April 26, 2004

A page-turner...

For some reason histories of the American Revolution always seem dull to me. And George Washington likewise, though I'm well aware that he was a fascinating and great man. Perhaps it's an attitude left over from school days.

But Washington's Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer, is anything but dull. It's thrilling! Charlene and I have been snatching it away from each other to read it. It focuses on several crucial months of the Revolution, from the disastrous American defeats at New York, the retreat through New Jersey into Pennsylvania with Washington's army melting away and a British army settling into winter-quarters in New Jersey. Then the very difficult crossing of the Delaware river in a winter storm and the famous attack on a Hessian brigade at Trenton, NJ. Then Washington fights another battle at Trenton a week later (I'd never heard of it) and then slips away at night from the growing British force at Trenton, to attack Princeton, where the British had marched from. And all the while New Jersey is changing drastically, as the ugliness and looting of the occupation arouse the population into something like guerilla war. (The Hessians had many military virtues, but were horrid plunderers.)

The people and institutions involved come alive. I had no idea General Cornwallis was important in so many other spheres. The famous Hessian soldier-trade is explained, and a number of interesting Hessians appear! The terrain comes to life, you feel the agonies of night-marches in rain and mud and ice. Gullies too steep for teams mean cannon must be lowered on drag-ropes by muscle power, then hauled up the other side.

We listen in on meetings and watch the flow of communications. The German and British junior officers who skirmished with the retreating Americans knew we were still dangerous, but their superiors weren't listening. Warnings that British forces were too widely dispersed went unheeded. The Hessians at Trenton were not drunk, as legend would have them, but they were exhausted with skirmishing and patrolling and night-alerts.

And the Americans were driven by ideas. Tom Paine's pamphlet The American Crisis was published a week before the Battle of Trenton. He marched with the Army across New Jersey, scribbling by campfires. He rode to Philadelphia, found the city in chaos, and struggled for ten days to get his pamphlet published. A day later it was having an electrifying effect on the army, and soon on all the colonies.

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value...
This is the book for your summer vacation. I give it my highest recommendation.

Posted by John Weidner at April 26, 2004 10:05 PM
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