I just finished the book “Washington’s Crossing,” perfect for summer reading, especially as we approach the 4th of July. Since childhood, the 4th of July always represented a bright prospect for me. There were toy “cap guns,” firecrackers, and sparklers, but best of all there was no school. Even now I smell the summer air of those days and feel the beads of sweat forming on my forehead from running and the beating sun.
Author David Hackett Fischer is a professor at Brandeis University and this book was a Pulitzer Prize winner in the History category. Scholars of the period of the American Revolution would benefit from reading the author’s notes and bibliographical references alone, but I was reading the book for fun. I’m one of those people who brake, not only for squirrels, but for historical markers. Pennsylvania is full of them. Many historical markers “in these parts” have to do with the colonial period, and with “Indians.”
My ancestors didn’t live in America during the colonial period; they were late comers from the south of Italy, arriving in the 20th Century. I learned American history from classroom textbooks. George Washington was the Father of the Country. Great Britain was a tyrannical country which kept America in chains and taxes. There were battles at Lexington and Concord. There was a Declaration of Independence. George Washington crossed the Delaware, killed the Hessians, and then suddenly we were free and had the 4th of July to joyfully celebrate every year.
But the real 4th of July in Great Britain’s American colonies was a dark period, and getting darker as the American Revolution regressed. The highly organized and professional British troops, along with their Hessian professional army hired help, had landed overpowering crack forces in New York, kicking butt with as much efficiency as a crack team of Brooklyn gangbangers, across Brooklyn, across Staten Island, across the river to Manhattan, then to Fort Lee and fanning out into New Jersey.
The Continental Army was a laughable affair, and the British Army condescended to call it anything at all. With few exceptions, the militias were worse-disorganized, loose mobs, armed with muskets. Many militia members had farms and families back home and would have to steal off to tend to domestic matters, others were rootless and rum-soaked tavern habitués. Eventually, these militias picked up on the impetus of George Washington’s bold assault on Trenton, and turned the tide of war in America’s favor, as they turned their own weaknesses into strengths.
Winning freedom after the War of Independence stood less chance than that Hail Mary pass in the last seconds of the Super Bowl when your team is down three points. Or that incredible full court throw before the last buzz of the shot clock in the final NBA championship game.
Washington’s Crossing is a real place, just down the Delaware from here, and it’s where George Washington’s ordered his troops and militia to attack the Hessians in a Christmas snowstorm at Trenton. My ignorance of this part of American history was such that I didn’t know, until reading this book, that George Washington had planned for two other “armies” to make simultaneous at spots along the Delaware, both of those thwarted by river ice, cold, and a vicious winter storm. All the more miraculous that Washington’s Crossing succeeded in destroying the crack Hessian troops at Trenton.
It was a move both desperate and inspiring, much needed to give impetus to America’s flagging patriotic fervor. I learned from this book, moreover, that Washington successfully attacked Trenton not just once, but twice, and also Princeton, where a Patriot cannon crashed through a Princeton University window and smashed a portrait of King George (okay, that part about King George’s portrait is legendary).
“Washington’s Crossing” is a great book, focused upon one of the important fulcrums upon which history turned. Without these determined American patriots who suffered through unimaginable horrors, the 4th of July would mean something entirely different.