A New Kind of War

What was the American Revolution? The people who joined to carry it out had different views of what they had done. In 1787 Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and ardent patriot, reflected that “the war is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed.” In 1818 Rush’s Massachusetts friend John Adams had another view. “What do we mean by the American Revolution?” he asked. “Do we mean the American war?” And he answered himself, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” Historians have extended the time span in both directions to give the Revolution different meanings. Gordon Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution carried it forward to include the advent of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s. Jon Butler carried it backward as far as 1680, in Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776.

In these assessments, whatever the Revolution was, the war figured in it only incidentally, if at all: the Revolution took place in cultural, political, and social changes that began long before the war and continued long after. Now comes David Hackett Fischer with a book devoted to one campaign in the war as a “pivotal moment” not simply in the war but in American history. Fischer’s moment, he explains, was the product of a “web of contingency,” choices made at different times by different people, culminating in George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on December 26, 1776, and in the battles he fought during the next eight days at Trenton and Princeton. In a fascinating narrative of the moves and countermoves of American, British, and Hessian forces, Fischer persuades us that the war itself was the source of political and social developments that continue to this day. His mastery of the historian’s craft enables him to embody his argument in telling us what happened and who it happened to, taking care not to clog the story with lengthy didac-tic interruptions. He thus resuscitates Washington’s reputation as a field general and at the same time demonstrates his role in establishing an American way of warfare and in fixing the place of the military in the republic that the Revolution created.

Fischer begins with a prologue devoted to the German-American painter Emmanuel Leutze’s commemorative depiction of Washington’s crossing, a huge painting, twelve feet high by twenty feet long, that has long been a target of ridicule. In it Washington stands proudly, right foot on a thwart, Bonaparte-like, in an overcrowded rowboat on the ice-filled Delaware. Surely he is about to tumble in. Actually, as we learn later, although the men manning the oars and paddles (one looks like a woman) seem to be sitting or crouching, most of those who made the crossing that night or any other time in the small river boats had to stand because those boats had no seats, and bilge…

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