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Book – Washington’s Crossing

 

David Hackett Fischer
An invading force gets bogged down while fighting an insurgency. While it could be ripped from today’s headlines, this is actually a book about the American Revolution. This is an impressive work on many levels. It’s an excellent history of George Washington’s first year as commander of the Continental army. It also provides insights into the conduct of the war and the morale of the armies that provided the ultimate success. Along the way, Fischer shows that much of what we ‘know’ about this period is incorrect. It’s amazing at this point that there can be so much new information available [The diaries of Hessian Colonel Eward, e.g., only became available in English in 1979]

The early chapters are devoted to Washington’s challenge in bringing a true motley crew of independent regiments together as a continental army. He describes vastly different concepts of such basic values as liberty:

One backcountry company came from Culpeper County, in western Virginia on the east slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. … and mustered three hundred men with bucktails in their hats and tomahawks or scalping knives in their belts…Part of their “savage-looking equipments” may have been their flag…. the dark image of a timber rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

… This was an idea of liberty as reciprocal rights that belonged to all the people, a thought very different from the exclusive rights of New England towns, or the hierarchical rights of Virginia, or the individual autonomy of the backsettlers. … Their version of liberty was more radical in thought and act than any other unit’s in the army. But these men were devoted to the American cause and willing to fight in its defense.

A historiography at the back of the book is a standalone essay on the process of historical description and analysis, showing how over 200 years of study have processed historical fact to produce narrative with varying intentions.

A perhaps unintended effect is Fischer’s description of William Howe’s campaign to pacify the colonies, focusing on bringing New Jersey back into the British fold. His descriptions of the local insurgencies that opposed Howe are eerily familiar to today’s dispatches from Iraq.The actual offenses 2 centuries apart are different, but the refusal of officers to stop outrages, sparks an insurgency:

gathered by county justices and clergymen … They documented an epidemic of rape in New Jersey by British soldiers: “Three women were most horribly ravished by them, one of them an old woman nearly seventy years of age, ….” Others described gang rapes not only by private soldiers but by officers: “British officers, four or five, sometimes more, sometimes less in a gang, went about the town by night entering into houses and openly inquiring for women.”

Americans were shocked by the number of cases, by their scale, and by the involvement of British officers. The Pennsylvania Council of Safety reported another such an incident near Woodbridge, New Jersey: A “gentleman in that part of the country was alarmed by the cries and shrieks of a most lovely daughter; he found an officer, a British officer in the act of ravishing her, he instantly put him to death; two other officers rushed in with their fusees, and fired two balls into the father,” who was severely wounded.

Howe insisted that these reports were nothing but American propaganda…Junior officers in his army knew better. Captain John Peebles, commander of a grenadier company of the Royal Highland Regiment, wrote sadly in his diary on Christmas Eve 1776, “In orders a man condemned to suffer death for a Rape, but pardon’d at the intercession of the injured party; the second instance, tho’ there have been other shocking abuses of that nature that have not come to public notice. The story of the poor old man and his daughter in Long Island was very bad indeed, hard is the fate of many who suffer indiscriminately in a civil war. “

As always, the continuing occupation, with insufficient troops to complete its mission, then feeds further

Small bands of armed men ambushed mounted British couriers on the road. They killed a British officer and his servant, attacked foraging parties in the countryside, and shot at Hessian sentries. Captain Friedrich von Miinchausen wrote on December 14,1776, “It is now very unsafe for us to travel in Jersey. The rascal peasants meet our men alone or in small unarmed groups. They have their rifles hidden in the bushes, or ditches, and the like. When they believe they are sure of success and they see one or several men belonging to our army, they shoot them in the head, then quickly hide their rifles and pretend they
know nothing.”

