book goes beyond the standard fare offered in most American history classes. Hamilton's towering intellect, as well as his many faults, and his long, fierce disagreements with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and many of the other Founding Fathers are presented here with almost shocking candor.

There have been other biographies of Hamilton, but Chernow's is far and away the most comprehensive and compelling of any I have read. It is a fitting tribute to the man who set the U.S. on the path that has made our nation the economic leader of the world.

Another treat for Revolutionary history enthusiasts is The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (Penguin Press, $25.95). This delightful new study focuses on the actual aristocratic and elitist views and opinions of this so-called populist leader, who was one of our best-loved, most influential and renowned spokesmen to the world.

Moving away from Revolutionary times, I next read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography byWilliam F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery Publishing, $29.95). Buckley, a major founder of today's sen-sible conservatism, has led an extraordinary life, which fully matches his extraordinary talents. His subtitle is apt, as the book contains essays on sailing, skiing, music, old friends and colleagues and all manner of other diverse subjects, which are united in that they have all been of interest to one of the best minds and writers in America today.
—Caspar Weinberger

Publishers Weekly
At the core of an impeccably researched, brilliantly executed military history is an analysis of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776 and the resulting destruction of the Hessian garrison of Trenton and defeat of a British brigade at Princeton. Fischer's perceptive discussion of the strategic, operational and tactical factors involved is by itself worth the book's purchase. He demonstrates Washington's insight into the revolution's desperate political circumstances, shows how that influenced the idea of a riposte against an enemy grown overconfident with success and presents Washington's skillful use of what his army could do well. Even more useful is Fischer's analysis of the internal dynamics of the combatants. He demonstrates mastery of the character of the American, British and Hessian armies, highlighting that British troops, too, fought for ideals, sacred to them, of loyalty and service. Above all, Brandeis historian Fischer (Albion's Seed) uses the Trenton campaign to reveal the existence, even in the revolution's early stage, of a distinctively American way of war, much of it based on a single fact: civil and military leaders were accountable to a citizenry through their representatives. From Washington down, Fischer shows, military leaders acknowledged civil supremacy and worked with civil officials. Washington used firepower and intelligence as force multipliers to speed the war for a practical people who wanted to win quickly in order to return to their ordinary lives. Tempo, initiative and speed marked the Trenton campaign from first to last. And Washington fought humanely, extending quarter in battle and insisting on decent treatment of prisoners. The crossing of the Delaware, Fischer teaches, should be seen as emblematic of more than a turning of the war's tide. 91 halftone, 15 maps. 3-city author tour. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Brandeis historian Fischer won a large and devoted following with Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in North America. His reading of the early settler communities' attitudes toward questions of liberty and government has influenced a generation of writers seeking to understand the differences between "red" and "blue" America today. In Washington's Crossing, Fischer looks at the darkest months of the American Revolution, when, following devastating defeats in New York and White Plains, Washington's tatterdemalion army, and the American cause, teetered on the brink of collapse. For Fischer, the story of how Washington rallied colonial opinion and rebuilt the army's spirit explains why the Americans were able to win their independence. Unlike the Howes (leading British aristocrats who commanded the formidably equipped British naval and land forces), Washington had to cajole, persuade, and win over a multicultural mob of colonial politicians, officers, and soldiers. Washington, Fischer argues, was doing more than winning a war in these months; he was inventing a style of leadership and a form of politics well suited to American realities.
Library Journal
Most Americans still know the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware but fewer recall the significance of the event it depicts. Fischer (history, Brandeis; Albion's Seed) puts this pivotal event back into context 5the course of world history. The 1776 campaign was a disaster for the Continental Army. The Howe brothers' organized and successful strategy had roundly defeated the Americans in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Compounding this was disarray among American commanders, a lack of discipline among the troops, and most enlistments expiring. Many on both sides felt that the rebellion was broken. Washington's bold offensive across the Delaware arguably saved the American cause. The Hessian defeat at Trenton and later at Princeton rejuvenated American hopes and saved Washington's command. In this well-written and -documented history, the author relies on an impressive mix of primary and secondary sources. The firsthand accounts and personal stories of major players from both sides add color to the narrative. The book features copious illustrations; maps; numerous appendixes including troop strength, casualties, weather, and Battle Order; and an excellent historiography of the event. Scholarly but very readable, it is recommended for libraries with an interest in early American history.-Robert Flatley, Kutztown Univ., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Another stirring effort by the author of Paul Revere's Ride (Oxford, 1994). Readers will again cheer American perseverance, inventiveness, and improvisation as Washington, his officers, and their men turn the early military defeats of Long Island and New York City into victory at Trenton and Princeton. The opening chapter is devoted to the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. Then the author discusses the British, Hessian, and American military units that were involved in these campaigns and gives background on their officers. This is Fischer's strong suit: he tells stories and gives details that bring history alive. He makes the point that decisions made for varying reasons by converging sets of people determine history. In the hands of such a thorough researcher and talented writer, this is powerful stuff. The bulk of the book deals with the battles and their aftermath. The text is enriched by small reproductions of portraits, many by Charles Willson Peale, of the major players. The last chapter summarizes Fischer's points and would make a good teaching tool by itself.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively reconstruction of the Continental Army's finest strategic hour. Textbook accounts of Washington's Christmas crossing of the Delaware River are fine as they go. But why did Washington brave the ice-clogged tide in the first place, especially when he would face a supposedly much superior force of British and Hessian troops on the other side? Well, historian Fischer (Paul Revere's Ride, 1994, etc.) answers, the British and Hessians had been beaten up pretty badly in New Jersey throughout the fall of 1776 by American guerrillas, who defied military convention and fought in plain clothes, believing "that they had a natural right to take up arms in defense of their laws and liberties." This uprising, Fischer continues, "created an opportunity for George Washington," who "made the most of it, in a battle that was itself a war of contingencies." The Hessians weren't drunk on Christmas cheer, as the legend has it, when Washington surprised them at dawn (in truth, well past dawn); they were exhausted, having been dogged into near-submission by those guerrillas-women and men-and virtually imprisoned behind the fences and stone walls of Trenton. Washington receives due credit in Fischer's account for seizing the initiative in the face of near-rebellion on the part of supposed comrades such as General Horatio Gates, who declined to take part in operations; his soldiers receive credit too, and so do the British, and so even do the Hessians, each in their turn. Fischer's rendering of the battle and the events leading up to and following it is richly detailed and full of surprises. Who knew that the roads to Trenton were full on that sleety, pitch-black night with farmers and woodcutters, withyoung men out courting, with ministers tending to their flocks? Who knew, against the legend, that the "American attackers had twice as many guns in proportion to infantry than did the Hessian garrison"? A superb addition to the literature of the Revolution, by one of the best chroniclers in the business.

