On the morning of November 21, George Washington and his troops move into New Jersey. His men are “broke and dispirited.” He sends a letter to General Charles Lee, suggesting that Lee cross the Hudson and join forces with him to protect New Jersey from British attack.
Washington doesn’t command Lee to join him in New Jersey—he only suggests that Lee do so if he’s able. This suggests that he isn’t yet entirely certain that protecting New Jersey is a top priority.
Unbeknownst to Washington, Joseph Reed sends a secret letter to Charles Lee. In this letter, Reed implores Lee to join Washington, adding that he has often worried about Washington’s “indecisive mind” during the New York campaign. He also suggests that Lee go to the Continental Congress “and form the plan of the new army.”
In this surprising passage, Reed betrays Washington by seeming to voice his disapproval for Washington’s indecision. Reed sees a side of Washington that nobody else sees: his fear and self-doubt. But instead of continuing to defer to Washington’s judgement, Reed confers with Lee. The passage suggests that, in the eyes of some, Lee may be the better commander.
Another challenge arises for Washington: his enlistments will soon be free to return home, having served in the army for a year. The men’s morale is even lower than it was in Boston, suggesting that huge numbers will leave rather than reenlist. The army has lost four huge battles in the last three months. Washington wonders if he should retreat to Pennsylvania and take time to regroup.
Washington is a charismatic, impressive leader, but he has failed to lead his men to a single victory in battle. As a result, he anticipates losing thousands of men when their enlistment period is up.
One of the problems Washington and his army face is that the colonies are reluctant to donate troops to a continental army. There are plenty of opponents of Britain in the colonies, but the colonies’ leaders prefer to keep their armies at home, rather than sending them out to Washington. Washington sends Reed to New Jersey to entreat the governor to provide Washington with reinforcements. Washington also sends General Thomas Mifflin on a similar mission to Pennsylvania. Mifflin soon reports back that the people of Pennsylvania are “divided and lethargic.” Washington hears nothing from Reed.
It’s important to remember that, even though the British forces badly outnumbered Washington’s men in New York, America has a much larger army than Britain at the time. However, the American colonies refuse to work together and protect one another with a nationalized, continental army. Britain has a comparatively easier time rounding up troops and sending them away from home.
On November 22, the continental army reaches New Jersey. Thomas Paine, author of the pamphlet Common Sense, has been serving as a civilian aide on Nathanael Greene’s staff, and he is inspired by the troops’ commitment. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he writes in The Crisis, referring to this moment of determination in the face of fear and doubt at the end of 1776.
Paine’s words are still taught in classrooms across America. They are a testament to the extreme difficulty and uncertainty of the war. Washington and his men have suffered so many defeats by now that it often seems they have no chance of defeating the British.
On the British side, the taking of Fort Washington catalyzed a major shift in strategy. General Clinton is reassigned to invade Rhode Island. Clinton dislikes the campaign he has been given. He thinks that it would be better to pursue Washington into New Jersey. Nevertheless, he leads 6,000 soldiers to Newport, Rhode Island, and claims the city without a fight.
On the British side, the highest-ranking generals continue to argue with one another, illustrating the hidden divisions of the British military that are among its greatest weaknesses.
General Clinton and General William Howe have been quarrelling for months. At White Plains, Clinton says he can’t stand Howe. Howe promptly replaces Clinton with General Charles Cornwallis, a commander with a distinguished military career. Howe orders Cornwallis to pursue the American troops to Brunswick (later known as New Brunswick), but not to go any farther. Washington leads his troops past Brunswick without trouble. He reunites with Lord Stirling’s troops, many of whom are tired and without shoes.
Instead of inspiring his commanding officers to work well together, as Washington does, Howe argues with Clinton and dismisses him abruptly. Then, he continues at his slow, methodical pace, refusing to permit Cornwallis to pursue Washington past Brunswick, even though it’s likely that Cornwallis’s troops would be able to defeat Washington’s troops.
On November 24, a messenger arrives with a letter for Joseph Reed from General Charles Lee. Thinking the letter might have important information, Washington opens it. In the letter, Lee expresses that he shares Reed’s concern over Washington’s “fatal indecision of mind,” and that he intends not to march to New Jersey, as Washington has requested. Clearly, Washington thinks, Reed and Lee have “lost faith in him.” He sends the opened letter along to Reed with “a note of explanation.” Washington undoubtedly feels hurt that his closest friend and followers are distancing themselves from him.
Washington opens Lee’s letter to Reed and learns that his friend and confidante has begun to doubt his authority and talent as a general. This is arguably one of the biggest blows to Washington’s self-esteem. Throughout the book he’s depended upon Reed for advice and encouragement, and now he finds that Reed has been criticizing him behind his back.
In Philadelphia, the members of the Continental Congress are all either “ill or exhausted or absent.” There are rumors that the British intend to march to Philadelphia. The three main signers of the Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams—are absent on diplomatic missions.
