Washington’s Crossing: The Pivotal Moment of the American Revolution

In the book Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, he tells of the pivotal moment in the American Revolution that occurred at Christmas 1776.   Most Americans when they look back on the year 1776 think of it with patriotic pride and a sense of optimism, but Americans at that time saw 1776 as a year of despair, when the fate of the Revolution seemed dark.

This was because earlier that year, the British had routed George Washington and his army from New York, and he was driven across the Delaware river after losing 90 percent of his army.   However, Washington did not let the revolution die, but struck on Christmas night during a winter storm by leading his men across the Delaware and attacking the exhausted garrison of Hessian mercenary troops at Trenton.

He continued the momentum of this surprise assault by rushing the men in the cover of darkness up a side road behind the enemy and striking at Princeton, where he defeated a British brigade.   This caused a loss of morale on the British side which, in a telling analogy by the author, he likened to the loss of morale which occurred on the American side in the Vietnam war due to the Tet offensive in January 1968.

The turnaround in American fortunes came by a series of circumstances, only some of which were due to the military successes outlined above.    Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense reached the American public in a way that we can only imagine by analogy to a video that goes viral on the Internet.    His work explained in simple but elegant language that the Revolution was going to require tremendous sacrifices, but that those sacrifices were worth it because of the value of freedom and liberty.

As a counterpoint to this emphasis on the value of freedom and liberty, the English occupying army in New Jersey increased oppression of the Americans by foraging runs in the countryside that would turn to full-scale looting.   Those Americans who had been neutral in the fight were now starting to side with the rebels, and the Loyalists were having a harder time defending rule by the English.

American militia took to harassing the British and Hessian troops on their foraging runs, and this guerrilla warfare gave training and confidence to the troops who had been previously been demoralized by the experience in New York just a few months earlier.

By the time of the Christmas attacks on Trenton and Princeton, American troops were ready to turn the tables on the British and have them fight a defensive war for a change.

The result of those battles was, as mentioned above, a pivotal moment of the American Revolution, where both soldiers and civilians on the American side could start to see a possible victory, whereas the British soldiers and citizenry back in Britain were, on the other hand, starting to lose their nerve.

But other trends emerged as a result as well that reinforced Washington’s military strategy.

1.  Public Attitude

The attitudes of the American public were predicated on military actions that produced positive results.   The free press in America was not going to be tolerant of generals who failed to get results.   Washington had a keen eye on public opinion regarding the war and was aware of the expectation for decisive victories.

2.  Cost of Operations

Because of the value that Americans placed on the lives of individuals, George Washington and his officers designed operations to minimize casualties on their side.   Plans that vetoed that would run the risk of creating too many losses.

3.  Fixed Strategy, Flexible Tactics

Although Washington’s strategic purposes were constant, to preserve the army and win independence, the initial supply problems and other difficulties he faced earlier in 1776 forced him to be pragmatic, and he learned how to quickly modify his plans when circumstances changed, both for the worse and for the better.    When the militias started harassing British troops in the “Forage War” in the New Jersey countryside, this was not  initiated by Washington but sprung up independently by militias guided by American farmers who were sympathetic to their cause and who knew the territory well.    Washington then capitalized on these efforts and lent assistance to them when needed, always trying to produce large gains with small costs.

4.  Initiative and Tempo

The defeats around New York taught Washington that the leaders needed to seize initiative and then hold it.   He was able to do this because Washington was exceedingly conscious of using time as a weapon by controlling the tempo and rhythm of a campaign.   He tried to attack at night, when the British were less prepared, or at the first light of dawn when their troops were still asleep, as happened in the attack on Trenton.    But when the attack was successful, he had the baggage move down the road along the river, so as not to be encumbered by it when he sped his army towards Princeton.    American troops always moved more rapidly than their opponents, and this gave them advantage.

5.  The Policy of Humanity

John Adams set the tone by stating the guiding humanitarian principles of the American Republic would always support the policy of humanity towards the enemy.   This meant that wounded British and Hessian soldiers were not summarily killed, but “given quarter” and taken prisoner under humane conditions.  As the war went on, attitudes of British leaders and soldiers hardened and no quarter was given to American wounded.    This helped win the hearts and minds of those who had been on the fence of the war, particularly in contrast to the humanitarian position taken by the Americans.

In fact, the Hessian troops were so amazed at the humane treatment that they had received, especially when they had certainly not reciprocated, that one quarter of them ended up staying in America after the revolution, and many of those who returned back to Prussia then brought their families and emigrated to America.    In my mind, this is the crowning achievement of the American Revolution, that it changed the face of warfare while not forgetting the welfare of both the citizens and the combatants on both sides.

As David Fischer Hackett put it in the concluding passage of his book, “The story of Washington’s Crossing tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit–and so are we.”


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