The result was a spontaneous rising … Mott himself recruited men who were ready to take up arms against the British and Hessians. Other leaders did the same. Colonel David Chambers of the Hunterdon militia led a band in Amwell Township east of Coryell’s Ferry. These men did not go into the town of Trenton or attack its outposts, but when Hessian Jaegers or British dragoons or small foraging parties left the town and went up the Delaware Valley along the River Road, or northwest toward Flemington and Lambertville, or north toward Princeton, the Jerseymen attacked. Colonel RaIl began to lose men every day, and the strength of the militia increased. On December 16, Colonel Chambers sent prisoners across the river to George Washington: two Regulars, and one “Malitious Active Tory” who had “assembled and spirited the negroes against us.” On December 17, a patrol of British dragoons went upriver toward Pennington and McConkey’s Ferry. They were intercepted by the Hunterdon men, and one dragoon was” deadly wounded.” On December 18, another dragoon was killed on the road to Maidenhead by a party that was reported to be more than a hundred strong. On December 19, three grenadiers in the Lossberg regiment were captured while out forag­ing. On December 20, RaIl sent a patrol of Jagers and dragoons four miles upriver to Howell’s Ferry, where they met 150 Hunterdon men commanded by Captain John Anderson; the Americans came off second best and lost three or four men.

The Jerseymen forced RaIl to send dispatches to Princeton with an escort of a hundred men, which some British commanders thought absurd. But the growing scale of attacks by the Hunterdon militia supported his judgment. RaIl was rapidly losing control of the countryside, even to the outskirts of Trenton. He could not patrol up the river even to Howell’s Ferry, four miles upstream, without losing men. McConkey’s Ferry ten miles distant was beyond his reach. The Hessian commander could identify the American leaders by name, and he could defeat the Hunterdon militia in a stand­up fight, but he could not stop them from striking again and again, and vanishing into country that they knew so well. In all of this the Jersey men went far beyond instructions from Washington. This Hunterdon Rising was an autonomous event, by angry men against a hated oppressor.

… another American officer began to attack from a different direction. …Grenadier Reuber called the raiders with darkened faces “black Negroes and yellow dogs.” He added, “We had to watch out. . . . They crossed the Delaware to our side, set some houses on fire, and then retreated. Again everything was quiet. . . but we had to watch out. “

The American rebels kept up constant pressure on the isolated Hessian garrison. The description of the constant stress on the troops could be taken directly from reports of US Marines in Iraq and similar to Sebastian Junger’s reporting in War

“The Hessian garrison suffered few casualties in these repeated raids from the river, but they lost sleep and confidence and their morale was badly shaken. Rumors of impending attacks multiplied. On December 20 or 21, Reuber remembered that “the inhabitants of the town circulated a rumor that the rebels wanted to surprise us. We did not have any idea of such a thing, and thought the rebels were unable to do so.” But their colonel took no chances. Reuber wrote, “Early in the morning Commander Rall selected a strong force from his brigade, also a cannon, and we must march in two divisions, along the Delaware, to see about the Americans attempting to cross the Delaware for an aggression. There was no sign of it, and we marched to near Frankfort, which was situated on the other side of the Delaware.. There we could see Americans. Rall stopped us and we joined with the other divisions and returned to Trenton. All was quiet again.

“… He explained to Donop, “I have not made any redoubts or any kind of fortifications because I have the enemy in all directions.” For security the guns were kept in the center of town. Reuber wrote that every soldier was ordered to sleep “fully dressed like he was on watch. The officers and sergeants must enforce this order.”

Even the desperate but unanswered calls from commanders on the ground sound eerily like the pleas for more troops in Iraq that were ignored by Rumsfeld et al:

“Rall called for help. He sent many messages asking for assistance from Donop below Bordentown, General Leslie in Princeton, and Major General Grant at Brunswick. Rall reported that his Trenton garrison was exhausted, the town was indefensible, and attacks were increasing. Only one senior officer took Rall’s worries very seriously: In Princeton, Alexander Leslie, an excellent officer, moved quickly. As early as December 18 he wrote to Rall, “I’ve ordered the first Light Infantry to be at Trenton tomorrow at 10 o’clock and I take the 2d Light Infantry and 300 Men of the 2d brigade to Maidenhead to be in the way if needed. “31 Leslie also sent troops on December 21. Reuber recalled, “Saturday afternoon before Christmas came three English regiments from Princeton to Trenton for reinforcement and when they came to town and Major Rall settled them, they were ordered to turn around and march back to Princeton. ”

