Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia. Yet, as David Hackett Fischer recounts in this riveting history, George Washington--and many other Americans--refused to let the Revolution die. On Christmas night, as a howling nor'easter struck the Delaware Valley, he led his men across the river and attacked the exhausted Hessian garrison at Trenton, killing or capturing nearly a thousand men. A second battle of Trenton followed within days. The Americans held off a counterattack by Lord Cornwallis's best troops, then were almost trapped by the British force. Under cover of night, Washington's men stole behind the enemy and struck them again, defeating a brigade at Princeton. The British were badly shaken. In twelve weeks of winter fighting, their army suffered severe damage, their hold on New Jersey was broken, and their strategy was ruined. Fischer's richly textured narrative reveals the crucial role of contingency in these events. We see how the campaign unfolded in a sequence of difficult choices by many actors, from generals to civilians, on both sides. While British and German forces remained rigid and hierarchical, Americans evolved an open and flexible system that was fundamental to their success. The startling success of Washington and his compatriots not only saved the faltering American Revolution, but helped to give it new meaning.
At the core of an impeccably researched, brilliantly executed military history is an analysis of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776 and the resulting destruction of the Hessian garrison of Trenton and defeat of a British brigade at Princeton. Fischer's perceptive discussion of the strategic, operational and tactical factors involved is by itself worth the book's purchase. He demonstrates Washington's insight into the revolution's desperate political circumstances, shows how that influenced the idea of a riposte against an enemy grown overconfident with success and presents Washington's skillful use of what his army could do well. Even more useful is Fischer's analysis of the internal dynamics of the combatants. He demonstrates mastery of the character of the American, British and Hessian armies, highlighting that British troops, too, fought for ideals, sacred to them, of loyalty and service. Above all, Brandeis historian Fischer (Albion's Seed) uses the Trenton campaign to reveal the existence, even in the revolution's early stage, of a distinctively American way of war, much of it based on a single fact: civil and military leaders were accountable to a citizenry through their representatives. From Washington down, Fischer shows, military leaders acknowledged civil supremacy and worked with civil officials. Washington used firepower and intelligence as force multipliers to speed the war for a practical people who wanted to win quickly in order to return to their ordinary lives. Tempo, initiative and speed marked the Trenton campaign from first to last. And Washington fought humanely, extending quarter in battle and insisting on decent treatment of prisoners. The crossing of the Delaware, Fischer teaches, should be seen as emblematic of more than a turning of the war's tide. 91 halftone, 15 maps. 3-city author tour.