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My Rating:
5.0 rating

WashingtonsCrossing

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In Washington’ Crossing, David Hackett Fischer has given us a fresh view of the events, motivations and consequences surrounding the New Jersey Campaign of 1776, pitting the British and Hessian army under General William Howe against the Continental Army and attached militia under General George Washington. Extremely well written and extensively documented, using numerous primary and secondary sources as well as many very helpful maps, Fischer has produced a book that, in my opinion, will be definitive on this subject for many, many years. Not only has he given us an extremely detailed and lucid account of the military maneuvers encompassed by this campaign, but he has also elucidated a cogent framework for understanding the motivations of the two armies, the leadership styles of the commanders on each side, particularly Howe and Washington, and the effect of this campaign on the future success of the American army. In addition, and most importantly for the accurate representation of historical events, Fischer has challenged many of the long held beliefs we have about certain aspects of this campaign and its participants.

The driving narrative of this work is the detailed description of the New Jersey Campaign of 1776. Contained in it are numerous corrections of long held beliefs about the campaign and its participants. Fischer begins with a description of the participating armies and their motivations, devoting one chapter each to the Americans, British regulars, and Hessians. Over the years stereotypical notions about the motivations of the British and Hessians have taken root. Our need for a villain in every story has led us to demonize not only the British and Hessian armies , which are thought of alternatively as a tool of a tyrannical dictator, and a brutish mercenary army, but also men such as Charles Cornwallis, William and Richard Howe, and Johann Rall. As Fischer makes clear, though flawed in many ways, these men were honorable and were trying to do their best to serve their countries. In many cases, particularly with the Howes and Cornwallis, British leaders sympathized with the Americans and were working not to defeat them utterly, but to bring them back to their loyalty to the crown.

It has become fashionable to denigrate the motivation of those fighting for American independence. For many, it is a trite cliché to say they were fighting for freedom and liberty, yet as Fischer shows, along with other factors, these notions were the primary motivator for most Americans. Fischer does an excellent job of not only describing the structure of each army, but also in taking an objective look at each of the participants, highlighting the positive and negative attributes of each.

As Fischer describes it, the British Army was not only “one of the finest ever seen,” but was also an army full of paradoxes.(Fischer, 33) As an institution and as its “regimental badges and colors proclaimed, it served the King. (Fischer, 33) Yet, it was actually a creation of Parliament, subject to re-authorization every twelve months. As occurred later in the United States, the British people were very proud of the accomplishments of their military, yet were distrustful of a standing army and “kept it on a short leash.” (Fischer, 33) In organizational terms, it was both bureaucratized and decentralized, more like an army of separate tribes, with their own rules and customs. Most importantly however according to Fischer, is the mistaken notion that the British army was simply the bludgeon by which King George III intended to defeat America. In reality, for the British army, like their American counterparts, the war “was a clash of principles in which they deeply believed.” (Fischer, 50) Primary among those beliefs was loyalty to the British monarchy. As Fischer points out British soldiers swore a personal oath “to be true to our Sovereign Lord King George.” (Fischer, 50) For these soldiers, this loyalty and the rituals that celebrated it represented Ideals of loyalty, fidelity, honor, duty, discipline, and service…” (Fischer, 50)

The motivation for the Hessian armies in America, though different from those of the British and Americans, was nevertheless quite different than the simpleminded pursuit if money that is ascribed to them by most people. While the army was paid handsomely for their services in America, this was not their prime motivation for agreeing to serve. In reality, the Hessian army was created as part of an enlightened culture that prized “reason and order, fidelity and loyalty, discipline and regularity.” (Fischer, 54) Friedrich Wilhelm II viewed his Hessian army as a school of discipline, and encouraged all able-bodied men to join, even those of aristocratic families. The result was the largest army in proportion to population in the world. And, while the average Hessian underwent far stricter discipline than their British and American counterparts, their motivation, according to Fischer were the values of “order and discipline…service and honor.” (Fischer, 61)

As noted above, it has become almost cliché to say that those fighting for American independence were doing so for freedom and liberty. It has become fashionable to ascribe motivations of greed and selfishness as the primary motivation for these soldiers. As Fischer makes very clear, this is simply not the case. He has marshaled an impressive array of primary evidence that clearly indicates that Americans were primarily fighting for their notions of freedom and liberty, first to regain their rights as Englishman, and later to gain their independence from Britain altogether. Fischer does not discount other inducements. For the soldiers from Marblehead, Massachusetts, for example, profit was most definitely on their mind in their desire to return home and join the privateers plundering British shipping. And, clearly, the depredations committed  by many British and Hessian soldiers during the New Jersey campaign motivated thousands of men to join the militia. In addition to making a persuasive case that these notions of freedom and liberty were the driving motivations for most American soldiers, Fischer does an excellent job of describing how men  from different parts of the country viewed those notions, and then tying that to a description of how George Washington was able to adapt to this and create an American way of fighting.

