It wasn’t just tenacity in the face of military disaster, it was the powerful fusion of strengths that Americans had long nurtured—and that could now give them a nation
Americans have known many dark days, from the starving winters in early settlements to the attack on the World Trade Center. They have been the testing times and pivotal moments of our history. It was that way in 1776, from the decision for independence to the military disasters that followed. In early December, British commanders believed they were very close to ending the rebellion, and American leaders feared that they might be right. Yet three months later the mood had changed on both sides. By the spring of 1777 many British officers had concluded that they could never win the war. At the same time, Americans had recovered from their despair and were confident that they would not be defeated.
The cause of that great transformation lay not in a single event, or even a chain of events, but in a great web of contingency, in the sense of people making choices and of their choices making a difference in the world. The story began with the meeting of three armies in America. The American army of 1776 came mostly from middling families who cherished the Revolutionary cause but understood it in various ways: the ordered freedom of old New England; the reciprocal freedom of the Philadelphia Associators, who were raised in the Quaker tradition of extending to others the rights they demanded for themselves; the hegemonic liberties of Virginians who thought of rights as an unequal system of social rank; the natural liberty of backcountry settlers who demanded the right to be left alone. The choices these men made were an expression of their beliefs; so too were their autonomous ways of choosing.
Different patterns appeared among armies of British regulars and the German troops that fought alongside them in 1776. These were long-serving volunteers, trained by modern methods. They shared values of hierarchy, order, discipline, honor, loyalty, duty, and service. They despised the American rebels and the Revolutionary cause. Their meeting with the Americans was more than a clash of weapons and tactics. It was a conflict of ideas and institutions.
In Britain the drivers of the American war were a small circle of ministers in London who meant to break the Revolution by brute force. But their military commanders were more sympathetic to the Americans. The brothers Adm. Richard Howe and Gen. William Howe hoped to “conciliate His Majesty’s rebellious subjects” by firmness and moderation. Their junior officers and men were often more hostile to the rebels and also more predatory toward the inhabitants of what they called “our colonies.” These choices did not sit well together. The American leaders also made different choices about the conduct of the war. In 1776 George Washington favored a “war of posts,” in which the enemy was invited to attack strong positions. Gen. Charles Lee wanted a defense by small attacks on British forces. Gen. Horatio Gates preferred a strategy of withdrawal to the Appalachians. Some New Englanders proposed to burn New York and scorch the American earth.
All these purposes collided in the struggle around New York. The Howe brothers were brilliant in that campaign: firmly in control, clear in their purposes, clever in their military operations, careful not to put things wrong, and highly successful in three months of fighting. The Americans were baffled, indecisive, disorganized, undisciplined, and soundly defeated. From the Battle of Long Island to the fall of New York, the conquest of New Jersey, and the seizure of Rhode Island, the campaign was a cataract of disaster for the American cause. George Washington was outgeneralled at every turn. In 12 weeks he lost 90 percent of the army under his command.
Many supporters of the Revolution gave way to panic and despair. In occupied New Jersey the Howes’ policy began to work as thousands of Americans returned to the Crown. But other Americans made different choices. In the depth of December, Congress organized the war effort in a new way, the states redoubled their efforts, many Americans rallied to a common cause, and Washington’s army began to grow again. In New Jersey, brutal acts by the occupying troops undercut the intentions of their commanders and provoked people to rise against their oppressors. Groups of Jerseymen spontaneously launched small attacks by land an,d water. They exhausted the Hessian garrison at Trenton, gained control of the countryside, and drew British and German troops out of their interlocking positions. This popular rising created an opportunity for George Washington. He made the most of it.
At the urging of his lieutenants, Washington decided to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Night in 1776 and attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Two of three American forces were not able to get over the river; the third got across only with great difficulty. The Americans were delayed many hours but decided to persist in the operation. The next morning they attacked in a heavy storm, achieved tactical surprise, and won a battle that was itself a web of contingencies.
The American victory at Trenton led to other choices, the most difficult of the campaign. Here again, the process of decision making differed on the two sides. Some of the critical American decisions were made by privates in the Philadelphia Associators, who demanded that their officers cross into New Jersey. George Washington and his lieutenants responded with growing resolve and increasing clarity of purpose.
The hardest choices of all were made by hundreds of sick and weary Continental infantry, who decided to stay beyond their enlistments. Indispensable help was given by Robert Morris and his associates in Philadelphia, who found the financial resources that the army urgently needed. Washington and his lieutenants in the army had to make hard choices about a plan of operations, the design of a defensive battle, and the concentration of the American army at Trenton.
