David Hackett Fischer's Fresh View of GW

Historians in the News

David Mehegan, in the Boston Globe (Feb. 16, 2004):

In his sunny living room, which is fortified with walls of books, Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer is holding forth on the hero of his new book,"Washington's Crossing," declaiming aloud in a clear voice, almost as if he were in class.

"For me," he says,"George Washington was not primarily a Napoleonic figure or nation builder but a leader who finds a way of making a complex and open society work. I think he was a model for us in developing that style of leadership, and he brings to it all a strong sense of values."

It's not the Father of Our Country Fischer is talking about, the bland and fleshy face on the dollar bill, but the 42-year-old master horseman who led a tough, small army across the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 and defeated a British-hired German army (the Hessians) at Trenton, N.J. It's the Washington who, a few days later, sneaked behind the British army, defeated its reserve force in Princeton, then escaped, pulling the American Revolution back from the brink of collapse.

Fischer is not in a classroom, of course, although in range and productivity he might be in a class by himself. As with his best-selling"Paul Revere's Ride" in 1994, he has taken an event we thought we have understood since grade school, researched it from scratch, and rewritten it as much for lay readers as for historians. He has challenged old assumptions and made new observations, while putting human decision in the driver's seat. The book finds:

* The Hessian soldiers defeated at Trenton were not the drunken buffoons of legend but part of a tough and well-trained army, among the best in the world.

* Two-thirds of Washington's army was made up of New Englanders, including a hardy crew of farmers and fishermen (some of them African-Americans) from Salem and Marblehead.

* Washington did not just retire to winter quarters after the battle, but continued to encourage and support a three-month campaign that beat up Charles Cornwallis's British and Hessian forces and effectively ended England's hopes of reconquering North America.

* Despite the low grades historians have given him as a general, Washington was in fact a great commander in this campaign, not only in tactics, but in inventing a way to lead an army of free men.

As in"Paul Revere's Ride," Fischer focuses on narrative details: the flat-bottomed boats used by the crossing army, the ice in the river, the white strips of paper in officers' hats for soldiers to follow in the dark, the soldiers brushing against Washington's legs as he sat horseback at the end of a bridge encouraging a retreating rear guard, his equestrian feat in regaining control of his horse when its hind legs began to slip on a steep bank.

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