Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Book Review: Washington's Crossing

I promise not to inflict my reading tastes on the public too often, but I noticed in the paper today that a book I recently read, David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, just received the Pulitzer Prize for History.

Washington’s Crossing is, of course about the American Revolution, and the pivotal New Jersey campaign of 1776-77. After a series of terrible defeats around New York, (which probably would have rendered the Revolution a minor historical footnote in British Empire history, had Sir William Howe been up to his job), the Continental Army, George Washington and the New Jersey State Militia rose to the occasion and gave the British a bloody nose. What looked like inevitable victory for the King’s armies turned into a long war. Washington’s Crossing is the story of how this reversal of fortune came about.

As the title indicates, the fact that there is a United States at all is due largely to George Washington. The eventual first President emerges as no Napoléon or Julius Caesar but still a good general, learning from his defeats around New York; holding his indifferently supplied, untrained and raggle-taggle army together; managing a surprise river crossing of the Delaware in a winter storm and clobbering British detachments at Princeton and Trenton while avoiding being flattened himself. The defeated British commander in the Princeton operations, Cornwallis, better known for losing later at Yorktown, thought this campaign Washington's finest work.

Of course, while fighting the finest army on the planet with raw troops who did not even have shoes, Washington had to keep one hand free to keep the politicians in Philadelphia off his back – these worthies all being convinced that they were better qualified to do his job. Had good sense not finally prevailed with the politicos, the British, in spite of everything, no doubt would have prevailed.

Washington, then, comes off well, and is perhaps worth a higher valuation of his generalship then I have hitherto given him. The British commanders, on the other hand, Howe in particular, appear to be due substantially lower marks. Howe passed up several chances to destroy Washington’s whole army around New York, apparently deliberately, because he perversely thought allowing his enemy to escape would facilitate a negotiated settlement. Fatal error – depriving the Americans of their one functioning army, at that point in the war, might well have opened the path to negotiations. As Fischer makes clear, the Revolution was very near to political, financial and military collapse in the fall and winter of 1776. The British would never have another chance at military victory.

Professor Fischer spend a little too much space for my taste on “social history,” that is, the obligatory salaam to race, class and gender issues so common in the academy today. I would have preferred a straight, traditional military history, but Professor Fischer weaves his social history discussion right into his narrative, so the story does not suffer too much.

To me, the most interesting part of Washington’s Crossing is Fischer’s treatment of British occupation problems in New Jersey. As the British would discover so often in that war, Tory support was greatest in places where no British troops were to be found. Much of the population of New Jersey, initially neutral, or prepared to be favorably disposed to the British, soon turned against the Crown when the heavy-handed British troops arrived looking for supplies, and not being too careful about which “rebels” they “requisitioned” them from.

In any case, the local inhabitants soon began an effective guerrilla resistance to British occupation which was at least as important as Washington's Army, if not more so – in running the British out of New Jersey. Considering that Americans have been running occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan these last several years, the story of British efforts to pacify New Jersey is very topical, and for me was alone worth the price of the book.

Professor Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing completely deserves its Pulitzer Prize. Anyone interested in the period of the American Revolution will want to have this book.
El Jefe is presently reading Conspiracy of Fools, the new Enron book. Maybe more on that next week.

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