Washington was at the center of these decisions, functioning more as a leader than as a commander, always listening, inspiring, guiding; rarely demanding, commanding, coercing; always firm in his goals but flexible in his means; always an example by his conduct, which made good men proud to soldier with him.
The British generals Howe and Cornwallis also had tough choices to make after the Battle of Trenton. They were able and intelligent men of high principle and serious purpose, but they operated in a strictly hierarchical world. They decided to destroy Washington’s army by a quick stroke at Trenton and did not listen to the advice of subordinates. On January 2, 1777, as British and Hessian troops advanced toward Trenton, American troops made a fighting retreat to prepared positions beyond Assunpink Creek and defeated many probing attacks in the second Battle of Trenton.
That night British and American councils of war made different decisions and also made them differently. Again Cornwallis imposed his plan from the top down, against the judgment of his able subordinates, and he prepared to attack in the morning. Washington in his council of war welcomed the judgments of others and presided over an open process of debate that yielded yet another opportunity. In the darkness Washington managed to disengage his forces from an enemy only a few yards away, and an exhausted American army found the will and strength to make another night march, this one toward the British base at Princeton. As the American army approached Princeton on January 3, 1777, they ran into a British force under Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood. In a classic meeting engagement, Mawhood made the choice to attack with great élan and nearly gained the field. The Americans broke and fled, then rallied with high courage. In a web of tactical decisions by many men, they won another victory.
Afterward small parties of Jersey militia chose to attack British and Hessian forces on their own initiative, in small skirmishes of a “forage war” that continued for 12 weeks. Washington did not initiate this petite guerre , but in another fortunate choice he welcomed and supported it. In three months the American army did real damage to General Howe’s army, which shrank from 32,000 effective troops in late August to 14,000 effectives by late winter 1777.
In the New Jersey campaign, American troops repeatedly defeated larger and better-trained regular forces in many different types of warfare: special operations, a night river crossing, a bold assault on an urban garrison, a righting retreat, a defensive battle in fixed positions, a night march into the enemy’s rear, a meeting engagement, and a prolonged petite guerre . Professional observers judged that entire performance to be one of the most brilliant in military history.
The winter campaign wrecked the strategy of the Howe brothers for ending the Revolution by moderation and conciliation. It also had an effect on British opinion much like that of the Tet offensive on American opinion in 1968. By the spring of 1777 the war was growing unpopular in the United Kingdom. The price of British government securities began to fall, from a high point of 89 pounds sterling in 1775 to 55 in 1784.
But the campaign had even more far-reaching results. It prompted American leaders to invent a new way of war. The disasters of the New York campaign had been a hard school for them. They had created a nation without a nation-state and an army without discipline. Americans had trouble reconciling the ideals of the Revolution with the realities of government. They were deeply suspicious of power and hated to pay taxes; this was a major weakness in the War of Independence. Then, as now, corrupt politicians pandered to that prejudice.
Yet the Americans could draw on many strengths. They were fighting for a just cause on their own ground, in defense of homes and families. Moreover, the British had to conquer; the Americans needed only to survive. They were a deeply religious people, with an abiding faith that sustained them in adversity, and the free male population was among the most literate in the world. They also had higher incomes per capita than European populations; British and Hessian troops were amazed at the affluence they found in the New World. Finally, Americans were accustomed to governing themselves. The United States was barely six months old, but Americans had been running their own affairs for six generations.
To that end generals gave much of their time to working with the members of Congress and keeping in touch with popular opinion. George Washington set the example. From the start of the war, he worked hard to establish the principle of civil control over military affairs, and he always respected it. But there was a problem: Congress intervened actively in military affairs, telling the generals how to run the war and even attempting to make tactical decisions in the defense of New York. John Adams, who had no experience of war, declared that he knew more about military affairs than any American general except Charles Lee. John Hancock believed that he should have been commander of the Continental Army, and he addressed Washington in the imperative, as if the Continental Congress were the House of Hancock and generals were his employees. Washington was remarkably forbearing with these men, but the system was not working well in late 1776. It was increasingly evident that Congress could not operate efficiently in an Executive role and was ill qualified to manage the war.
And it was evident to members of Congress too. Congressmen began to make changes in early December 1776, and on the twenty-sixth, the same day as the first Battle of Trenton but before the event was known, Congress granted Washington full authority to direct the war.
