Washington's Crossing (Pivotal Moments in American History)

Washington's Crossing - David Hackett Fischer Less than two weeks ago I read David McCullough's 1776, a history of the first year of the Continental Army under George Washington, its mixed success in Boston and disaster in New York City and culminating--after a night crossing of the Delaware River--in their victory in the Battle of Trenton. It was an engaging, well-told story of such suffering and such blunders I left that book amazed the American Revolution, the army and cause survived to triumph. This book covers much of the same territory, with a particular focus on the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas of 1776, the ensuing Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton less than a week later. The Editor's Note claims that: "No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776. On that night a ragged army of 2,400 colonials crossed the ice-choked Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New York in the teeth of a nor'easter that lashed their boats and bodies with sleet and snow." Given the overlap in material I thought this book was likely to suffer in comparison. That 1776 would likely make the stronger impression having been read first. McCullough is arguably the more engaging, more concise writer--but not only did Fischer have a different read, emphasis and details, but in the end Washington's Crossing is the stronger, more scholarly book, packed with notes, maps and illustrations. Although you'd have to enjoy not just history but military history. Fischer paints the crucial battles in a much more detailed way than McCullough did, not simply in terms of grand strategy but the more personal tragedies and individual casualties. And if McCullough's book arguably throws George Washington in sharper relief, Fischer is superb in depicting the various armies, their soldiers and officers. Fischer tells you of their training, their discipline, even about their drum calls. The British commanders, the brothers General and Admiral Howe, come across in a more complex, human way--the same is true of the Hessians and their officers. For one, Fischer explained that even in contemporary times, a British officer could say there was no British army--only a collection of "tribes" which is why the British army could never bring off a coup. You understand what that meant when Fischer details the very different customs and cultures of various regiments--the Scottish Highlanders going into battle in their kilts and determined not to let down their kin and clan fighting beside them. The Americans were varied as well. I had known blacks had served in the Revolutionary War--I hadn't known that in at least one Massachusetts regiment they served in integrated units--and that there were black officers, one of whom rose to the rank of colonel. The various folk ways of the different American regions, and the need to wield them together into a unified force that didn't conflict with the revolutionary ideals were a big part of the story. I really liked 1776, and I'd recommend both books really. And probably 1776 with the more sweeping, less detailed overview is the one to read first. But if I were forced to choose only one book to read or keep on the bookshelf, it would be Washington's Crossing. I'd certainly be interested in reading more of Fischer in the future.