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Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
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A-WashingtonsCrossingWhen George Washington crossed the Delaware River and defeated the Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey, on an icy Christmas night in 1776, he immortalized a key moment in American myth and history. Fischer casts a clear eye on this event, challenging Emmanuel Leutze's famous painting of the subject and rethinking "one of the folk-memories that most Americans share." Fischer, unlike other historians, sees the crossing as a pivotal turning point in the American Revolution. Until then, Washington's army had suffered repeated defeats. When his diminished force crossed the river, it had nothing to lose and everything to gain, turning the possibility of American independence into a reality.
Oxford University Press. 564 pages. $35.

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"In my judgment, Fischer's ability to combine the panoramic with the palpable is unparalleled in giving us a glimpse of what warfare back then was really like." Joseph J. Ellis

Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] fascinating retelling of the old tale. ... And for all those who worry that demythologizing American history means tarnishing the American image, Fischer comes as welcome relief." Jean Dubail

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"What gives Washington's Crossing its impact is Fischer's sense of how events fit together to create opportunities. He takes a panoramic approach, depicting strategies on both sides, while evoking personalities from Washington and James Monroe...who stands behind Washington in Leutze's painting, to the British brothers Gen. William and Adm. Richard Howe, whose early successes in the war were irrevocably countered by Washington's desperate charge." David L. Ulin

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Fischer ends his book, as Leutze designed his canvas, with a lesson for today." Pauline Maier

Critical Summary

Washington's Crossing moves from myth to history by offering a convincing corrective to Leutze's painting. (Washington really did stand in the boat, since it was filled with ankle-deep water, but the crossing occurred at night. Nor were the Hessians drunk.) By framing "the fog of war, the chaos and confusion" of the crossing within its largest context, that of America's revolutionary struggle, Fischer interprets this event as a strategic, rather than merely symbolic or psychological, triumph (New York Times Book Review). It's a compelling argument, well supported by a cast of vivid, compassionate characters and good writing, even if Fischer sometimes gets carried away. And its message, about Americans fighting "for ideas of liberty and freedom," couldn't be more timely.