Critics complained that Congress had betrayed the Revolution and made Washington “dictator.” But it wasn’t so. Congress and the army had hammered out a typically American compromise, and all the parties understood what it meant. Congress was firmly in charge, but Washington and his generals were running the war. Always there would be conflicts, mainly over money and appointments. John Adams continued to believe that he knew more about war than George Washington could ever learn, and John Hancock remained as arrogant as ever. But Congress treated Washington with growing respect, and military leaders were very careful to acknowledge the principle of civil supremacy. This improvised solution to an urgent problem became a permanent part of the American system. It strongly affirmed the principle of civilian control over the military and established the practice that military men should direct military affairs, subject to oversight by civil leaders. After the War of Independence, similar ideas spread to many American institutions, including business corporations, colleges, Protestant churches, and public organizations of various kinds, all with their civil boards and professional managers. It became a model for the separation of powers and the rule of law.
At the same time, American military leaders also improvised a new way of war fighting, which was also a cultural expression of the nation they served. Free Americans in 1776 were a restless, striving entrepreneurial people, who routinely assumed risk for the sake of profit. They were a practical people who judged actions by results, and when they went to war, they carried this culture with them. Europe’s feudal and aristocratic elites thought of war as a nobleman’s vocation and a pursuit of honor; Americans tended to think of it as something that had to be done from time to time, for a particular purpose or goal. They fought not for the sake of fighting but for the sake of winning. From the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to our own time Americans have fought at least one major war in every generation-sixteen generations altogether. War has been a continuing part of their experience, but they have always thought of it as an interruption, something to get done quickly so they could go home and get on with the ordinary business of life.
Whether on the offensive or the defensive, American generals have been expected to be bold, active, quick, and decisive. Public opinion and political leaders have been intolerant of generals who failed to get results. This attitude appeared during the War of Independence. It has been amplified by a free press demanding swift, clear results that could be summarized in eighteenth-century broadsides, nineteenth-century telegrams, twentieth-century headlines, and twenty-first-century sound bites. Military leaders in a free society have always needed not merely to act but to give the appearance of action. George Washington was keenly aware of this expectation, and he planned campaigns with public opinion in mind. After his very bold night march to Princeton, he wrote to John Hancock, “One thing I was certain of, that it would avoid the appearance of a retreat, which was of consequence.”
This requirement of boldness and activity in war was tempered by another principle, which Washington called prudence. It was always important in an open society—and especially necessary in the winter of 1776. After the disasters around New York, military leaders were acutely conscious that another failure, or even a costly success, could turn the country against them. Even when planning the boldest operations, Washington reminded his officers about the importance of acting prudently. Benedict Arnold (the least prudent of American generals) received many lectures on the subject. On March 3, 1777, Washington warned Arnold that he “must be sensible that the most serious ill consequences may and would, probably result from failure.… Unless your strength and circumstances be such as you can reasonably promise yourself a moral certainty of succeeding, I would have you by all means to relinquish the undertaking.”
An important measure of prudence for American leaders was the cost of operations in human life. Generals were expected to be very careful with the lives of their men. This was partly a matter of ethics—Americans placed an exceptionally high value on individual life—but it was also a matter of politics and public opinion. And it became a military necessity in the fall of 1776, when manpower was short. In consequence, George Washington and his officers designed their operations to keep down losses, with high success. In the New Jersey campaign, Americans suffered 4 killed and 8 wounded in the first Battle of Trenton, about 40 killed and wounded in the second Battle of Trenton, and about 100 killed or seriously wounded at Princeton.
So the central problem in this American way of war was that the fighting must combine boldness with prudence, large gains with small losses. During the winter campaign of 1776–77 Washington and the Continental Army found a solution with many elements. Throughout the Revolution George Washington’s strategic purpose was constant—to win independence by maintaining American resolve to continue the war, by preserving an American army, and by raising the cost of the war to the enemy —but his means were fluid. The diversity of his operations in the winter campaign was the first clear example of a style that persisted through the war. He was quick to modify his plans with changing circumstances and adapted more easily than his opponents. Washington was a man of steadfast principle but also a military opportunist. Many American leaders followed that example: Greene and Morgan, Lee and Jackson, Grant and Sherman, Eisenhower and Bradley, Nimitz and Patton, Schwarzkopf and Franks.
Another element in this American approach to warfare was a new way of controlling initiative and tempo. Washington and his lieutenants did more than merely surprise the Hessian garrison at Trenton that morning after Christmas. They improvised a series of surprises through a period of 12 weeks and thus seized the initiative from their opponents and kept it in their hands for three crucial months. Washington made it a formal principle in the army when he ordered his generals to drive the campaign and not “be drove.”
