Every now and then the fit comes upon me, and I find myself avidly burrowing into American history. My interest most often centers on the Civil War era, but not exclusively. David Hackett Fischer presents our struggle for freedom with an in-depth study of the second half of 1776, when the leadership of George Washington transformed the American army from a beaten rabble into a force to be reckoned with in their own eyes, those of the British, and the other European powers.
In his letters, Washington articulated his central problem – how to mold a collection of very different sorts of men, with radically different ideas of freedom, into a force that could stand against the most powerful army in the world. Shortly after Washington assumed command in New England, a Maine regiment made up of fishermen, with freed slaves among them, got into a brawl with a Virginia regiment that included slave owners. Others rushed into the fray and soon 1000 troops were fighting each other – more than the total number of soldiers who fought at Lexington and Concord.
Washington – who really was “larger than life” – mounted his horse and galloped into the center of the fight. He grabbed two combatants by the neck, and alternately shook them and swore. Everyone else ran away.
In an era when history too often debunks heroes, George Washington emerges as a leader chosen by destiny, as most of his men believed him to be. A Virginia aristocrat, who could have lived a life of leisure, he trained himself in physical endurance and chose a military career as his means of public service. As an aid to General Braddock, during the latter’s defeat in the French and Indian War, Washington had two horses shot from under him, and four musket balls tore through his coat, but he was unscathed. Through the revolution, he inspired his men with courage under fire, and he inspired them in other ways: putting aside his aristocratic background, he created the first army in the world where private soldiers were addressed as, “Gentlemen,” and their grievances were seriously considered.
The British army was was undefeated in battles on five continents. In the summer of 1776, King George committed half his total forces to putting down “the rebellion.” A few thousand American defenders awoke one morning in July to see 500 British transports and warships in New York Harbor. A simple feint drew the Americans to Brooklyn while the British landed 23,000 royal troops and 8,000 Hessians. This was just the first wave. When they moved on Manhattan, with naval cover from the rivers, the only surprise was that most of the American army escaped.
British General Howe swept through New Jersey, pushed Washington’s army across the Delaware, and threatened Philadelphia. Thomas Payne caught the mood of the times in a pamphlet called, The American Crisis, which begins with the famous line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
British forces assumed the collapse of the American “peasants” was immanent – the problem was, they did not behave like defeated soldiers. In early December, Washington sent his forces to collect and hide every boat they could find on the Delaware. Little by little, the story unfolds of all the telling mistakes the British made:
- General Howe spread his forces along every ford of the river, with inland garrisons to support them. In the end, he held numerous strongpoints, but with reduced numbers in each each.
- Howe attempted to reconcile with the population, but his troops in New Jersey undercut those efforts by plundering farms and private homes, and in some towns, with the mass rape of women and girls. These actions swelled the ranks of American insurgents. When British commanders threatened this “third column” with instant execution if they were caught, even more civilians joined. Soon there were groups of as many as 600 insurgents threatening any British troops who ventured out of their garrisons.
- Hessian Colonel Rall, who had only 1500 men at Trenton, repeatedly asked for reinforcements, but his requests were denied by a British general who refused to believe the Americans posed a credible threat.
- Rall’s superior, Carl Von Donop, was stationed six miles away to reinforce Rall in case of trouble, but shortly before Washington’s crossing, Von Donop marched to Mt. Holly to put down a militia attack. While he was there, Von Donop met an attractive “physician’s widow” and sequestered himself on Dec, 24, 25, and 26. The man ordered to reinforce Trenton was “occupied” when the Americans crossed the Delaware. The identity of this colonial Mata Hari, if that is what she was, has never been discovered – no local physicians had died in Mt. Holly. Some speculate that it could have been Betsy Ross: her husband had recently died in Philadelphia, she had family in Mt. Holly, and her brother-in-law was a doctor. There is no historical proof, but after the war, more than one British officer wrote that the colonies were lost because Von Donop could not “keep his passions in check.”
- The Hessians in Trenton were not drunk when Washinton attacked, as the popular story goes, but they were exhausted after a week of constant alarms from militia attacks that kept them on sentry duty at night in the freezing weather, and under orders to sleep in battle garb when they did get a chance to rest.