The British are only a few hundred miles away from Philadelphia, meaning that the Continental Congress is in grave danger.
On December 1, 2,000 of Washington’s troops leave the army rather than reenlist. Washington sends another letter to General Charles Lee, commanding him to come to New Jersey at once. Meanwhile, British and Hessian troops are rapidly approaching New Jersey. By late afternoon, the British have opened fire on Washington’s remaining troops. Washington orders his troops to retreat to Trenton. The British troops, headed by General Charles Cornwallis, are only sixty miles from Philadelphia.
Even though Washington knows, or at least suspects, that Lee has been criticizing him privately, he continues to depend upon Lee’s talents as a general. The situation has become so dangerous for Washington’s troops that he has no choice but to command Lee to come at once.
Admiral Lord Richard Howe and his brother William Howe send a peace treaty to the people of New Jersey. The treaty requires them to take an oath of allegiance to George III and in return receive a pardon for any actions against the crown. Many people in New Jersey take the oath. General Charles Cornwallis arrives in Brunswick but, due to a lack of clear orders from General Howe, doesn’t advance for six days, giving Washington and his troops the time they need to flee. This six-day pause is a huge blunder on the part of the British. Had Cornwallis been allowed to advance, he could have defeated Washington’s forces for good.
Once again, Howe squanders an opportunity to defeat Washington for good. Instead of doing so, he allows Washington’s troops to rest and regroup, ensuring that they’ll fight the British again on their own terms.
Everything seems to be going according to plan for the British army. However, many of the British and Hessian soldiers are pillaging local households. Many British officers find their troops’ behavior disgraceful.
The British officers can’t control their own men, much as Washington couldn’t prevent his own men from rioting in New York.
On December 7, British and Hessian forces finally leave Brunswick and march to Trenton, New Jersey. Aware that the British are on their way, Washington orders another retreat across the Delaware River. For hours, his men try to lift heavy artillery into boats. Thomas Paine describes the crossing of the Delaware as an “orderly retreat,” in which no sign of fear can be detected. And yet Washington’s men are dispirited. Hundreds desert, and others are sick and tired.
It’s difficult to tell if Paine is being honest in his description of Washington’s retreat, or if he’s trying to make the retreat seem more orderly and honorable than it really was. In any event, there can be no doubt that morale is dangerously low in the American army.
It’s likely that the British soldiers will cross the Delaware and seize Philadelphia. Washington expects General Charles Lee to march toward him, providing much-needed troops. However, unbeknownst to Washington at the time, Lee has been arrested. On December 12, Lee stopped in a tavern. British cavalry arrived and burned the building, threatening to kill everyone inside unless Lee surrendered. Lee was captured, and his arrest was celebrated throughout the British army.
In recent months, Washington has had mixed feelings about Lee. Nevertheless, Lee’s capture by the British army is an undeniable setback for the American side of the war. For all his faults, Lee is a talented general.
Washington is furious when he learns of Charles Lee’s arrest. He’s also dismayed when the Continental Congress relocates to Baltimore for fear that Philadelphia will be invaded. However, General William Howe suspends all further military operations for the winter, and orders his troops to retire in New York and New Jersey until the spring. Howe sees no reason why he should press his advantage now: the winter is cold and miserable, and he’s confident that he’ll be able to defeat Washington’s forces for good in 1777.
Howe is cautious and slow-paced not just because of his own personality (and perhaps his own reluctance to fight), but because the pace of classical, 18th century warfare is slow—at least by today’s standards.
Washington doesn’t realize that General William Howe is suspending military operations. He sends spies to infiltrate the British army, and offers money for information on the British troops. He hears from sources in Trenton that Howe is going back to New York, but he’s skeptical that this is true. Meanwhile, Washington is concerned as he looks ahead to 1777: on New Year’s Day, all remaining enlistments will expire, meaning that he could soon find himself with no troops at all. Even if the remaining soldiers choose to stay, he’ll be left with an army of less than 7,000 troops, most of whom are shoeless, hungry, and exhausted. For all intents and purposes, it seemed, “the war was over and the Americans had lost.”
This is the single lowest point in the book for the American troops. They haven’t had any good news for months, they’ve lost four major battles with the British, and they’re exhausted and hungry. Washington has inspired his men with rhetoric and charisma, but he’s failed to provide them with food, money, shoes, or even a victory in battle.
Despite clear evidence to the contrary, George Washington refuses to accept that the war is over. He knows he needs to make decisive action—especially since he has little left to lose at this point. On December 22, he receives an unsolicited letter from Joseph Reed, who advises him to strike at the British as soon as possible. Washington begins to plan an attack on the British, and schedules it for Christmas Day.
