Washington's crossing

by David Hackett Fischer

Paper Book, 2004




Oxford, England ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2006, c2004.


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.… (more)

Media reviews

Fischer has devised a storytelling technique that combines old and new methods in a winning way.
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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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
Less than two weeks ago I read David McCullough's 1776, a history of the first year of the Continental Army under George Washington, its mixed success in Boston and disaster in New York City and culminating--after a night crossing of the Delaware River--in their victory in the Battle of Trenton. It
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was an engaging, well-told story of such suffering and such blunders I left that book amazed the American Revolution, the army and cause survived to triumph. This book covers much of the same territory, with a particular focus on the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas of 1776, the ensuing Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton less than a week later. The Editor's Note claims that: "No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776. On that night a ragged army of 2,400 colonials crossed the ice-choked Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New York in the teeth of a nor'easter that lashed their boats and bodies with sleet and snow."

Given the overlap in material I thought this book was likely to suffer in comparison. That 1776 would likely make the stronger impression having been read first. McCullough is arguably the more engaging, more concise writer--but not only did Fischer have a different read, emphasis and details, but in the end Washington's Crossing is the stronger, more scholarly book, packed with notes, maps and illustrations. Although you'd have to enjoy not just history but military history. Fischer paints the crucial battles in a much more detailed way than McCullough did, not simply in terms of grand strategy but the more personal tragedies and individual casualties. And if McCullough's book arguably throws George Washington in sharper relief, Fischer is superb in depicting the various armies, their soldiers and officers. Fischer tells you of their training, their discipline, even about their drum calls. The British commanders, the brothers General and Admiral Howe, come across in a more complex, human way--the same is true of the Hessians and their officers. For one, Fischer explained that even in contemporary times, a British officer could say there was no British army--only a collection of "tribes" which is why the British army could never bring off a coup. You understand what that meant when Fischer details the very different customs and cultures of various regiments--the Scottish Highlanders going into battle in their kilts and determined not to let down their kin and clan fighting beside them. The Americans were varied as well. I had known blacks had served in the Revolutionary War--I hadn't known that in at least one Massachusetts regiment they served in integrated units--and that there were black officers, one of whom rose to the rank of colonel. The various folk ways of the different American regions, and the need to wield them together into a unified force that didn't conflict with the revolutionary ideals were a big part of the story.

I really liked 1776, and I'd recommend both books really. And probably 1776 with the more sweeping, less detailed overview is the one to read first. But if I were forced to choose only one book to read or keep on the bookshelf, it would be Washington's Crossing. I'd certainly be interested in reading more of Fischer in the future.
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LibraryThing member ksmyth
Fischer's examination of Washington's campaigns at Trenton, Trenton II, and Princeton draws on new research to build on our understanding of these pivotal battles in the Revolutionary War. He has a fine narrative style. Though there are other strong accounts of these actions, Fischer's goes to the
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head of the class.
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LibraryThing member PointedPundit
2500 Change the Course of History

Six months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost.

The British routed the Americans at New York, occupied the three colonies and advanced within sight of Philadelphia. George Washington’s army, having lost 90
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per cent of his troops, was in shambles.

On Christmas Eve, Washington rallied his men, crossed the Delaware in a howling nor’easter and attached the British mercenaries at Trenton. The army representing the young country killed or captured almost 1,000 of the enemy. During the next 12 weeks, Washington struck the British again and again, shaking them badly. Traumatized, the British hold on New Jersey was broker; their strategy discredited.

This is a great book. Painstakingly researched, well-written, it casts new light on one of our country’s most crucial periods of history.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
A great read, supplemented by massive appendices, Fischer's book is an excellent look at the battles of Trenton and Princeton within the larger context of the American Revolution. While I have many quibbles with the book, on the whole it is well worth a read.
LibraryThing member kaulsu
Fischer is my favorite writer of history, though this book held fewer surprises (events unknown to me) than my all-time favorite non-fiction work, [Albion's Seed], also by Fischer.

Using untold journals and diaries, plus pensioner's narratives housed in the National Archives, Fischer brings to life
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events and people that shaped the war, and without too great an exaggeration, our lives today. I will be a bit political here, and add that, in my opinion, Washington and the Continental Congress would be appalled and ashamed of American conduct in the Iraq war.

