Washington's Crossing is part of the Pivotal Moments in American History series by Oxford University Press. Written by David Hacket Fischer, Washington's Crossing won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2005.
“No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776.” Opening the book with this statement and by explaining the importance of the time, Fischer sets the reader up to be enthralled.
Many are familiar with the picture of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” but the story behind it has been told in many different ways, not all of them correct. Fischer sets out to debunk the rumors surrounding the critical battles of 1776.
The book demonstrates the plight of the American army well - defeat after defeat, running instead of fighting. The odds of winning the war looked grim Christmastime 1776. Yet Washington, the biggest player in turning the tide of the war, didn’t give up on himself or his men, even with all the frustrations. As Fischer describes, it’s surprising he even survived all the battles he was in, as he wasn’t shy about putting himself on the front lines.
After several defeats around New York and being pushed into New Jersey, the Continental army was poised to succumb to the British. Still, there was a strange optimism brewing. The colonists seemed to sense that things would change. For one, the people of New Jersey didn’t look kindly on the brutal British and the looting Hessians. Also, the British army had spread itself out across the state. All of this gave Washington and the ragged Continentals a chance.
The chances of winning on the open field with an amateur army against a group of seasoned troops gave Washington few options. He decided on a sneak attack on the Hessians at Trenton. The Hessians are analyzed in detail in the book, but there is one myth that should be forever done in with the publication of Washington's Crossing: They were not drunk. Continental soldier John Greenwood wrote in his memoir, “During the battle I did not see a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy.”
The battles come and Washington, seizing opportunities, decides to stay on the offensive for the most part. After winning the famous battle of Trenton, there is the element of the second battle of Trenton, which has rarely been documented, where the regulars of the British army were repulsed by the Continental army. Washington’s name was writ large in the battle of Princeton, for there could be no doubt afterward that he would forever be remembered in American history.
By focusing on a few years of the war, when the battles could go either way, Washington's Crossing is an exemplar of historical writings. Fischer collects hundreds of eyewitness letters in the book, using them as clear proof of what really happened. The maps are excellent, rounded up from various libraries; the notes extensive, consuming almost a hundred pages; and Washington's Crossing has a vast bibliography as well.
In the end, the battles of Trenton and Princeton proved the critical triumph of the indomitable American spirit. Fischer captures how difficult the years of misfortune were and how glorious the Continentals were after the battle of Princeton. The revolutionary war was years from being over, but the superiority of the British army was in question.