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Washington Crosses The Delaware (Again)

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Many people in the New York and New Jersey areas today probably don’t realize how much history there is about the American Revolution right at their doorstep. The key early parts of the war were enacted right here. The battles of Trenton and Princeton have to be the most popular and covered aspects of the Rev War. So any recent book on these well worn topics should offer something new. For the most part, Washington's Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), does, but the author still allows himself to get carried away by the ever present Spirit of 76 Syndrome.

There is a lot of background information provided on the American army, the British as well as the Hessians. The author brings out pertinent details on the leaders and gives a lot of social and political background study. The 1776 campaigns and battles around New York are given a decent summary so that we can see the context of Washy's retreat through New Jersey and the dire situation that the rebellion was in on that frozen evening of December 1776.

When the author finally gets us to the battles in question he does not disappoint with lack of description. These are probably the best descriptions one will find on the details of the actual fighting, laced with numerous first-hand accounts and recent historiography. Both battles of Trenton are given detailed treatment which sheds light on the whole winter campaign Washy was trying to conduct. We learn that American losses at Trenton #1 were likely far greater than just a handful of men due to exposure to the elements. Many froze to death during and after the battle. Others probably drink their way to oblivion from captured Hessian liquor.

Instead of glossing over the 2nd battle of Trenton as many works tend to do, the stubborn fighting at the Assunpink River just a few weeks later gets full treatment here. The author goes to great lengths to show Washy evolving as a leader by allowing open discussion at his strategy councils. He contrasts this perhaps unfairly with the supposed more rigid councils held by Cornwallis on the evening after the scrappy fighting at the stone bridge over the Assunpink. Had Washy not run off to fight again at Princeton that night, a major battle would have taken place the next day, the outcome of which could have decided the war right then and there. Cornwallis probably did drop the ball in not pushing Washy with his back against the Delaware, but his own troops were as worn out and tired from marching and fighting as the Americans were. He likely did not say the famous and oft quoted "We're go over and bag the old fox in the morning" comment.

So Washy gets away to Princeton where he runs into a scrappy fight with Colonel Mawhood and his 17th Foot and supporting elements. The British blow the American militia away with vollies and a wild bayonet charge which nearly collapses the whole rebel army. Washy, in one of his most inspiring moments rallies what he can of the terrified militia and brings on the regulars to defeat the over-extended British with sheer numbers and firepower. This is all well done, although the author goes to great lengths to detail (and inflate) British losses, while not bothering to mention American casualties until later in the book. These must have been much in excess of a 100, a larger number than most works like to admit on the subject.

The last chapters of this worthwhile study are devoted to what the author describes as the Forage War. Here we are regaled with scrappy little groups of American militia and regulars humbling Howe's redcoats during the remaining winter season of 76-77. While certainly there were many little skirmishes fought over provisions during that winter, it is doubtful that these crippled the British as much as the author implies. If we are to believe the facts he presents then how can we explain the British coming back so strongly to defeat Washy in the battles fought around Philadelphia in 1777. The author does not balance his information with the course of the remaining portion of the war.

Interesting observations are made about the preponderance of American artillery and how this was used as a means to increase the tactical hitting power of the army. The use of greater numbers of guns no doubt strengthened the weaker American infantry, which suffered from smaller unit size, lack of training and bayonets. How the Americans managed to maintain mobility with such a large train of artillery in tow is also noteworthy.

Another detail pointed out is that toward the end of 1776 Washy reorganized the army into a brigade structure. All the small, worn out Continental regiments were bunched together into small brigades. This seemed to improve staying power as it provided for a higher ratio of NCOs and officers to enlisted men. It can be misleading though, because 6 small regiments that equal say 800 men are referred to as a brigade, when in fact this was normally the size of a battalion or regiment when at full strength. The new organization also provided for better administrative control. Still, it speaks volumes for how weak the individual American regiments had become, and would remain for most of the war.

This is a worthwhile study which sheds light on the winter campaign of 1776 which was crucial in many ways. However, it is important to see it within the greater context of the war itself. This was one of many crises that would come to pass in the conflict, and was not the end all that the author seems to imply. Each year was a crisis, and each hurdle that was overcome could have resulted in the war terminating for the American cause at that point. Independent studies like this that focus on one particular event often loss sight of this perspective. The author tries to be balanced, but still suffers from the Sprit of 1776 syndrome that limits many American works on the war.

The discussion of bibliographic records at the end of the book is interesting and gives insights how over the years the events surrounding Trenton in 1776 have contributed to a greater mythology on the subject.

Readers should gain a greater understanding of the entire war before reading this book so that they can retain a sense of perspective on the author’s views and opinions on this important phase of the Rev War.

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