Over the last couple of weeks, I gave you all a reading assignment. I trust all of you completed it?
Wow, I never knew crickets could chirp so loudly!
Anyhow… if you have not already purchased it, I highly encourage you to get a copy of Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.
Chaney received her “summer reading list” from West Point and this was the book all incoming cadets were encouraged to read. Naturally, wanting to live vicariously through her, I purchased it myself. It was one of my better moves.
The book itself is absolutely outstanding. (Yeah… it did win the Pulitzer Prize in History, and by page two you instantly see why.) Fischer writes the book as a story, which is exactly the way a history book should be written.
More specifically, he uses Washington’s Battle of Trenton as an anchor point to show a much bigger picture. Through artful prose, he shows how Washington’s stewardship of the Continental Army led to the development of modern military theory and management.
The foreword to the book is also uniquely interesting, and completely unrelated to the subject matter of the book itself. Fisher’s self-authored foreword titled, “The Painting,” talks about the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware at the first Battle of Trenton. The depth of analysis, as well as the history of the painting itself is, quite frankly, worth the price of admission itself. DON’T skip the foreword… trust me.
What really struck me about the book, apart from the in-depth analysis of the battles themselves, were two separate things: 1) The multiple definitions that existed within the minds of the colonials of what “liberty” meant… both by station in life, as well as geography… and 2) The dichotomy of leadership styles between Cornwallis and Washington at the second Battle of Trenton and, ultimately, through the conclusion of the war.
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Washington was a passionate defender of freedom and liberty but, in using those two words, the meanings varied. To Washington, “liberty” was directly connected to one’s station in life. To landed aristocracy of Virginia, “liberty” was a direct and personal thing. To be free, or to exist in a state of liberty, was to have complete control of one’s self. Self-discipline and freedom from temptation or distraction were the hallmarks of a free man. Freedom was to be interpreted as being in command of oneself. Freedom also existed on a sliding scale. To men like Washington, freedom was a goal to be worked towards. To slaves owned by Washington, freedom was a burden with which they need not concern themselves.
Contrast this with the ideals of freedom in New England. Their “freedom” was more egalitarian. Freedom was, by necessity, something to be extended to all men, but it was freedom from oppressive government (or, perhaps, better interpreted to be freedom from a remote and distant government).
Then there were the frontiersmen. These men of the west saw freedom in its most expansive sense. Freedom meant to them what many of us think of freedom today: freedom to be completely independent from the regulations of others.
Washington needed to corral all of these disparate ideas into a single motivating principle, and through that idea inspire an army capable of engaging the most advanced imperial military force on earth.
To do this, Washington needed to use a system of management that was completely contradictory to established military management at the time.
This was most apparent at the second Battle of Trenton.
With the British army amassed on one side of the Delaware and the Americans occupying Trenton, both Washington and Cornwallis called for a council of war with their respective commanders.
Cornwallis knew what he wanted to do with the Americans, and instructed his commanders that in the morning he would march his troops into Trenton and decimate the Continental Army. His commanders knew challenging Cornwallis would be a catastrophic personal mistake, not that they were particularly “afraid” of Cornwallis; it’s just that, in the British military, dissent was not tolerated. As such, at the conclusion of their council of war, Cornwallis had instructed his commanders what needed to be done in the morning and went off to bed.
Washington’s council of war was far different. Washington presented a problem to his commanders, and asked them to provide a solution. A debate began to ensue about how they would prevent the coming assault of British troops. Soon, voices began articulating a counter strategy. Abandon Trenton and, since the British had moved the bulk of their army from their barracks at Princeton, move the Continental Army under the cover of darkness to Princeton and attack the college in the morning. Soon this plan drew a consensus and Washington ordered it put into action.
Through the free flow of ideas, the Continental Army, facing destruction, discovered an opportunity that provided a second decisive military victory for the Continental Army and began the process of getting support from European powers who were on the sidelines waiting to see if the Continentals could “prove” themselves.
This is such an outstanding book. I really do encourage you to read it. Through Fischer’s written words, you are transported to the fields of the Revolution. An experience, itself, that is worth it.