Although Nelson Runger did a much better job in narrating this book than he did in [The Path Between the Seas] by David McCullough, there must be a better history reader available. Only once during this long book did I feel like he was speaking through a mouth full of saliva. Don't audio books use directors?
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Military history of the key early portions of the American War of Independence, emphasizing both generalship and reliance on groups of soldiers. Fischer gives biographies of the key men (and a couple of women) in what was essentially, from both sides’ perspectives, a civil war, and concentrates
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on what began as a very bad year for the rebels, with constant losses, and ended with momentum on the American side after key New Jersey battles. One thing that stood out was that some things haven’t changed at all: if you rape/plunder/kill the locals, you lose their support; small unorganized forces can inflict disproportionate damage on even well-trained organized troops far from home.
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LibraryThing member CritEER
- Winner of 2005 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award (recognizes books of exceptional merit written on the Revolutionary War era)
- Joseph Ellis in a book review for the NY Times states DHF “demolishes several myths and misconceptions”…after reading this book J Ellis admits he has written
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inaccurately on the Trenton Campaign
- Similar to "1776" by McCullough...however I rate DHF's book a better read
- DHF writing in support of the painting of Washington's Crossing brings out the spirit of those heroic soldiers/times
- This book contains good writing, compassionate characters and vivid details supporting the despair of the continental army
- As a result of this book, I'm a huge DHF fan and would read any of his books
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
This work merits all the praise it has garnered, if only for the close attention that Fischer brings to course of the military campaign in New Jersey during 1776-1777. Add to this the social analysis Fischer conducts on the opposing forces, and his further consideration of the historiography of the
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event, and you have popular history of the first order.
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LibraryThing member dichosa
Incredible book. The other reviews sing its praises, and I wholeheartedly agree. A scholarly book that draws you in with abundant details. Don't forget to read the appendices and notes in the back of the book (a good 1/4 of the book!). Amazing wealth of information. Will definitely one of the few
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history books that I will read again.
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LibraryThing member wildbill
The book begins with a short narrative about the picture of Washington crossing the Delaware on the way to the Battle of Trenton. The author explains that the picture is correct and Washington did stand up in the boat. It was either stand up or sit down in freezing water and ice.
The book was a very
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good narrative of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton at the end of 1776 and the first week of 1777. The defeat at New York begins the book but the primary focus is on those two battles.
1776 was a bad year for Washington's army. The troops did not fight well and the generals made a lot of mistakes. After the defeat at New York and the retreat into New Jersey many of the British were thinking that the war would soon be over.
Washington refused to quit and although the Battle of Trenton was not a big battle it was a victory.
The preparations for the battle did not portend a smashing success. Washington's affection for complicated battle plans did not work well with the low level of training of his troops. He sent them across the river in four groups and two did not make it to the battle because of the ice.
This author disagrees with other narratives of the battle. According to him the Hessians at Trenton were not drunk and unprepared. The commander had his troops sleeping in uniform and they were on patrol constantly. The Americans caught them unaware because they were hidden by a snow storm as they came into Trenton. Knox had managed to drag some artillery across the river which also made a big difference. James Monroe had a valuable role in the victory. The death of the Hessian commander was the turning point of the battle. The troops found themselves surrounded and surrendered. In a short battle the Americans had a complete victory.
News of the victory spread quickly throughout the countryside. It was a great way to end what had been a year of endless defeats. The Battle of Princeton on January 3 provided another small victory for Washington's army.
The author does a good job portraying the action of the battle from the time Washington's troops reach Trenton until the surrender of the Hessians. He also provides some vivid memories of the people involved. The bull moose voice of Henry Knox as he guided the troops across the river and Colonel Rall rolling out of bed to meet the attack.
Prior to the battle there is a very poignant scene where Washington practically begs some of the men whose term has expired to stay for just one more week. His moving speech and the offer of $10 cash preserves enough of the army to accomplish the victory.
Reading this book has increased my interest in the Revolutionary War. I look forward to reading several other books I have on this topic.
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LibraryThing member Gregorio_Roth
This book was selected in my top three books for the first quarter of 2012.

Why study history? What does it matter to me? Because it shows the contingency in events that unfold in time and place. The book explores the author's viewpoint on a contingency in history; "people making choices, and
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choices making a difference in the world."363. The choices were made from what the participants felt about the events that were unfolding. The Brits viewed the rebels as a bunch of yeoman farmers. The Americans viewed the British as an enormous dinosaur that did not know its tail form its nose.

Had Washington not been General? Had General Charles Lee not been captured? (Lee would have stalled Washington from crossing the river, as he was the typical overcautious general.) Had the Hessian Forces and Brits not been overconfident? Had a woman not kept the Hessian General at home, instead of in his key position on the battle front? Then the American Story would have been quit different.

