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, with young 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.