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Pivotal Moments in American History
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Copyright © 2004 David Hackett Fischer
All right reserved.


* The Painting

That was the residence of the principal citizen, all the way from the suburbs of New Orleans to the edge of St. Louis.... Over the middle of the mantel, engraving-Washington Crossing the Delaware; on the wall by the door, copy of it done in thunder-and-lightning crewel made Washington hesitate about crossing, if he could have foreseen what advantage to be taken of it. -Mark Twain, 1883

WASHINGTON'S CROSSING!" the stranger said with a bright smile of recognition. Then a dark frown passed across his face. "Was it like the painting?" he said. "Did it really happen that way?"

The image that he had in mind is one of the folk-memories that most Americans share. It represents an event that happened on Christmas night in 1776, when a winter storm was lashing the Delaware Valley with sleet and snow. In our mind's eye, we see a great river choked with ice, and a long line of little boats filled with horses, guns, and soldiers. In the foreground is the heroic figure of George Washington.

The painting is familiar to us in a general way, but when we look again its details take us by surprise. Washington's small boat is crowded with thirteen men. Their dress tells us that they are soldiers from many parts of America, and each of them has a story that is revealed by a few strokes of the artist's brush. One man wears the short tarpaulin jacket of a New England seaman; we look again and discover that he is of African descent. Another is a recent Scottish immigrant, still wearing his Balmoral bonnet. A third is an androgynous figure in a loose red shirt, maybe a woman in man's clothing, pulling at an oar.

At the bow and stern of the boat are hard-faced western riflemen in hunting shirts and deerskin leggings. Huddled between the thwarts are farmers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, in blanket coats and broad-brimmed hats. One carries a countryman's double-barreled shotgun. The other looks very ill, and his head is swathed in a bandage. A soldier beside them is in full uniform, a rarity in this army; he wears the blue coat and red facings of Haslet's Delaware Regiment. Another figure wears a boat cloak and an oiled hat that a prosperous Baltimore merchant might have used on a West Indian voyage; his sleeve reveals the facings of Smallwood's silk-stocking Maryland Regiment. Hidden behind them is a mysterious thirteenth man. Only his weapon is visible; one wonders who he might have been.

