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How Washington Saved America Christmas Night

A report on a talk by author David Fischer

By Nancy Spannaus

Dec. 24, 2022–“Victory or Death” was the password General George Washington chose for the Continental Army’s operation to cross the Delaware River and seize the Hessian headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night 1776. How he accomplished that crucial victory, and the impact it had on the war, was the subject of an hour-long talk and discussion by David Hackett Fischer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the 2004 book Washington’s Crossing, on Dec. 21. The talk, entitled “Victory or Death: How Washington Saved America on Christmas Night,” was sponsored by the U.S. Capital Historical Society. (The video can be accessed here.)

How Washington Saved America Christmas Night
Emanuel Leutze’s painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, December 25, 1775

Rather than give a blow-by-blow discussion of the events of that Christmas night, Dr. Fischer choose to emphasize the leadership qualities which Washington brought to bear in order to overcome the “epic disaster” which the Americans had suffered in New York City just a few months before. In so doing, he sought to convey his understanding of the immense complexity and diversity of the people whom the General had to bring together to form a winning army, and eventually a nation.

In all my books, I attempt to broaden the base for a free and open society in America, by learning more about its history, Fischer said. This sense of identity (which, I would say, is aptly summarized in our nation motto “E Pluribus Unum”) is crucial not only for today, but for generations to come, he added.

Not an Isolated Event

Washington’s daring crossing of the Delaware has to be seen as part of a campaign of many months rather than an isolated event, Dr. Fischer stressed. Starting with the fall of New York in the summer of 1776, Washington’s Army had been on the constant retreat, and the political consequences were just as serious as the military ones. Morale was dangerously low, enlistments were expiring, and there had been no indication that the French were about to enter the war on the American side. In early December 1776, Washington had concluded that, in Fischer’s words, the game was pretty much up.

There was a mood of desperation in the American camp.

The General concluded that the only solution was to win a victory – actually a series of victories – which would show that the Americans could prevail. The obstacles were daunting.  He was facing a highly professional Army, of both the Hessians and the British, and was greatly outnumbered. His own forces were learning on the job. He also had the problem of disunity among the states, which was reflected in the ranks of his dwindling army.

How Washington Saved America Christmas Night
A depiction of the first Battle of Trenton by Charles McBarron

Thus, Washington called a Council of War and put the situation before his generals (and others). Having been informed by patriot sympathizers in New Jersey of a possible opportunity for success at the Hessian encampment in Trenton, the general laid this on the table. Once the decision was made to go ahead, the implementation faced one “disaster” after another: assembling the necessary boats, crossing the river in the middle of a Nor’easter, getting to the encampment by surprise, coordinating three crossings (ultimately, only one made it).  But the men (including Alexander Hamilton) performed heroically, and victory was achieved. Nine hundred Hessian soldiers and officers were taken prisoner.

Yet Washington knew that, despite the moralizing effect of this battle, it was not enough to turn the tide. As the British mobilized for a counter-attack, Washington (who had crossed back into Pennsylvania with his prisoners) decided to confront them again. The American army, now greatly enhanced in numbers by New Jersey militia, went back across the Delaware, and took up positions at Assunpink Creek, where, aided by their holding the high ground, they defeated the assaulting British force on Jan. 2.

In a Council of War held immediately after that success, however, Washington proposed to follow up with another assault. While leaving their campfires burning, the Continental Army slipped away and marched by night to the town of Princeton, where on January 3, they once again defeated the British.

It was the combination of all three victories, Fischer emphasized, which was decisive. A mood of optimism was revived in the Congress and the population, and the prospects for vital French official support improved.

The Question of Leadership

During both his talk and his answers to questions, Dr. Fischer repeatedly turned to the matter of Washington’s leadership.  What was it that allowed him to achieve this reversal of fortunes?

General Washington, from a painting by Rembrandt Peale

First, there was Washington’s commitment to what the patriots called the “Cause,” their determination to govern themselves rather than submit to British rule. The General didn’t convey this commitment so much by talking, but by example, including often taking the field himself.

This commitment was also shown in Washington’s ability to learn from his many epic disasters and military defeats. As the Washington Crossing motto indicated, he intended to have victory, or death.

