If a history professor offers a course in American Military History, standard fare at just about any college or university of any size throughout the country, that instructor can expect the class to fill up very quickly – perhaps on the first day of registration. If that course is on the Civil War, expect the course to close in thirty minutes. Much of the programming on the History Channel that actually tries to pass for history is military oriented. If you go to Barnes and Noble and look in the history section (always an anxiety inducing experience for me), you’ll notice that military history is overrepresented because it sells better than, say, social or political history. An interested observer will typically (but not always) find that the consumers of such history are overwhelmingly male. The reason for the popularity of military history among men is pretty obvious – until very recently men have dominated the military and war is considered by many to be a subject that is inherently masculine. You know, testosterone, rifles, and cannons – it makes perfect sense. Beyond the shadow of gender bias, the exalted place of the United States military in the American psyche, the natural drama of combat, the sheer historical power of war, and other subtle factors make Americans crave military history. You’ll find among a fair number of academic historians, however, a bit of snobbery towards studying the seemingly endless details of military history (for example, there are huge tomes written just on portions of the Battle of Gettysburg). Not just the wide popularity of military history, but some scholars feel that military history lacks the intellectual and methodological rigor of some of the more theoretically based subfields of history. Military history is still dominated by very traditional historians – I’m still waiting on the Marxist or the postmodern interpretation of the Battle of Cowpens. Instead of reevaluating evidence using new or exciting methodologies, these guys argue with each other over small points on battlefield maps, fighting over which is the most important or who was the best general. It’s not that this somehow not legitimate, it’s just that it is, well, played out. We all know how Gettysburg and Iwo Jima ended – what more needs to be said about it? While war is very important to history, historians today write about how war influences society (and visa versa) rather than studying the mind numbing details of important battles.
David Hackett Fischer reminds us in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington’s Crossing that the details of battles and the decisions of generals have far-reaching reverberations beyond boring military history volumes. Most importantly, however, Fischer’s book is a true tour de force because it captured the shocking importance of contingency in history, “in the sense of people making choices, and choices making a difference in the world.” More than simple human choice, Washington’s Crossing makes it convincingly clear that it’s often the small things that matter. While this is certainly true in history in a general sense, it is especially true in military history. For example, the world we know today might not be possible if the roads near Trenton, New Jersey had not been so muddy when Cornwallis attacked Washington’s army in January of 1777 because it slowed down the British Army and allowed the Americans ample time to harass their enemy and prepare a good defense. After reading this book, it dawned on me how unpredictable history is and how much the details really matter. Sometimes historians throw stories into their books to use as charming anecdotes. Fischer tells us that during the Battle of Trenton, James Monroe was struck by a “muskett ball which severed an artery.” Troops carried the future president from the field, but Monroe was loosing blood rapidly and facing certain death if a doctor could not be found with all possible haste. As it happened, however, a New Jersey physician, one Dr. Riker, happened to volunteer the night before the battle and fell in with in Monroe’s company. Riker rushed to Monroe’s side, clamped the artery, and saved the commander’s life. Riker’s quick decision to join the fighting at the last-minute is thereby surprisingly signficant when you consider Monroe’s lasting importance in tracing the course of American foreign relations.
Fischer does not harp on this and other small details or try to explain their significance in a dramatic kind of way. Rather, he is more subtle and lets the narrative make the point that the complex web of contingency is a major driving force in shaping the past. The question of agency (the power of individuals to change society) versus structure (the power of society to control individuals) is one of the eternal questions that is posed to first year graduate students (it was even the theme of one of my comprehensive exam questions). There are a number of really good books that argue that structure is far more important, but Fischer’s book is the most convincing monograph that I’ve ever read that argues in favor individual agency. As alluded to above, it certainly helps that this is a military history book – battles and wars, by their very nature, often hinge on the smallest of details. And this fact highlights a weakness in Fischer’s argument (the importance of contingency is basically his thesis). It’s not always so simple to apply these principles to other subfields of history, but Fischer clearly intends his book to a clarion call for other historians to build their narratives in a similar fashion. I think there is a ton of potential here, but it remains to be seen if Washington’s Crossing will inaugurate a new historiographic paradigm that stresses the overarching importance of contingency in history. There are a number of books that stress the agency of subaltern individuals and groups (women and African Americans, for example), but very few that really delve into important historical nuances quite like this book. It’s a great approach, especially for Fischer’s subject, and other historians would do well to try to ask how small decisions individuals make alter history outside of military operations.
There are also a number of details and diversions in this book that will add to the general readership’s understanding of the Revolutionary War. In grade school, all American children learn that when Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night of 1776 and attacked Trenton the next morning, the Americans fought German soldiers, the Hessians. While many children erroneously learn that the Germans were sleeping off a drunk that morning, we don’t really learn anything in school about who the Hessians actually were. They remain shadowy figures to most modern Americans, just more mercenaries looking for treasure in the New World. Instead, Fischer uncovers one of the largest and best armies in the entire world (for a country its size) with excellent leadership and highly trained soldiers. We meet the soldiers and the leaders and find that the Hessians were in fact very decent people – and 23% of them decided to stay and make America their home after the war. Fischer also takes the time to teach us more about the British Army, although there are fewer revelations in that area. It became clear, though, that the Britain clearly had one of the finest fighting forces on the planet with excellent commanders and, combined with the Hessians, they presented a formidable opponent for the American Army.
After being driven from Long Island and New York City in the Fall of 1776, the war looked to be over. British generals would simply use their superior army to defeat the small and green American forces. Something major needed to happen or the American rebellion would crumble before the end of the year. After the daring expedition across the Delaware River, Washington learned through his success in New Jersey that a general engagement with the enemy was out of the question and he could instead attack strongly in small places and harass the enemy with minimum risk. Washington’s decisions, and those of the people around him, transformed the war. It would not be about fighting in the open with honor and valor, but instead became simply about winning because this was a fight over independence. Those who waged it felt it rose above the specter of politics. Valor be damned – independence or tyranny was at stake. Because the Americans had so much territory at their disposal (they could keep retreating forever it seemed) and the correct strategy of avoiding a large-scale stand-off, the British found that subduing their opponent would not be possible without extraordinary measures. Thus, decisions from individuals like Washington, Howe, and Cornwallis take on great importance. When combined with the agency of individuals in the volunteer armies (on both sides), we fully grasp the importance of contingency in history.
The irony is that Fischer’s earlier work, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York, 1989), ignored contingency and stressed the importance of culture over individuals. I must admit that I’ve never actually read Albion’s Seed, but I’ve read enough reviews and talked to enough people who have read it to feel like I already know the book pretty well. Basically, he’s argued that cultural artifacts from Britain have, in large measure, shaped American culture and American history. Many people have called that book “deterministic,” which is like the kiss of death for a historian. That means the scholar is ignoring nuance and instead is looking at the past with a kind of tunnel vision. While many people liked this book, Fischer received some harsh criticism from his colleagues over Albion’s Seed. In some ways, I think that Washington’s Crossing is a pointed response to his critics to show that he was indeed a versatile historian and that he could write a different kind of book.
Whatever his motivations, we should congratulate Fischer for giving American readers a riveting historical monograph that is accessible, entertaining, and educating while simultaneously being a major historiographic achievement that will keep historians talking for decades. As long as they don’t pigeon-hole this great book as a masculine snooze fest about battles – because it is much more than that. In the end, it’s a great book about people who made tough choices and, in certain ways, the world we know today is the consequence of their actions.