The Winter Soldiers is the powerful and compelling story of the second year of the American Revolution, and of two battles – fought at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey – that reversed the America’s increasingly bleak fortunes in the second winter of the war. The Winter Soldiers is the second in a series of books about the American Revolution written by acclaimed historian Richard M. Ketchum. He had previously authored Decisive Day, an account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and would later write Saratoga, a history of the battle that marked the turning point in America’s war for independence.
The years 1775 and 1776 are pivotal ones for the fledgling United States as it struggles to win its independence from Great Britain. During the war’s first year – 1775 – military action centers mostly in New England. After the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, American forces, jointly commanded by Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery, fail miserably in their attempt to wrest the Canadian city of Quebec from the British.
In July 1775, George Washington assumes command of all American forces. He spends the second half of the year trying to figure out how to expel the British from Boston. In February 1776, Washington’s army, newly equipped with cannon and other munitions recently captured from Fort Ticonderoga, occupy Dorchester Heights on the outskirts of Boston. British General Sir Thomas Gage briefly considers attacking the Americans, but decides against it as being too risky. The following month, Gage and his army of 9,000 abandon Boston for good.
The focus of the war now shifts to the middle Atlantic region of the United States. Washington’s strategy is similar to the one he employed at Boston: drive the British out of New York City. The American commander-in-chief and his ragtag army are nowhere near as successful in New York as they had been in Boston, however. The British soundly defeat them in battles at Brooklyn Heights, Forts Washington and Lee, and White Plains. To avoid capture, the Americans retreat into New Jersey. Throughout the spring, summer, and autumn of 1776, the British army, commanded by Lord Charles Cornwallis, half-heartedly pursues the Americans through the New Jersey countryside. Somehow, the British never quite seem to catch up with “the old fox,” as Cornwallis nicknames George Washington.
Throughout 1776, America’s military situation continues its seemingly inexorable deterioration. The Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, temporarily lifts American spirits and encourages the “Continentals” to fight on, but by year’s end, American military fortunes appear to have reached their nadir. Disease, discouragement, and desertions steadily deplete the American army. By December 1776, the number of troops in Washington’s army has dwindled to less than 3,000. The men are ill-fed, poorly clothed, and continually on the run from the pursuing redcoats. Many of Washington’s soldiers have no boots. “The snow,” [behind Washington’s army], one soldier writes, “…is tinged with blood…”
In late December 1776, the Continental army escapes imminent capture by crossing the Delaware River into eastern Pennsylvania. As his troops continue their forced march, Washington desperately searches for a sorely needed victory. A golden opportunity for such a triumph improbably arises at Trenton, New Jersey. Manned by Hessian troops under the command of Colonel Johann Rall, Trenton is one of a series of strong defensive outposts established by the British along the Delaware River.
On Christmas night 1776, Washington and his forces use every boat and barge they can find, re-cross the Delaware River, and launch an attack on the town. Despite advance warning of an impending attack, a warning that Rall steadfastly refuses to believe, the Hessians are caught completely off-guard. After a brief but bloody battle on the morning after Christmas, the mortally wounded Rall surrenders his Hessian troops. Washington has his badly needed victory.
American military fortunes brighten considerably. After Trenton, the British, drained of much of their vigor since the battle of Bunker Hill, continue their languorous pursuit of Washington’s army. After a second battle at Trenton on January 2, 1777, American forces once again escape capture. The British and Americans maneuver around each other in western New Jersey for a few hours, setting the stage for another major showdown. The expected confrontation comes the next day. Washington, once again employing excellent strategic skills and an uncanny ability to surprise his adversary, attacks and soundly defeats the British forces at Princeton, New Jersey.
The long term effects of the battles of Trenton and Princeton are decisive. American militiamen begin flocking once again to join the battle against the British. By late summer 1777, the British have been expelled from New Jersey and are forced into developing a new strategy for winning the war. In October 1777, their new plan, jointly devised by Generals Burgoyne, Howe, and Clinton, would come a cropper at Saratoga, New York.
Ketchum argues persuasively in The Winter Soldiers that, although the British won a series of key battles in 1776, they actually lost the war that year because they failed to press their advantage at key points. That failure may have resulted from their memories of the carnage they suffered on a hillside in Boston in June 1775.
The Winter Soldiers explores in detail George Washington’s superb generalship. Although not a man of great military experience, Washington had an uncanny strategic vision and an almost preternatural ability to either escape from desperate situations (as he did in Brooklyn and Trenton), or to catch his foes completely off guard (as he did at Trenton and Princeton). How Washington led his ragtag army from abject defeat to glorious victory in less than one year – despite the longest of odds – is an eloquent testament to the incalculable debt we Americans owe the father of our country.
The Winter Soldiers is another superb example of narrative history at its best. It’s imbued with meticulously detailed scholarship; a logical and coherent historical argument (one that I wholeheartedly agree with); and a concisely eloquent writing style. The book is never “stuffy.” It reads more like a novel than a work of professional history.
All readers – even those without a passion for history – will find The Winter Soldiers a wonderfully enjoyable reading experience. This splendid book will especially excite the hearts and minds of history lovers everywhere, and should not be missed!