Initiative was largely about the control of time in campaigning. The English historian George Otto Trevelyan wrote that George Washington succeeded at Trenton and Princeton because he “caught the occasion by the forelock.” In New Jersey, American leaders learned to make time itself into a weapon. They did it by controlling the tempo and rhythm of the campaign, much as a conductor regulates an orchestra. Pay after day through the winter the Americans called the tune and set the beat. The material and moral impact on the enemy was very great, and from all this an American tradition developed. It appeared on both sides in the Civil War, and in both theaters in World War II, in the Gulf wars, and in discussions of tempo by Pentagon planners in the twenty-first century.
To these elements of initiative and tempo, Washington added yet another: speed. On January 20, 1777, William Howe, explaining to his superiors why he was having such trouble in New Jersey, wrote that “the Enemy moves with so much more celerity than we possibly can with our foreign troops who are too much attached to their baggage.” Sir William was blaming the Hessians, which was hardly fair: No man in the army was more attached to his baggage than General Howe, who required an entire “baggage ship.” But his observation was correct. In the New Jersey campaign, American troops always moved faster than their opponents.
At the same time, the agile Americans did all in their power to reduce the mobility of British and Hessian forces. This was their object in the forage war, when they targeted horses, wagons, and feed. Robert Morris reported to Washington that “the Enemy have since Christmas lost so many Horses, are in such want of forage, and their remaining Cavalry so worn down, that the defects in this department alone would render any movement of their Main body impossible without strong reinforcements.” So successful was this American effort, Morris said, that “General Howe’s situation somewhat resembles that of a Strong bull in Trammells, sensible of his own strength he grows mad with rage & resentment when he finds himself deprived of the use of it.”
To their use of speed Washington and his lieutenants added another element. Working from weakness, they learned to focus a large part of their strength against a small part of the enemy’s force. Here again the New York campaign had taught them a lesson, in the fatal consequences of American dispersion and British concentration. Washington changed his ways. Before the first Battle of Trenton, Americans encouraged three British and German brigades (five counting the forces in north Jersey) to move away from one another and concentrated their entire force against a single Hessian brigade. At the Battle of Princeton, Washington did it again. He concentrated most of his army against a single British brigade and defeated it before superior British forces could arrive. The same thing happened many times in the forage war, slowly wearing down a larger enemy.
A related principle was the use of fire-power to magnify the impact of small forces. Contrary to some recent writing, American troops in New Jersey were not short of weapons and ammunition during that winter, and they had surprising strength in artillery. At the first Battle of Trenton, American attackers had twice as many guns in proportion to infantry as did the Hessian garrison. It was the same again at the second Battle of Trenton and the fight at Princeton; American artillery was decisive in all three battles. American leaders understood that this kind of fighting meant they took fewer casualties. “Force multipliers” of that sort became another enduring element in the American way of war.
The best force multiplier is always good intelligence. During the New York campaign the British used their control of the waters around the city to mask their intentions and confuse their opponents. In New Jersey, American leaders made a major effort to strengthen their intelligence. George Washington himself developed a system of intelligence that became part of his new way of war. He personally recruited secret agents, ordered them to report to him alone, and employed Nathaniel Sackett, of the New York Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, to construct an entire network in New York with male and female agents of every rank and station.
Washington’s attitudes toward intelligence gathering were different from those of leaders in closed societies, who sought to monopolize intelligence and prohibited efforts that they did not control. He was comfortable with an open system, in which others were not only permitted but encouraged to have a high degree of autonomy. His highly complex yet free and open system of information gathering engaged the efforts of many people, produced multiple sources, and got better results than closed systems. It remains a reason why free societies often have more effective intelligence systems than do closed societies.
All these elements came together in 1776: boldness and prudence, flexibility and opportunism, initiative and tempo, speed and concentration, force multipliers, and intelligence. They defined a way of war that would continue to appear throughout the Revolution and in many subsequent conflicts. American generals who have used these methods won; those that haven’t were apt to lose, as in Vietnam and the War of 1812.
In 1776 American leaders believed that it was not enough just to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. One of their greatest achievements was to manage the war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution. In Congress and the army, American leaders resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with a respect for the human rights even of the enemy. This idea grew stronger during the campaign of 1776–77, not weaker, as is commonly the case in war.
Not all American leaders agreed. Others in Adams’s generation, and many in our own time, believe that America should seek its own national self-interest by any means. But most men of the American Enlightenment shared John Adams’s way of thinking, and that winter both the Congress and the Continental Army adopted the policy of humanity. Their choice was only reinforced by every report of wounded soldiers refused quarter, of mistreatment in the New York prison hulks, and of plunder and rapine in New Jersey. John Adams gave words to this policy; George Washington put it to work.
