Crossing the Delaware

It was not my conscious plan to spend the President’s Day month of February reading books that focused on Abe Lincoln and George Washington; it just worked out that way, because both books were readily available. I guess that’s why Amazon and/or the publishers put them on special. (Sadly, both specials have since expired.)

The first book I read was The Siege of Washington : The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union, by John and Charles Lockwood, which I’ve already blogged about. It’s a terrific tale of the days immediately following the fall of Fort Sumter, when Lincoln and Gen. Winfield Scott braced for an immediate Confederate attack of Washington — an attack that, had it taken place, might have changed the course of history.

I moved on from that to Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is about George Washington’s attack on Hessian forces in Trenton, N.J., in December 1776, as depicted in the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze.

Somewhat surprisingly, Fischer begins with an impassioned defense of the painting, derided in modern times for its supposed inaccuracies, among them the fact that Washington is standing up. Fischer notes the remarkable symbolism contained within the painting, and later points out that, given the types of boats being used, and the weather conditions, many of those crossing the Delaware that night would have been standing up in their boats. By the way, “night” is correct; the time of day is, in fact, one thing the painting gets wrong.

Fischer’s book is meticulously researched, with appendixes, footnotes and annotations nearly as long as the main body of the text. But it’s readable and inspiring. He notes how the American Revolution’s egalitarian spirit found its way into George Washington’s leadership style, and how that played a role in Washington’s success. At the same time, he is also quick to praise examples of integrity, courage and compassion among the British and the Hessians. Contrary to what you may have heard in history class, the Hessians were not, repeat not, drunk or hung over from Christmas merriment when Washington’s forces attacked Trenton.

Reading this book makes me want to re-watch “The Crossing,” an excellent TV movie starring Jeff Daniels as Washington. It was produced for A&E and pops up occasionally on the History channel. But I also now know that a few things in the movie were inaccurate; while Alexander Hamilton played a key role in the New Jersey campaign, Fischer doesn’t indicate that he was Washington’s right hand, as portrayed in the movie. (IMDb also lists this as a factual error.) But it’s still a terrific movie, and well worth watching.

Anyway, “Washington’s Crossing” is a wonderful book, and I can heartily recommend it. But my next non-fiction book won’t be American History; I’ll wait and tell you about it once I start reading it.