For those of us who love the Old Republic, a new book by David Hackett Fischer is a cause for celebration.  His newest will not disappoint the high expectations created by his previous work.  Washington’s Crossing is really a successor volume to Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), about the battles of Lexington and Concord and the harrowing British retreat.  Both combine a riveting military narrative with Fischer’s sensitivity to the differences between, and within, British and Anglo-American cultures and the way these cultures shaped why and how their peoples fought.  His latest book is more ambitious only in that it covers more ground.  Washington’s Crossing begins with the British evacuation of Boston (March 1776) and takes us through the battles for New York (August through November), the British conquest of New Jersey and Rhode Island (November and December), the American counterattacks at Trenton and Princeton, and the New Jersey uprising (winter 1777).

In the summer of 1776, the Howe brothers (Adm. Richard Howe and Gen. William Howe), in joint command of the British North American forces, entered New York Harbor with 32,000 troops (22,000 British regulars and 10,000 Hessian mercenaries).  In the campaign that followed, the British methodically defeated the American Continental Army in a series of battles, drove them headlong out of New York City, and, by December, occupied three northern colonies.  Loyalist militias formed, and thousands of Americans in the occupied areas came forward to accept the Howes’ offer of amnesty and pardon if they swore loyalty to the king.  The British believed they had dealt the rebellion a crippling blow, and many Americans believed their cause was lost.

The Howes were Whigs who had not approved of the coercive policies of the North ministry that had led to the American rebellion.  Now, they wanted to restore the allegiance of the colonies by a dual policy of firmness and conciliation.  They hoped to persuade the Americans that they could not defeat British arms and that reconciliation was the wisest, most profitable, and most honorable course.  There were two problems with this policy: the troops on the ground and the American desire to be free of British rule.

Orders mandating leniency and respectful treatment of civilians were commonly disregarded.  British and Hessian troops often denied quarter to surrendering Americans.  In the battle for Manhattan, Hessians executed 60 Americans soldiers after capture, shooting each one through the head.  Outside Princeton, Hessians captured an American Presbyterian chaplain.  They stripped him naked, tormented him, and then bayoneted him to death, much to the amusement of the British.  The Hessians also systematically looted American homes.  (They regarded the spoils of war as part of their pay.)  The British were even worse in one respect: They regarded American women as fair game.  During the occupation of New Jersey, British officers and enlisted men engaged in an orgy of rape.  Although young women were the preferred target, girls as young as ten were ravaged, as were pregnant mothers and even some older women.  Other women were kidnapped and held for days as sex slaves.  The details are shocking, and one wonders why such barbarities are not included in college lecture courses, textbooks, and histories.

These incidents, besides the usual voracious demands of an occupying army for food, forage, and livestock, infuriated the local population, and, within weeks, the British had to contend with a growing insurgency.   Without orders or direction from either the Congress or the Continental Army, the men of New Jersey began waging a guerrilla war against their British and German occupiers.  Sentries were shot at; officers traveling alone were killed; outposts, attacked; and British patrols and foraging parties, ambushed.  Fischer describes the “rising” as an “autonomous event, by angry men against a hated oppressor.”

The insurgency was most active around Trenton, at the farthest point of the British advance.  From the north, the militia of Hunterdon County launched raids.  To the south, a Virginia colonel, who had been left behind during the American retreat, began rallying the local militia, and by the end of December, had over 1,000 troops threatening the British flank.  From across the Delaware River, General Ewing of the Pennsylvania militia began launching raids on the Hessian garrison at Trenton.

The Jersey uprising helped persuade Washington to risk crossing into New Jersey with his army to attack the besieged and stressed garrison at Trenton.  Fischer points out that this bold stroke was not Washington’s idea but that of his adjutant, Col. Joseph Reed, a Pennsylvanian.  After the first battle of Trenton, Washington was considering crossing back into Pennsylvania when news arrived that Colonel Cadwalader had crossed into New Jersey with 1,800 Pennsylvanian troops and had occupied Burlington.  His men refused to withdraw back across the river.  Washington decided to stay in Jersey and fight again.  Fischer argues that Washington’s success lay in his practice of convening war councils in which officers were permitted to speak candidly and advance their own ideas.  Washington had none of that prideful resentment that prevents many generals from taking advice or acting on the sound ideas of those below them.  Later, after the second battle of Trenton (another American victory), Washington again summoned a council and decided to act on Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s suggestion that the Americans should abandon their fortified position above Trenton, conduct a night march, and attack the British rear at Princeton.

