Thursday, August 7, 2014

Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

Professor David Hackett Fischer's excellent history of the turning point of the American Revolutionary war brings out some important salient features of not only General Washington but also the emerging values of the nascent new country.  Besides his great leadership, one reads about the grand ideas and values of the Enlightenment that the leaders and founding fathers steadfastly hold up.

The book chronicled in detail Washington's crossing the Delaware river with the cover of night to make a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, NJ. After the abysmal showing in New York when the Continental Army was in constant retreat and the British leadership thought they had the insurrection practically quelled, moreover, with the Continental Congress beginning to regret Washington's commission as leader, the general devised a plan that exploited the element of surprise and capitalized on his army's 'celerity'.  The battles at Trenton and Princeton were routs, exercising swift movements and classic flanking maneuvers knowing that the British regulars enjoyed intimidating and overwhelming its enemies with direct assaults. The fight continued with the 'forage wars', the British seeking out of fodder for their cavalry's horses - something as important then as oil is today for a mobilized army.  The Americans successfully prosecuted a guerrilla war, quickly attacking  to inflict major damage and just as swiftly withdrawing and disappearing into the wilderness keeping casualties at a minimum.  At that point, with little cavalry horses left, many on the side of the British began to understand that winning such a war and putting down the 'insurrection' would be very difficult.

Mr. Fischer debunks the iconic painting of Washington in a boat crossing the icy river, one foot raised with right hand resting on his thigh as an impossibility.  The instability of such a position would have cast the general overboard.  The painting, nevertheless, captures Washington's regal and noble countenance to which all who knew Washington testified.  Washington's resolute determination to win and personal courage in battle were indeed awesome and inspiring to all those who witnessed them.

The author contrasts the ways of the British and Americans wage war.  For the British, war is a question of honor and manhood with certain expectations of the vanquished.  For the British, if one one would not surrender at their request, then there was no obligation to quarter or sustain prisoners. There were countless events of absolute ferocious brutality on their part.  The Americans, however, wage war simply to win. Taking the basic call from John Adams and specifically the example of George Washington, the Americans show magnanimity, generosity and humanity - something attested to by the British themselves.  The British General Howe was autocratic and did not accept advice from his war council.  Washington, on the other hand, presided at his war council by consensus and encouraged opinions.  The contrasts seem to reflect the different style of governments - a Monarchy vs. a free Republic.

The author concludes that some contemporary critics of today who think that America is not a noble enterprise are wrong.  One need only to see Washington and the founding fathers as extraordinary people who created a country that reflects the generous ideas of the Enlightenment to set the record straight.

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