British leaders and soldiers moved in a different direction. Imperial attitudes toward the people they called “our colonials” and “those rebels” hardened as the war went on. John Bowater, a captain of marines, wrote: “The Natives are such a Levelling, underbred, Artfull, Race of people that we Cannot Associate with them. … Their words come up so slow I frequently long to Shove a Soup ladle down their throat.”
Many officers and men in the British army shared Captain Bowater’s attitude and acted on it. Col. Charles Stuart wrote candidly to his eminent father, the Earl of Bute, in 1778: “Wherever our armies have marched, wherever they have been encamped during the last campaign, every species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrecoverable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measures will be able to eradicate.”
A case in point was the cultural history of quarter. According to the codes of European war, quarter was the privilege of being allowed to surrender and become a prisoner. By custom and tradition soldiers in Europe believed that they had a right to extend quarter or deny it as they pleased. If a city resisted a siege, then the attackers had the right to kill all its inhabitants. If a fort refused to surrender, then the defenders could be put to the sword. Quarter was granted to some people and denied to others, according to their conduct and situation and the will of the winner. Nobody had an inalienable right to be taken prisoner or to be allowed to live.
British troops often allowed Americans to surrender and treated them decently, but sometimes they denied quarter and killed captives, and on occasion they were ordered to do so. American attitudes were very different. With some exceptions, American leaders believed that quarter should be extended to all combatants as a matter of right. Sometimes in the heat of battle this was not done, but not in any known action by the American army during the New Jersey campaign. George Washington and his high lieutenants never threatened to deny quarter to an enemy.
Americans were outraged when quarter was denied to their soldiers, as often happened in New York and New Jersey. One of the most notorious incidents occurred during the forage war at the battle of Drake’s Farm outside Metuchen. Charles Scott’s Virginia Infantry was fighting a British force in an open field. At one stage the Americans were driven back and left seven wounded behind. The ranking American, Lt. William Kelly, severely injured in the thigh, attempted to surrender with his men. British troops “dashed out their brains with their muskets and ran them through with their bayonets, made them like sieves.” As the Americans lay dying, the British plundered them.
After the fight at Drake’s Farm, American Brig. Gen. Adam Stephen engaged in an angry correspondence with Sir William Erskine, theBritish commander, which received much attention in American newspapers. The British leaderdenied moral responsibility, which increased American anger. The words of the Britishcommander, more than the acts of his men, strengthened the American resolve to run their own war in a different spirit.
Another issue was the treatment of prisoners. After the battles in New York thousands of American prisoners of war were viciously treated and confined in the churches of New York City, which were desecrated by scenes of cruelty, suffering, and starvation, or sent to prison hulks in New York Harbor to die there miserably by the hundreds. Some escaped, and their reports had the same impact as those of American prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War.
An American policy on prisoners emerged after the Battle of Trenton. Washington ordered that the Hessian captives be treated as human beings with the same rights of humanity for which Americans were striving. The Hessians expected a different fate and were amazed to be treated with decency and even kindness. One of them, Johannes Reuber, learned to his surprise that General Washington had issued a broadside declaring that Hessian soldiers “were innocent people in this war, and were not volunteers, but forced into this war.” The general asked that the Hessians be treated not as enemies but as friends. Reuber wrote “old, young, rich and poor, and all treated us in a friendly manner.” Of the 13,988 Hessian soldiers who survived the war, 3,194 (23 percent) chose to remain in America, and others later emigrated to the New World with their families.
The same policy was extended to British prisoners after the Battle of Princeton. Washington ordered one of his most trusted officers, Lt. Col. Samuel Blachley Webb, to look after them: “You are to take charge of  privates of the British Army. … Treat them with humanity, and Let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army in their Treatment of our unfortunate brethren. … Provide everything necessary for them on the road.” There were exceptions on the American side. Loyalists and slaves who joined the British were treated cruelly by local officials. But Congress and the Continental Army generally adopted Adams’s “policy of humanity.” Their moral choices in the War of Independence enlarged the American Revolution.
The most remarkable fact about American soldiers and civilians in the New Jersey campaign is not that they did any of these things but that they did all of them together. In a desperate struggle they reversed the momentum of the war; they also improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition; and they chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution.
They set a high example, and we have much to learn from them. A good deal of recent writing about history has served us ill in that respect. In the late twentieth century, too many scholars made American history into a record of crime and folly. Too many writers have told us that we are captives of our darker selves, slaves to material interests, and helpless victims of our history. It isn’t so, and never was. The story of Washington’s crossing tells us that Americans who came before us were capable of acting in a higher spirit—and, I think, so are we.