Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing is not for everyone. But with more than one hundred reviews on Amazon, averaging five out of five stars, it is finding the right audience.

The book is a military history of the American Revolutionary War from late 1776 to early 1777. It starts with the British rout of George Washington and his American forces at New York. This loss could have ended the war if not for a miraculous American escape by cover of night and fog. The Americans retreated across New Jersey to Pennsylvania, ceding Princeton and Trenton, among other towns, to the pursuing British forces.

The British expected to hold their gains as winter set in, then finish off the Americans in the spring. However, on Christmas night 1776 Washington crossed the Delaware River to surprise and defeat the enemy, mostly Hessian mercenaries allied with the British, at Trenton.

A week later British reinforcements attacked Washington at Trenton. He again escaped under darkness, but instead of retreating, his forces went around the British to take Princeton, which had been left lightly defended.

Reeling from these counterpunches, the British withdrew from most of New Jersey. The outposts that remained were subject to harassment by American militias. Exploiting their knowledge and control of the countryside, the militias would ambush British foraging parties, further demoralizing the British effort.

By the spring of 1777, the British were no longer expecting a quick end to the war—a fact that amounted to the beginning of the end for public and political support back in Great Britain.

If that summary is a view of the forest, Washington’s Crossing is a tree-by-tree examination. It combines meticulous pursuit of the facts, several interpretive themes that were new to me, and a highly readable narrative.

While I would not classify the book as light reading, it has the feel of a great college course. So if you’re into history, especially military history, I agree with the Amazon user reviewers in recommending Washington’s Crossing.

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