David Hackett Fischer
Oxford University Press, New York, 2004, 564 pages
Book Review published on: June 9, 2017
In his audacious crossing of the Delaware in 1776, George Washington continues to inspire today’s military officer, appealing both to intellect and spirit. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer has captured Washington’s brilliant generalship in this engaging, inspirational, and richly documented history. Fischer focuses on a pivotal moment in the founding of the American Republic—the battles of Trenton and Princeton, which swung the pendulum of fate in favor of the colonial rebels.
Fischer depicts the emergence of an American “Way of War” in which soldiers of a free country succeed in battle against “traditional” armies through “drill and ritual, reward and punishment, persuasion and belief.” Washington galvanized the American army to the cause of freedom by appealing to honor, reason, pride, and conscience. His victories at Trenton and Princeton proved that free men could succeed in battle and that a people could organize a functional society based on the principles of liberty and self-governance.
Fischer explores Washington’s balance between realism and idealism. In the case of the former, Fischer summons his inner Sun Tzu to provide ample evidence that the fates of nations are contingent upon the choices of politicians and generals. Nothing was certain about the future of American independence. Fischer credits the resurrection of the revolution to Washington’s meticulous operational planning, condition setting—including isolation at Trenton and deception at Princeton—and synchronized execution.
Fischer also emphasizes Washington’s understanding of the need to win the battlefield of the mind. Washington’s Crossing demonstrates the power of gaining and holding the initiative, breaking the enemy’s spirit, and fortifying one’s own. Fischer shows how ideals like those of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense steeled the resolve of a literate colonial army.
Within Washington’s Crossing, a range of audiences will find valuable insights for their professional repertoires. For the tactician and operations officer, Fischer offers descriptions and maps that illustrate belligerents’ maneuvers. Supply challenges provide practical examples for logistical discussion. The counterinsurgent will find “The Forage War” chapter an enlightening account of American rebels inflicting “a death by a thousand cuts” upon the British and their allies.
For the strategist, Fischer illuminates early American civil-military relations. The Continental Congress delegates full command of war-related activities to a military leader—while retaining the right to veto his decisions. Arguably, a strategist might claim that Fischer gives insufficient credit to the significance of later events, such as the battles of Saratoga and the French alliance. However, this is a minor weakness given Fischer’s full treatment of five aspects of the American war strategy: privateering, irregular warfare, an offense-defense, a perimeter defense, and Washington’s “war of posts.” Officers of all ranks will find striking parallels to current conflicts.
For the military historian interested in the pivotal 1776-1777 period of the American Revolution, Washington’s Crossing is an accessible and engaging introductory resource. The appendices provide detailed battle orders, battlefield conditions, and casualty figures. Fischer has amassed a robust historiography section to explain his analytical methods. The bibliography also provides a wealth of vetted primary and secondary sources.
Overall, the lessons of Washington’s Crossing are both in military science and the art of leading soldiers of a democratic society. In the age of postmodern debunkers, iconoclasts, and skeptics, Fischer reminds us that a free people can act heroically. Its practical military lessons notwithstanding, Washington’s Crossing can be, more importantly, an inspiration for war-weary officers.
Book Review written by: Maj. Jonathan D. Kingsley, U.S. Army, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California