These operations—the night crossing of an ice-choked river, night marches in the dead of winter, marching and fighting in sleet and snow, surprise attacks at dawn—changed the course of the war.  The British high command was stunned.  Their troop strength was severely weakened, morale had plummeted, and the Americans were becoming a “formidable enemy.”  Recruits flocked to join Continental regiments, and the Jersey militia turned out to harass the remaining British forces in the state.  General Howe had to abandon southern New Jersey entirely and concentrate his forces in a narrow enclave along the Raritan River from Brunswick to Perth Amboy.  In the winter Forage War (January to March), there were hundreds of small engagements, most of which the Americans won; and the British suffered an additional thousand casualties.  By the spring of 1777, the wisest British officers were writing home confessing failure and doubting if they could ever suppress the rebellion.  Some resigned and returned to England.

American men of all classes and occupations fought; and they were led, not by military professionals, but by their natural leaders, men of wealth and standing.  They were jealous of their liberties, and they expected their leaders to keep their word.  Fischer terms it an “army of liberty.”  There were backcountry riflemen from Virginia and Pennsylvania whose flag was the coiled rattlesnake and whose motto, “Don’t Tread on Me,” captured their ideal of individual liberty and self-reliance.  There were the Philadelphia Associators, volunteer militia formed from the shopkeepers, artisans, and mechanics of the city.  They elected their own officers, including their commander, Col. John Cadwalader, one of the richest merchants in Philadelphia.  There was the Fourteenth Massachusetts Continentals, the Marblehead Regiment, composed of seamen, fishermen, and artisans from the north shore, commanded by Col. John Glover, a prosperous shipowner.  There was Colonel Haussegger’s regiment of German-American farmers from Pennsylvania.

Rather than sitting out the war in a counting house or a coffee shop, the upper classes served both as officers and privates.  One of the generals of the New Jersey militia was the wealthy landowner Philemon Dickinson, the brother of John Dickinson.  Colonel Smallwood’s Maryland Continentals was composed of the sons of planters, lawyers, and merchants from Baltimore and Annapolis.  They proved a fine fighting regiment, but they placed conditions on their service—immunity from corporal punishment and the right to resign if the terms of their enlistment were not honored.  The First Troop of Philadelphia Light Horse was a small unit comprising young men of wealth who supplied their own horses, weaponry, and uniforms.  They performed splendidly as scouts at the battle of Princeton.

The men who fought to be free of British imperial control were not about to lay down their liberties before an American general.  Washington, whose Virginian ideal of hegemonic liberty was close to the British notion of hierarchical liberty, complained of the state militias that “they come and go as they please.”  Of course they did.  They were freemen, and they had families to care for, farms to tend, and work to do.  Despite their irregular service, their contribution and presence was vital to the American victories at Trenton and Princeton.  If they had been compelled to serve for long periods and subjected to strict military discipline, they might not have fought as well, if at all.

The terms of enlistment of most Continental regiments ended on December 31.  Thus, after the battle of Trenton (December 26), Washington realized he could not stay in New Jersey to exploit his previous victory as most of his army was preparing to go home.  What to do?  Our current leaders have simply compelled troops to stay beyond their terms of enlistment or have extended deployments beyond previously promised end dates, and American soldiers have meekly submitted.  Americans in 1776 would never have stood for such broken faith.  Acting on the advice of Thomas Mifflin, a Philadelphia merchant and militia general, Washington offered every man who stayed with the army another six weeks ten dollars in hard money.  In addition, he called them together and pleaded with them to reenlist and help deal the British another defeat.  It was the coldest part of a frigid winter, they were exhausted, and they sorely missed their families and homes; most, however, stayed on.

Fischer’s narrative is at once a source of pride to old-stock Americans and of shame, for it reveals how far the character and liberties of this country have fallen.  We are not the same people.  I refer to the descendants and kin of those stalwart and heroic men who fought on the snowy fields of New Jersey.  It is also disconcerting to realize that, in the ongoing war in Iraq, the Americans are the occupying imperial army, hated and despised by the populace, whom they regularly humiliate, brutalize, steal from, and frequently massacre.

Fischer seems unaware of the transformation.  Just as in Albion’s Seed, where he argued that the four British-American cultures so well delineated by him were still extant in late-20th-century America, he assumes the current army is the lineal descendant of its Continental predecessor.  Fortunately, Fischer is a better historian than he is an observer of the degeneracy that his work so brilliantly illuminates by its contrast with the present.


[Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer (New York: Oxford University Press) 564 pp., $35.00]