Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford, 564 pp., $35)
Fifteen years ago, David Hackett Fischer published an extraordinarily illuminating book called Albion’s Seed, which traced the influence of a number of British “folkways” in America. One of these folkways was of great importance in the settlement of Virginia: Among its early settlers were many distressed Cavaliers, fugitives from the rule of the Long Parliament and Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s and ’50s. Not exactly “folk,” they sprang from the prosperous gentry of the south and west of England, and the lower Midlands. This region remained loyal to King John in 1215 and was the last stronghold of the royalists in 1643; many of its constituencies voted Tory in Gladstone’s liberal landslide of 1880. It is the country in which Jane Austen’s novels are set, the country of Trollope’s Barsetshire and Hardy’s Wessex. Feudal traditions of deference remained stronger here than in much of the rest of England, as did other vestiges of aristocracy. (The southern and western shires contained the largest proportion of deer parks in the kingdom.) From this country came the “topping” families of old Virginia, families like the Lees (Shropshire), the Berkeleys (Gloucestershire and Somerset), and the Randolphs and the Washingtons (Northamptonshire).
Very different was the folkway that took root in New England. Many of the early settlers of Massachusetts came from the east of England. Unlike the west country, the eastern counties had a large population of small freeholders. These eastern freemen were jealous of authority and disposed to challenge established power: Jack Straw rose up in Suffolk, Robert Kett in Norfolk. The Peasants’ Revolt of the 14th century was fiercest in the east of England; and two centuries later the easterners zealously embraced the Reformation. If the western shires were strongly attached to the Church of England, the eastern counties were the school of the Puritans, and from them came the leaders of primitive Massachusetts. John Winthrop’s manor was in Suffolk; the Hutchinsons, Storys, Marburys, and Quincys came from the country near the Wash.
Fischer has now written another important book, Washington’s Crossing. In it he asks how the products of the antagonistic regional cultures he traced in Albion’s Seed overcame their differences to defeat the mightiest war machine of the 18th century, the British Army. How did Virginians and Massachusetts men–so unlike each other in customs, education, and traditions–come to fight, not as Southerners and New Englanders, not as Cavaliers and Roundheads, but as Americans? Part of the answer to this question, Fischer suggests, lies in the choices made by the commander-in-chief of the American forces, George Washington.
In the summer of 1776 a vast armada sailed into New York Harbor. More than 100 full-rigged ships carried 23,000 British regulars and 10,000 German soldiers. At the time, Fischer writes, “it was the largest projection of seaborne power ever attempted by a European state.” On August 22 warships opened fire on what is now Brooklyn and 15,000 troops came ashore. What followed during the next four months was, Fischer writes, “a cataract of disaster” for the Americans. First Long Island fell, then Manhattan. Soon much of New Jersey and Rhode Island was also in British hands. The conquerors “in a most insulting manner sounded their bugle horns as is usual after a fox chase.” Washington himself appeared shaken and bewildered.
Washington’s Crossing tells the story of how Washington, to use his own words, “turned the Tables” on his British adversaries, created a new kind of American fighting force, and retrieved his country’s fortunes. Washington was himself a product of Virginia and “very conscious,” Fischer writes, “of social rank.” He urged his steward at Mount Vernon to keep social inferiors “at a proper distance,” otherwise “they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you sink in authority.” Washington might not have been such a stickler for discipline as Lt. Col. Martinet, the French drillmaster; but he was disgusted by the laxity of the New England soldiers. “They are an exceeding dirty and nasty people,” he wrote, and he deplored their “levelling spirit.”
This changed. Washington learned to work with the quick-witted Yankees. Col. Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller, became one of his must trusted advisers. Washington learned, too, that the threat of the lash was not the most efficient way to inspire an American army. He never abandoned his Virginia (Cavalier) standards of honor; instead, Fischer suggests, he turned the old feudal ideal into a practically democratic one. When, under heavy fire, Washington, careless of his own life, “took control of the battle” at Princeton, he addressed the Philadelphia artisans and mechanics who were in the thick of it not as subordinates but as comrades-in-honor: “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.”
Washington learned and adapted; the British commanders did not. Admiral Lord Richard “Black Dick” Howe ruled the seas; his brother, General Sir William Howe, commanded the ground forces. They were both Whig aristocrats, both old Etonians; their mother was said to be the natural daughter of George I, and their intimacy with the royal family strengthened their prospects. Yet they were brave and competent officers in their own right. In the Seven Years’ War, Black Dick sailed into Quiberon Bay and crippled two French ships of the line; at Quebec Sir William led a platoon up a treacherous path to the Plains of Abraham. The Howes’ second in command, Sir Henry Clinton, was another characteristic product of the Whig ascendancy. The grandson of the sixth earl of Lincoln, Clinton was connected by blood or marriage to many of the great Whig families. His career had accordingly prospered, with early commissions in the elite regiments attached to the royal household.
These Whig grandees were paradoxical creatures: liberal in outlook, dedicated to the principles of the Revolution of 1688, partial to enlightened schemes of reform, yet insisting always on the prerogatives of their caste. Few of the Whig magnates personified the paradox more thoroughly than Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, second earl Cornwallis. He was, Fischer writes, “one of the most appealing figures of his generation.” Like the Howes, he was a product of Eton; and before he took up his commission in the Grenadier Guards he studied military science at Turin. He served with distinction in India and in Ireland, where he resigned as viceroy when George III balked at emancipating Catholics.
Yet this liberal and tolerant officer had been bred a Whig lord, and he was zealous for military hierarchies. The Whig magnifico in Cornwallis told against him on the eve of the battle of Princeton. At the British council of war, Cornwallis laid down the plan, invited no criticism, and rejected out of hand advice to move immediately against Washington. This was a fatal error. Across the Assunpink Creek, the American council of war proceeded very differently. Washington came to the table with no preconceived plan. He gave his officers permission to speak freely. From their counsels emerged a strategy as brilliant as Cornwallis’s was dull ó and as bold as the earlier decision to cross the Delaware at Christmas and surprise the Hessians at Trenton. The new plan called for the Americans to go behind Cornwallis’s back, march at once to Princeton under cover of darkness, and attack the unsuspecting British forces there. Even Horace Walpole was startled out of his supine cynicism. Washington’s “march through our lines,” he wrote, “is allowed to have been a prodigy of generalship.”
In praising the heroism of Washington and his men, Fischer has broken with his brethren in the academy, and at the end of Washington’s Crossing he gently reproves them. “In the late twentieth century,” Fischer writes, “too many scholars tried to make the American past into a record of crime and folly.” But Fischer never falls into the converse sin of unintelligent hero-worship; he has as deep a feeling for the historical and cultural roots of American character as any historian now at work. He writes, too, with an urbanity remote from the provincialism of the academy. At Oxford in the 1980s, Fischer benefited from the conversation of Lord Blake, the great Tory historian and biographer of Disraeli; and Fischer’s own work has something of Blake’s ease and elegance. In Washington’s Crossing Fischer has produced a model of modern historical writing.
–Mr. Beran is the author of Jefferson’s Demons.