The Spirit Of ’76

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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 [211] 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.