The dominant figures in the painting are two gentlemen of Virginia who stand tall above the rest. One of them is Lieutenant James Monroe, holding a big American flag upright against the storm. The other is Washington in his Continental uniform of buff and blue. He holds a brass telescope and wears a heavy saber, symbolic of a statesman's vision and a soldier's strength. The artist invites us to see each of these soldiers as an individual, but he also reminds us that they are all in the same boat, working desperately together against the wind and current. He has given them a common sense of mission, and in the stormy sky above he has painted a bright prophetic star, shining through a veil of cloud.

Most Americans recognize this image, and many remember its name. It is Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1850. Today it hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visitors who are used to seeing it in reproduction are startled by its size, twelve feet high and twenty feet wide.

The painting itself has a history. The artist was a German American immigrant of strong liberal democratic principles, who returned to his native land and strongly supported the Revolutions of 1848. In the midst of that struggle Emanuel Leutze conceived the idea of a painting that would encourage Europe with the example of the American Revolution. His inspiration was a poem by Ferdinand Freiligarth called "Ça Ira," which created the image of a vessel filled with determined men:

"You ask astonished: "What's her name?" To this question there's but one solution, And in Austria and Prussia it's the same: The ship is called: "Revolution!"

In 1848 and 1849, Leutze began to work on the great canvas. An early study survives, complete only for vivid figures of Washington and Monroe and a single soldier. It is painted in strong primary colors, bright with hope and triumph. After he started, the European revolutions failed, but the artist kept working on his project in a different mood. The colors turned somber, and the painting came to center more on struggle than triumph. Leutze recruited American tourists and art students in Europe to serve as models and assistants. Together they finished the painting in 1850.

Just after it was completed, a fire broke out in the artist's studio, and the canvas was damaged in a curious way. The effect of smoke and flame was to mask the central figures of Washington and Monroe in a white haze, while the other men in the boat remained sharp and clear. The ruined painting became the property of an insurance company, which put it on public display. Even in its damaged state it won a gold medal in Berlin and was much celebrated in Europe. It became part of the permanent collection of the Bremen Art Museum. There it stayed until September 5, 1942, when it was destroyed in a bombing raid by the British Royal Air Force, in what some have seen as a final act of retribution for the American Revolution.

Emanuel Leutze painted another full-sized copy, and sent it to America in 1851, where it caused a sensation. In New York more than fifty thousand people came to see it, among them the future novelist Henry James, who was then a child of eight. Many years later he remembered that no impression in his youth "was half so momentous as that of the epoch-making masterpiece of Mr. Leutze, which showed us Washington crossing the Delaware, in a wondrous flare of projected gaslight and with the effect of a revelation." Henry James recalled that he "gaped responsive at every item, lost in the marvel of wintry light, of the sharpness of the ice-blocks, the sickness of the sick soldier." Most of all he was inspired by the upright image of Washington, by "the profiled national hero's purpose, as might be said, of standing up, as much as possible, even indeed of doing it almost on one leg, in such difficulties."

The great painting went to the city of Washington and was exhibited in the Rotunda of the National Capitol. Northerners admired it as a symbol of freedom and union; southerners liked it as an image of liberty and independence. When the Civil War began, it was used to raise money for the Union Cause and the antislavery movement. The presence of an African American in the boat was not an accident; the artist was a strong abolitionist.

In 1897, private collector John S. Kennedy bought the painting for the extravagant sum of $16,000, and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There it remained until 1950, when romantic history paintings passed out of fashion among sophisticated New Yorkers. It was sent away to the Dallas Art Museum in Texas, and then to Washington Crossing State Park in Pennsylvania, where it stayed until 1970.

Among the American people the painting never passed out of fashion. Many cherish it as an image of patriotism, and they have reproduced it in icons of wood, metal, ceramics, textiles. It appeared on postage stamps, dinner plates, place mats, key rings, coffee mugs, and tee shirts. By the mid-twentieth century the painting was so familiar that artists quoted its image without explanation, not always in a reverent way. Cartoonists invented angry satires of Nixon Crossing the Delaware, Ronald Reagan Crossing the Caribbean, Feminists Crossing the Rubicon, and Multiculturalists Rocking the Boat.

