Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia.
Yet, as David Hackett Fischer recounts in this riveting history, George Washingtonand many other Americansrefused to let the Revolution die. On Christmas night, as a howling nor'easter struck the Delaware Valley, he led his men across the river and attacked the exhausted Hessian garrison at Trenton, killing or capturing nearly a thousand men. A second battle of Trenton followed within days. The Americans held off a counterattack by Lord Cornwallis's best troops, then were almost trapped by the British force. Under cover of night, Washington's men stole behind the enemy and struck them again, defeating a brigade at Princeton. The British were badly shaken. In twelve weeks of winter fighting, their army suffered severe damage, their hold on New Jersey was broken, and their strategy was ruined.
Fischer's richly textured narrative reveals the crucial role of contingency in these events. We see how the campaign unfolded in a sequence of difficult choices by many actors, from generals to civilians, on both sides. While British and German forces remained rigid and hierarchical, Americans evolved an open and flexible system that was fundamental to their success. The startling success of Washington and his compatriots not only saved the faltering American Revolution, but helped to give it new meaning.
On December 22, 1776, Washington’s adjutant wrote him that their affairs “were hasting fast to ruin.” Two weeks later, after a harrowing nighttime crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River, Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton so shocked the British that the price of government securities fell. Fischer’s thoughtful account describes how Washington, in a frantic, desperate month, turned his collection of troops into a professional force, not by emulating the Europeans but by coming up with a model that was distinctly American. The army Washington fielded had innovative artillery, moved with startling speed, and even, in one of the first recorded instances, synchronized its watches. Trenton convinced many Britons that they were caught in a quagmire, and Americans that they could win. “A few days ago they had given up the cause for lost,” a British businessman wrote. “Now they are all liberty mad again.”