Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Book Review: "Washington's Crossing"

David Hackett Fischer's 2004 book Washington's Crossing (out this year in paperback from Oxford University Press) is a fascinating look at the events of the last months of 1776 and the beginning of 1777. The narrative style of Crossing is very similar to David McCullough's 1776 (which I reviewed here), although Fischer handles the military details with slightly more dexterity than McCullough was able to muster.

Fischer begins (and ends) the book by suggesting that he's going to discuss the role of contingency in history, but the thread gets lost in the mud, ice and snow of the the New Jersey winter through most of the text. Instead, Crossing provides some fabulous insights into areas American historians generally don't handle particularly well - the military culture of the British and Hessian troops, as well as the psychologies and political backgrounds of their commanding officers. These discussions are some of the strongest in the book, much stronger than Fischer's handling of the American side.

Strategically-placed images do an excellent job of enhancing the text, as do the hundred-plus pages of appendices. I was particularly taken with Fischer's long "Historiography" section at the rear of the book, where he concisely summarizes the various interpretations of the significance of Washington's attack on Trenton through several generations of historical thought. Of course I must briefly grouse about the relegation of footnotes to the back of the book, a publishing practice which is positively obnoxious but apparently a losing battle (it's a pain in the neck to keep flipping back and forth if you want to read a footnote).

Like McCullough, Fischer believes we can learn lessons for today from the actions of the Revolutionaries; I think that's true, but we must always be careful to recognize not only the inconsistencies of the past, but the inconsistencies of the present time as well. I agree wholeheartedly with Fischer's conclusion ("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") with the little caveat that one must not pick and choose one's history. Those fighting at Trenton and meeting at Philadelphia were human beings just like we are, and to ignore their faults is just as dangerous as ignoring our own.

Fischer has written a work that is almost sure to become the classic discussion of Trenton and its influence on the American Revolution, even if I would quibble with his characterization of it as the turning point of the war (Saratoga retains its preemenince in that regard for me even after reading Fischer's case). It is certainly worth reading, and I recommend it without reservation.


At 10:26 PM, Blogger fmodo said...

I am a fan of Fischer; since you liked Washington I suggest you check out Albion's Seed. I did a series of posts on it at my own blog, summarizing the book and drawing some cultural and political conclusions from it. I think that it has a great deal of explanatory power.


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