Fischer ably brings the narrative to a close:

In the winter campaign of 1776-77, Washington and the Continental army found a solution that had many elements. Part of it was flexibility and opportunism in high degree. Throughout the Revolution George Washington’s strategic purposes were constant: to win independence by maintaining American resolve to continue the war, by preserving an American army in being, and by raising the cost of the war to the enemy. Washington was always fixed on these strategic ends but flexible in operational means. …The diversity of operations in the winter campaign was the first clear example of a style that persisted through the war. He was quick to modify his plans with changing circumstances and adapted more easily than his opponents. Washington was a man of steadfast principle but also a military opportunist. Many American leaders would follow that example: Greene and Morgan, Lee and Jackson, Grant and Sherman, Eisenhower and Bradley, Nimitz and Patton, Schwarzkopf and Franks.

Another element in this American approach to war-fighting a new way of controlling initiative and tempo in war. After many defeats around New York, American leaders learned the urgent importance of seizing the initiative and holding it. George Washington and his lieutenants did more than merely surprise the Hessian garrison at Trenton on the morning after Christmas. They improvised a series of surprises through a period of twelve weeks. By that method they seized the initiative from their opponents and kept it … Washington made it a formal principle in the army, when he ordered his generals to drive the campaign and not “be drove.”

Initiative was largely about the control of time in campaigning. English historian George Otto Trevelyan wrote that George Washington succeeded at Trenton and Princeton because he “caught the occasion by the forelock.” In New Jersey, American leaders learned to make time itself into a weapon. They did it by controlling the tempo and rhythm of the campaign. Day after day through the winter campaign, the Americans called the tune and set the beat. By that method, they retained the initiative for many weeks and kept British commanders off balance. The material and moral impact was very great, especially when a small force was able to control the tempo of war against a stronger enemy. Events happened at a time and place of their choosing. From all this another American tradition developed. It appeared in the Civil War, in both theaters in World War II, and in discussions of tempo by Pentagon, planners in the twenty-first century.

The central figure was George Washington himself. In the winter campaign of 1776-77, he developed a system of intelligence that became part of his new way of war. Washington personally recruited secret agents, with orders to report to him alone, and employed Nathaniel Sackett, of the New York Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, to construct an entire network in New York with agents male and female, of every rank and station. It is impossible to know the full extent of Washington’s intelligence operations, for he cloaked them in secrecy, but beyond doubt he was very active in this work.

Washington also asked Continental generals and militia commanders to gather their own intelligence, and even to run their own agents…lHis attitudes toward intelligence-gathering were different from those of leaders in closed societies, who sought to monopolize intelligence and prohibited efforts they did not con­trol. Washington was comfortable with an open system, in which others were not only permitted but actively encouraged to have a high degree of autonomy. This free and open system of information-gathering engaged the efforts of many people, produced multiple sources, and got better results than closed systems. It was another reason why free societies often have more effective intelligence systems than closed societies.

All of these elements came together in the winter campaign of 1776-77: boldness and prudence, flexibility and opportunism, initiative and tempo, speed and concentration, force multipliers, and intelligence. They defined a new way of war that would continue to appear through the Revolution and in many American
wars.

I’ve focused here on particular passages that highlight similarities with modern insurgencies and occupations, but the book is also an excellent military history of the Trenton campaign and its significance to the American Revolution. Of special interest are the over 40 pages of appendices with detailed orders of battle, weather records, and other information that will be of use to military modelers and gamers.

Finally, unlike so many histories, the maps are excellent – specifically designed to illuminate the text.

 

 

 

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