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Washington's Crossing
David Hackett Fischer
New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
$35.00, 576 pages, ISBN 0-19-517034-2

Gerardo Del Guercio
Independent Researcher


Early American historian David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing examines the way the American Revolution led to the establishment of US independence. The tremendous perils that Washington's army overcame during 1776-7 forced the British to abandon the United States until 1812. American self-government was largely contingent on Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and the battles of New York, Princeton and New Jersey. My review of Fischer's text will contend that the events of 1776-7 are what have come to define contemporary American nationalism and military policy.

George Washington was born on Pope's Creek Farm in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732 son to Augustine Washington and Jane Butler. Although Augustine Washington had every intention of having his son educated in England, George Washington never received a formal education beyond secondary school as a result of the early death of both his parents. Washington enlisted in the military in February 1753 and was soon commissioned as a major and allocated the role of training militia in southern Virginia. Important figures in the American army recognized Washington's military skills and promoted him Commander and Chief of the Continental army on June 15, 1775. The role that Washington played in the formative years of American culture was an important one, based on his ability to predict the attacks of the British army. David Hackett Fischer attests to Washington's understanding of the Royal army by asserting:

As early as March 13, 1776, four days before the British left Boston, Washington advised Congress that the enemy would strike next at New York and warned that if they succeeded in "making a Lodgment," it would not be easy to evict them [11].

In 1789, Washington became the first President of the United States, and was later re-elected in 1792. Washington delivered his Farewell Address on September 19, 1796 after refusing a third term, and died shortly at Mount Vernon, Virginia, on December 14, 1799 at the age of sixty-seven.

David Hackett Fischer begins his study with a discussion of Emmanuel Leutze's 1851 painting entitled Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River. What inspired Leutze most about Washington's feat of December 25, 1776 was the "upright image of Washington […] standing up, as much as possible, even indeed of doing it on almost one leg, in such difficulties" [3]. The persistence exhibited by Washington's Continental army demonstrated that America would fight for their freedom under any circumstances. America sought to separate from the British Empire because of the unjustly high taxes that they were obliged to pay. The icy water conditions that Washington endured while crossing the Delaware River proves that the Rebel army had to battle against landscape and nature as well as the English. Leutze's painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where thousands of tourists appreciate it everyday.

Washington's army struggled for independence against the British regulars led by General William Howe and Admiral Lord Richard Howe. The Howe brothers trained their soldiers to obey the following theory:

British treaties on military discipline began by reflecting on the purposes of military training. They agreed that its end was "to enforce obedience, and to preserve good order." The object was to create a spirit of "subordination," on the assumption that "no authority can exist where there is not a proper submission." [40]

British armed forces therefore alleged that the absolute rule of its leaders was necessary in order to maintain a unitary mindset. The British Empire retained a powerful position in the world for the reason that it established a "complex global system" [39] of communication that allowed it to function at full-strength. Loyalist camps enforced the global strength of the United Kingdom by constructing numerous posts that monitored its colonies and ended any threat of mutiny. Another responsibility allocated to British camps was to recruit as many civilians as possible to join the Loyalist cause.

Seconding the British coupe were the Hessians. The Hessians were a group of nomadic Germans "purchased" by the British to combat the American Continental army. General Frederick Wilhelm II and Colonel Carl Emilius Von Donop led and educated the Hessian army under a "savage discipline and endless drill" [61] that "developed the dark art of training men to a condition of instinctive and unquestioned obedience." Such violence was then to be inflicted upon the American army. British and Hessian forces came into conflict with one another given that the German troops were primarily an assemblage "of entrepreneurs who assumed risk for the sake of profit" [65]. The incredible amount of wealth available in America was too tempting for the Hessians, as they would typically plunder American civilians of their food and material goods that the British classified as property of the English monarchy.

Losing New York to the English at the beginning of 1776 almost resulted in the premature termination of American's campaign for sovereignty. Washington's main dilemma was that "[f]or many years the seaport towns of British America had not needed fortifications, because they were secure behind the wooden walls of the Royal Navy" [81]. America's principle source of protection now became its most threaten adversary. America eventually lost New York to the Royal army due to an incompetent militia that fought a highly skilled British Navy that dominated almost every confrontation. Humiliating losses and diminishing health caused "the departure of a large part of Washington's cavalry" [86], but many still remained on duty out of allegiance to Washington's cause. Losing New York obliged America to reinforce its coasts and consequently establish the US Navy. I believe that the power held by the American Navy in the twenty-first century is a direct result of fearing yet another loss of an important territory to an opposing nation.

British occupation of New York meant that Washington's forces had to either reclaim Trenton, New Jersey or submit to the United Kingdom. The one and only route that Washington had of entering New Jersey was to advance his armies "from their separate camps toward three crossing points on the Delaware River and assemble away from the water's edge, out of sight from New Jersey" [209]. Crossing the Delaware proved to be a life-threatening endeavor due to harsh winds hail and snow that worsted the moment that the Continentals began gathering at the River's dock. Crossing the Delaware under challenging meteorological conditions brings to mind Eliza's escape scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. George Washington claimed American freedom in much the same fashion that Eliza claimed hers: by entering a region that had to be conquered in order to eliminate an oppressive ruler. Over confident British and Hessian forces eventually lost Trenton and a successful American revolutionary crusade began.

Reclaiming Princeton, New Jersey was the final step in Washington's mission to win complete autonomy for America. General Nathaniel Greene and George Washington understood that a forward attack on the British army would never secure a US victory. Washington and Greene instead opted to seize Stony Brook Bridge in Worth's Mill to stop British "reinforcements arriving from Trenton" [325]. Such war tactics safeguarded the Americans from being outnumbered and ameliorated their odds of beating the English militia. America sent insurgent troops in two separate columns with "[o]ne of them [drawing] attention by attacking the most obvious line, while the other made the main assault from another direction into the back of town" [325]. Washington's war plan proved too aggressive for a battered British coupe that would not only surrender Princeton, but the rest of America in the process. The only chance that the British had of sending aide to Princeton implied their crossing the gorge beneath Stony Brook Bridge. Had the English chosen to attempt such a daring feat they would have been forced to fight an uphill battle that surly would have produced hundreds of British and Hessian deaths. Victories at Trenton and Princeton created an American mindset founded on a territorialism that continues to this day. Refusing to trade with communist countries like Cuba, for instance, is one example of America's stance against allowing a foreign country that may pose a threat to US citizens from storing goods or conducting business in the United States.

David Hackett Fischer reminds readers of Colonial American history that the Revolution was often thought of as "a civil war" [64] that pinned Loyalist Americans versus rebel Americans. British armed forces claimed that the American Revolution was a civil war given that America was still a settlement of the United Kingdom. A similar "higher spirit" [379] towards threats of possible terrorism exists in postmodern America as it did during the Revolution. Contemporary America, as did Early America, continues to cultivate a strong national patriotism. Eighteenth-century American history is a noteworthy field of study when one attempts to trace the development of American "partisanship." David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing successfully reveals why millions of Americans and freedom fighters across the world gather on July 4 of each year to celebrate Independence Day.


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