Notions of freedom and liberty in 1776, for which most Americans fought, was understood differently based largely on where one resided. From “the collective rights of New England, [to] the reciprocal rights of Philadelphia Associators, the individual rights of back country riflemen, and the hegemonic rights of the Fairfax men,” all viewed freedom as their primary motivator. (Fischer, 364)  As Fischer ably demonstrates, George Washington, largely as a result of his experiences in the French and Indian War, was able to accommodate these different views and in so doing create an American way of “war-fighting,” characterized by the notion that all the American army had to do was to survive, by a willingness to take chances with success, with a prudence in risking the lives of the soldiers, a reliance on religion as a motivating factor, and most unique of all, a concern for popular opinion. It is this last, Fischer argues, which characterizes an army subservient to civilian authority.

At the center of this new way of fighting was George Washington. It was his ability to accommodate himself to its realities that made this new way successful in the end. This is evidenced by the way in which he took advantage of the New Jersey militia following the victory at Princeton; by submerging his moral distaste for the lack of discipline among the militia and allowing them to engage in the type of guerrilla war that brought success.This Forage War caused almost as many enemy casualties as did the New York and New Jersey campaigns combined. It was also evidenced, according to Fischer, by the style in which Washington conducted his councils of war. In contrast to Cornwallis’ which were characterized by extreme deference and a pre-ordained outcome dictated by Cornwallis himself, Washington’s reflected a “diversity of cultures…the pluralism of elites…a more open polity…a less stratified society, and especially by expanding ideas of liberty and freedom.” (Fischer, 315) In his councils, Washington encouraged a free exchange of ideas, listened more than he talked, and took freely from the ideas of others. The result was an enthusiastic consensus for the course of action, of which the decision to attack Princeton in an excellent example, and more importantly, a growing respect and admiration among the officers for George Washington as their leader.

delaware

Emmanuel Leutze’s iconic painting depicting Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River.

The heart of Fischer’s book of course is the detailed narrative of the New Jersey campaign itself. It is often very easy to get lost in the description of battles and maneuvers, especially if one does not have a military background. However, Fischer was able to describe the campaign in a very detailed way that did not leave me totally confused. Important here were some very well placed battle maps which aided in the comprehension of the detailed narrative. In addition, Fischer was able to dispel some well established misconceptions about this campaign, and to illuminate some aspects of it that were overlooked. Most importantly as I described above, are the myths surrounding the motivations of the different participants. However, events such as the Second Battle of Trenton and the Forage War, almost universally ignored in other works, are described in detail here. The myth persists that the Hessians were nursing hangovers when Washington attacked. Fischer clearly demonstrates that this is not true, and in so doing elevates what the Americans accomplished, as well as dispelling the notion that the Hessians were incompetent. He also shows that the Americans did not lack ammunition, and in fact, were better armed in many ways than the Hessians. He also takes issue with those who mock the notion that Washington would be standing in the Durham boat as they crossed the Delaware River as depicted in Emmanuel Leutze’s painting, noting that had he been seated, it would have been in a puddle of frozen water. Finally, is the notion that Washington was more lucky than gifted. As Fischer makes clear, Washington learned from his mistakes in the New York campaign, and clearly out generaled his opposition.

He concludes his book with an excellent summary, along with a description of the importance of this campaign. Disputing the notion that these were symbolic victories, Fischer notes that the New Jersey campaign inflicted severe damage on the British and Hessian armies. It was also of course a shot in the arm for the American cause. As the result of these victories, Washington was able to force the British from New Jersey, cause British leaders to look to the defensive, and most importantly, it allowed Washington to recruit enough men to carry on the fight, It also instilled in the American public a new confidence in heir army and its leaders, particularly Washington, and it gave the army new confidence in themselves.

Fischer also includes an excellent section describing the humanity in which American leaders fought. It was not enough to win, but it was necessary to win “in a way that was consistent with the values of their society.” (Fischer, 375) In contrast to the attitudes of many British and Hessian leaders, this meant quarter would be granted to all who surrendered, and that prisoners would be treated humanely. While there were those who did not agree, Washington set the standard.

There is little to fault in this book. It is extremely well sourced, clearly written, and makes very persuasive, almost unassailable arguments. Fischer includes an exhaustive appendix that includes many details not found in the main narrative, and the index is one of the best I have seen.

Very highly recommended.

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AnimalFarm

Future Review

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Watership

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Revere

David Hackett Fischer is one of my favorite authors, and he does not disappoint here.

Most people know about Paul Revere and the events surrounding the British attack on Lexington and Concord through the famous Longfellow poem. Fischer takes you into those events with Revere as the central figure.

With a riveting writing style Fischer does what very few can do…make a book on American history a real page turner…

An excellent look at a Revolutionary more famous later than at the time, but who nevertheless provides a good representation of the sort of “yeoman revolutionaries” that victory would ultimately depend on.

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Moreau

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Market

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ValleyForge

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LostMoon

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moonon

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Frankenstein

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Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

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On Deck: Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

In the Bullpen: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

Last Read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


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