When asked about the story that Washington inspired his troops by having them read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (published Jan. 11, 1776), Fischer said there was some truth to that. There were many writers besides Paine pamphleteering for the patriot cause, and Washington was encouraging of them.

Second, there was his leadership style. Fischer repeatedly stressed that Washington “commanded by listening.” He would call together Councils of his generals, and even open those meetings to civilians, to deliberate on what should be done. He would set an agenda, but then encourage an open flow of ideas between the often widely disparate views of his leadership circle.

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge (wikimedia commons)

This method, which Fischer called the “open system of command,” was especially suited to the diversity of backgrounds of his generals. How was he to coordinate between New Englanders who were accustomed to self-government and saw the war virtually as a religious cause, and the Virginians, who were used to top-down command?  He could not be heavy-handed, but had to lead by “moral hegemony.” The decisions made had to be broad-based, not imposed from above.

The Painting

Among the many questions asked of Dr. Fischer was one about the famous painting of The Crossing, executed by German-American Emanuel Leutze in 1851. How accurate was this, someone asked.

Rather than address what critics call the obvious inaccuracies of Leutze’s depiction (that the crossing occurred at night, for example, rather than the day), Fischer stressed the aspects that conveyed certain important truths.  For one thing, Leutze depicted the wide diversity of the soldiers involved – different national costumes, an African American, even (he thought) a woman! This was an accurate reflection of the Continental fighting force. Secondly, Leutze accurately showed the treacherous icy condition of the river. And third, perhaps most importantly, he presented a picture of absolute determination with the figure of Washington.

The Role of History

Throughout the hour-long discussion, Dr. Fischer repeatedly returned to the question of historical method and the purpose of studying history.

The word “history,” he said, comes from the Greek, and it originally meant “inquiry,” not some body of knowledge. It is that process of inquiry which he has used and hopes to provoke in writing his many books.

First, he said, you have to go to the sites of the events you are talking about, walk the ground, cross the river, etc. Next, you have to collect first-hand accounts of the events. And third, you have to identify the choices which the protagonists had to make.

In the case of Washington’s crossing, Fischer said, there were hundreds of first-hand accounts.  These came not only from the Americans; just as many came from the British and the Germans.  As many of these as possible had to be tracked down and read in order for him to produce the book.

From these, you had to identify the choices that determined the outcome. Usually, they were a series of seemingly small decisions, not one huge turning point.

How Washington Saved America Christmas Night
American Revolutionary soldiers came from widely diverse backgrounds, as can be seen in this depiction of the battle of Guilford Courthouse.

Dr. Fischer described his own application of this method in his books that followed Washington’s Crossing, which have dealt with the contributions of African Americans, British, and French immigrants who created the United States. In each case, he spent months in the lands of origin, talking with the people and seeking their points of view. Somewhat unusually, he hopes to continue this work by delving into the Italian contribution, especially from the period of the Italian Renaissance.

What this approach reminded me of was the Electric Cord speech of Abraham Lincoln, which was given on July 10, 1858. In that oration, which was devoted to countering Senator Stephen Douglas’s views on slavery, Lincoln too emphasized the diversity of the American population in his day. Rather than deplore it, he identified the basis for unifying that diverse group of people in the first founding document, the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln said:

We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none.

They cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.[1] (emphasis added)

Another way of locating Dr. Fischer’s approach, I believe, is in the motto which appears on the Great Seal of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum.” That Latin phrase means “from many, one,” and it was proposed as the national motto by a committee of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson in August of 1776.  It was not adopted, however, until 1782.

How Washington Saved America Christmas Night

Thus, long before we had a constitution calling for “a more perfect Union,” we had a motto recognizing our “plurality” (diversity), and urging unity around the ideas, already adopted, of the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Fischer has admirably chosen to emphasize this process in his histories, in hopes of advancing our much-needed unity in diversity today.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street, The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.

[1] I have taken the liberty of slightly editing this with new paragraphs. I would also add that in the context of this speech, as well as his famous debates and others, Lincoln included African Americans among those deserving the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”