Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

Book Review: Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

The American Revolutionary War began in 1775 and ended in 1783, but in his Pulitzer Prize winning 2004 history Washington's Crossing, author David Hackett Fischer makes a very compelling case as to why the winter of 1776-77 was probably the most crucial period of the war, a time when boldness, courage and wise leadership turned the tide for the revolutionaries from almost certain defeat to ultimate victory. In the course of doing so, Fischer guides the reader through this period in such a manner as to make one feel as if he or she is present with the armies, experiencing what they experienced. Readers will come away with a better understanding of what it must have felt like for the rank and file soldiers during that bitter winter campaign. Fischer has a tremendous gift for making the reader feel as if he or she is experiencing history, rather than simply reading about it.


In 1776, following the Declaration of Independence, three armies converged in New York: the British, the Hessians and the Continental Army. In the first part of the book, Fischer introduces us to all of them. We learn who they are, from privates to generals, where they come from, who their leaders are and how well trained and equipped they are. All have different styles of fighting, strategizing and understanding of the rules of war. When they meet in New York and the Continentals are driven out, it appears a foregone conclusion that the insurrection will be short-lived and that the stronger, professional armies from Europe will prevail. As the Continentals retreat into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, all appears lost for them, with declines prevalent in morale, recruitment and confidence in their leadership.

A series of bold moves on the part of the Continentals bring about a reversal of their fortunes, with a bold attack on the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey under formidable logistical conditions. Fischer tells the story of the first and second Battles of Trenton, the Battle of Princeton and the "Forage War", all of which ultimately undermine the confidence of the Europeans and embolden the Americans.

Fischer writes on every aspect of this conflict, including the conditions which the soldiers endured, their clothing, weapons, food, supplies, marches, and morale. He also tells of such things as care of the wounded, the atrocities of war, soldiers endurance on little sleep in cold conditions with poor footwear, the role of loyalists, oaths of allegiance demanded by both sides, how civilians were affected, how armies moved and numerous other details. He does so in a manner that is interesting, and never tedious. It is as if the reader is present observing these events in real time.

Most fascinating to me was the story of the leaders of both sides and the differing councils of war. The European meetings were very much a top down affair, offering little input from subordinates. Conversely, Fischer describes George Washington's practice of listening and learning, of getting input from all before deciding. A picture of Washington emerges as someone who had multiple strengths. He is what professional baseball analysts would call "a five tool player". Washington was a brilliant military tactician, a masterful politician, an inspirational motivator, personally courageous in battle and someone who was able to establish a personal connection with his soldiers. He made mistakes, as evidenced by his military losses in New York, but he was able to learn from those mistakes and grow personally and professionally.

Fischer writes an excellent account of a critical period, covering a wide variety of aspects and subjects superbly. His analysis at the end of the book of this crucial period and of its importance not only at the time, but today as well, is brilliant. A certain member of this community said that I would enjoy this book tremendously, and that was an accurate prediction. This is history written at its finest by an author possessed of intellectual insight, as well as a wonderful ability to communicate it to the reader.
Tags: book review, george washington, presidential bios
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