The book was great in displaying the way that Washington's Story was told by different authors with different purposes. He shows with honesty how the facts can be skewed to prove the point of any political platform. Before reading this book I always believed that the Hessian Army was drunk when Washington attacked it. From the facts assembled this has proven to be not true. But somewhere the myth has replaced the facts. We now believe that the Hessian Army was a bunch of drunken dolts.

I loved this book. I discovered a lot about this event that I did not know before. He writes in a way that is truly a pleasure to read.

The only draw back was that on my kindle the maps were hard to read. But that is what they created magnifying glass for.
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LibraryThing member dmmjlllt
This was good, even very good, but not "fantastic" in the way it seemed to be hyped up. There's a bit of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" to the whole thing that I find a bit off-putting, but maybe that's just me.
LibraryThing member reader1009
nonfiction (history--Revolutionary War). Great narrative reading. I still have trouble absorbing all of the battle/tactical information, but it is getting easier, and DHF does a nice job with incorporating the humanity of the soldiers and officers through inclusion of their personal letters and
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writings--I especially remember and appreciate the intro (about the famous painting and its history, as well as how it may or may not be inaccurate) or the concluding chapter.
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LibraryThing member JBGUSA
I just finished reading Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. This book was definitely worthwhile. I am giving it "Five Stars." I confess to reading it fast, slower than a skim but much faster than I usually read a book. The reason is that much of the material concerning the famous
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crossing of the Delaware that stormy Christmas night and the surprise attack on the British and the Hessians at Trentown (now Trenton, New Jersey) was described in detail in Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and 1776 by David McCullough, which I previously read.

A major distinction is that Chernow and McCullough are primarily writers, whereas Fischer is primarily a professor.

Fischer posits convincingly that the revival of the Revolution, almost sundered in the loss of New York City during the summer and fall of 1776 started before the Crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton, and that revival made those victories possible. A brief excerpt from what I think was the most stirring chapter, "The Great Revival":
There is an old American folk tale about George Washington and the Crossing of the Delaware. It tells us that the new American republics nearly failed in the winter of 1776, that George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, and that his victory at 1renton revived the Revolution. All of this story is true, but it is not the whole truth. There was more to it. The great revival did not follow the battles of Trenton and Princeton, important as they were. It preceded them, and made those events possible (though not inevitable).
This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible.

That view of the best of America being brought forth by crisis is true to this day.

Another focus of Washington's Crossing is in part on the uniquely American system that Washington and Continental Congress helped pioneer of placing elected representatives in overall charge, but delegating to experts a major amount of discretion in how they discharge their duties. Washington was given overall charge of the conduct of the Revolutionary War, for example. Fischer takes this analogy further, to having boards of directors of corporation selecting operating officers, and Boards of Education selecting superintendents operating independently but under supervision.

He also retells the thrilling stories of Washington's flexible and then-unique war strategy of avoiding pitched battles, but making the British and Hessians die the proverbial "death of a thousand cuts" though he does not use that phrase.

One quibble; I was constantly looking up words. One was "celerity" which turns out to mean "rapidity of motion." Another was "anabasis" which means "a military advance." And another jarring reference was his reference to "the Jamestown and Sagadahoc Colonies of 1607." The latter was a short-lived colony in Maine. This book may be more for history buffs, but it makes great reading.
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LibraryThing member DanTarlin
Washington's Crossing focuses in on what the author believes is the key turning point in the Revolutionary War. We start in 1776, after Lexington & Concord, and follow the fate of the Continental Army as they are routed in New York, retreat through New Jersey in the Fall, and escape across the
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Delaware to Pennsylvania. At this point, things look bleak for the rebels, and Washington has to find a way to take the initiative. So he orders a daring Christmas night re-crossing of the Delaware and surprise of the Hessian garrison in Trenton. Then we're taken through the next week, including more Delaware crossings and the Battle of Princeton.

The Americans were undermanned and undertrained, but had some advantages too- a committed citizenry, New Jersey residents angry about British military rule, and the vast spaces of American, impossible to fully garrison, along with some lucky breaks with the weather. But fundamentally, George Washington was a highly effective leader and an excellent military strategist and tactician, who knew how to spot an opportunity and seize it.

Good history, well written, and fun.
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National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2004)
Pulitzer Prize (Winner — History — 2005)
Ambassador Book Award (Winner — 2005)
Massachusetts Book Award (Honor Book — Nonfiction — 2005)
NJCH Book Award (Winner — 2005)



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