American iconoclasts made the painting a favorite target. Postmodernists studied it with a skeptical eye and asked, "Is this the way that American history happened? Is it a way that history ever happens? Are any people capable of acting in such a heroic manner?" The iconoclasts answered all of those questions in the negative, and they debunked the painting with high enthusiasm. On National Public Radio in 2002, commentator Ina Jaffe argued at length that Emanuel Leutze's painting bore little resemblance to "historical reality," and she recited a long list of its "historical flaws." As other critics had done, she pointed out correctly that the flag was wrong; the Stars and Stripes was not adopted until 1777. "What's more," Ms. Jaffe added, warming to her work, "the boats used by the Continental army were different, the time of day is wrong (it was actually night), and the jagged chunks of ice floating near the boat would have been smoothed over by the flow of the river." She complained that the painting was not merely inaccurate but absurd. Her favorite example was the same detail that inspired young Henry James: George Washington was not only standing in the boat; he was standing on one leg. Ms. Jaffe declared, "There's no way Washington could have stood up for the journey without losing his footing and being tossed into the freezing water."

The debunkers were right about some of the details in the painting, but they were wrong about others, and they rarely asked about the accuracy of its major themes. To do so is to discover that the larger ideas in Emanuel Leutze's art are true to the history that inspired it. The artist was right in creating an atmosphere of high drama around the event, and a feeling of desperation among the soldiers in the boats. To search the writings of the men and women who were there (hundreds of firsthand accounts survive) is to find that they believed the American cause was very near collapse on Christmas night in 1776. In five months of heavy fighting after the Declaration of Independence, George Washington's army had suffered many disastrous defeats and gained no major victories. It had lost 90 percent of its strength. The small remnant who crossed the Delaware River were near the end of their resources, and they believed that another defeat could destroy the Cause, as they called it. The artist captured very accurately their sense of urgency, in what was truly a pivotal moment for American history.

Further, the painting is true to the scale of that event, which was small by the measure of other great happenings in American history. At Trenton on December 26, 1776, 2,400 Americans fought 1,500 Hessians in a battle that lasted about two hours. By contrast, at Antietam in the American Civil War, 115,000 men fought a great and terrible battle that continued for a day. The Battle of the Bulge, in the Second World War, involved more than a million men in fighting that went on for more than a month. By those comparisons, Washington's Crossing was indeed a very small event, and the artist was true to its dimensions.

But the painting also reminds us that size is not a measure of significance. The little battles of the American Revolution were conflicts between large historical processes, and the artist knew well what was at stake. He understood better than many Americans that their Revolution was truly a world event. We shall see that Washington's Crossing and the events that followed had a surprising impact, not only in America but in Britain and Germany and throughout the world.

Emanuel Leutze also understood that something more was at issue in this event. The small battles near the Delaware were a collision between two discoveries about the human condition that were made in the early modern era. One of them was the discovery that people could organize a society on the basis of liberty and freedom, and could actually make it work. The ideas themselves were not new in the world, but for the first time, entire social and political systems were constructed primarily on that foundation.

Another new discovery was about the capacity of human beings for order and discipline. For many millennia, people had been made to serve others, but this was something more than that. It was an invention of new methods by which people could be trained to engage their will and creativity in the service of another: by drill and ritual, reward and punishment, persuasion and belief. Further, they could be trained to do so not as slaves or servants or robots, but in an active and willing way.

These two discoveries began as altruisms, and developed rapidly in the age of the Enlightenment, not only in Europe and America but in Ch'ing China and Mughal India and around the world. Together they define a central tension in our modern condition, more so than new technology or growing wealth. As ideas they were not opposites, but they were often opposed, and they collided in the American Revolution. In 1776, a new American army of free men fought two modern European armies of order and discipline. When the conflict began in earnest, during the late summer and fall of 1776, the forces of order won most of the major battles, but an army of free men won the winter campaign that followed. They did so not by imitating a European army of order, a profound error in historical interpretations of the War of Independence, but by developing the strengths of an open system in a more disciplined way.

Emanuel Leutze's painting shows only one side of this great struggle, but the artist clearly understood what it was about. He represented something of its nature in his image of George Washington and the men who soldiered with him. The more we learn about Washington, the greater his contribution becomes, in developing a new idea of leadership during the American Revolution. Emanuel Leutze brings it out in a tension between Washington and the other men in the boat. We see them in their diversity and their stubborn autonomy. These men lived the rights they were defending, often to the fury of their commander-in-chief. The painting gives us some sense of the complex relations that they had with one another, and also with their leader. To study them with their general is to understand what George Washington meant when he wrote, "A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove." All of these things were beginning to happen on Christmas night in 1776, when George Washington crossed the Delaware. Thereby hangs a tale.

Excerpted from WASHINGTON'S CROSSING by DAVID HACKETT FISCHER Copyright © 2004 by David Hackett Fischer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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