Even though Washington knows Reed has been criticizing him in private, he accepts Reed’s advice, showing that he’s a calm, pragmatic thinker who trusts Reed and who doesn’t let his emotions cloud his decision-making process. (And as it turns out, Reed’s advice is sound: Washington is right to act quickly and decisively.)
On Christmas Eve, Washington confers with his generals to go over the final details of the attack. The army is scheduled to cross the Delaware in three groups: two groups will be fairly small and one, led by Washington, will contain the majority of the troops. Late on the night of December 25th, the troops cross the Delaware, aiming to arrive in Trenton by 5AM am. The weather is harsh, and the Delaware is partly frozen.
Washington organizes the momentous crossing of the Delaware, a moment that will go down in American history as a turning point in the Revolutionary war. The event is the subject of a famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.
Crossing the Delaware is an unforgettable experience for many of the troops. John Greenwood, the fifer, later describes the intense cold weather, explaining that he was genuinely frightened that he would freeze to death. By 3AM, the cannons have been transported safely across the Delaware, thanks to the careful planning of Henry Knox. By this point, the army is way behind schedule. The plan was to have made it across the river by midnight. But instead of pulling back, Washington decides to continue with the attack.
The passage gives a vivid sense of Washington’s men’s fear and anxiety. After months of crushing defeat, they seem to be acting on an understanding that desperate times call for desperate measures. However, the crossing of the Delaware is a success thanks to Washington’s commanders’ leadership. Knox has had experience moving heavy cannons back from Ticonderoga, and here he relies on that experience.
Washington leads 2,400 of his troops toward Trenton. He learns that some of his men’s guns have become so wet they no longer work. He says, “use the bayonet.” By 8AM on December 26, Washington’s troops have arrived in Trenton. The sun is up, and the troops no longer have the element of surprise. A Hessian officer named Johann Gottlieb Rall has already received intelligence that American troops might be planning an attack. On Christmas, an American patrol fired on Hessian officers. But that evening, Rall—confident that Americans would never attack on such a cold day—drank and played cards. He received a letter warning of an attack, but instead of reading it he thrust it into his pocket.
In the past, Washington has made huge tactical blunders as a result of faulty intelligence. Here, it’s the Hessians’ turn to make a tactical error because of a miscommunication. Rall doesn’t take the threat of attack seriously enough to read the letter warning of the impending invasion—a sign that the war is by many seen as over.
The Americans begin their attack on Trenton at 8AM. Washington’s troops have been cold and wet all night. They’re exhausted and some of their weapons don’t work. Meanwhile, the Hessians in Trenton march out of their barracks. The American forces overpower them: those whose guns work fire on the Germans and kill many of them, including Johann Gottlieb Rall. In less than one hour, the Americans have captured Trenton and taken a thousand prisoners. Not one American dies.
Washington uses the element of surprise to stage a successful attack upon the Hessians. Washington excels at small, improvisational maneuvers of this kind. (It was these kinds of maneuvers, McCullough suggests, that Washington exceled at during the French and Indian War, too.) And yet, Washington’s victory is also the result of some luck, since it was made possible by Rall’s drunken negligence the previous day.
Washington has just won a huge victory. The defeat of the Hessians in Trenton inspires his men, and soon the newspapers are full of glorious accounts of Washington’s daring maneuvers. Meanwhile, General William Howe hears the news and decides to march to New Jersey with an army of 8,000 troops.
Washington has won an impressive victory, although he’s also acted deviously, attacking the Hessians the morning after their Christmas festivities. Presumably, the American newspapers don’t emphasize this aspect of his victory.
Washington learns that the British troops are marching out to New Jersey. He decides to “go after the enemy once again.” But this decision poses a problem: Washington doesn’t have enough troops to match the British in battle. With authorization from the Continental Congress, Washington takes every measure to ensure that his troops reenlist and stay in the army.
Out of desperation to defeat the British, Washington effectively becomes a dictator over his own troops, refusing to allow them to leave the army even though they’ve signed contracts permitting them to do so. McCullough doesn’t dwell or pass judgment on this aspect of Washington’s leadership, though it clashes markedly with Washington’s reputation as a fair and democratic leader.
On January 1, 1777, General Charles Cornwallis and his army arrive in Princeton, New Jersey. From there, he leads a force of 5,500 men out to Trenton. Left with no choice, Washington and the American troops leave Trenton. But instead of retreating, Washington leads his army to attack Cornwallis’s rear guard in Princeton.
Washington’s maneuver here is similar to the one he attempted to execute in Manhattan earlier in the year: he leads his troops to attack the enemy from the rear.
On January 3, George Washington and his troops attack British forces two miles outside Princeton. This time, the attack is a genuine surprise for the British, and many British soldiers die in the ensuing gunfight. The Americans take three hundred British prisoners in an “unexpected victory.” Afterwards, Washington marches his troops to Somerset Courthouse, where they retire to the village of Morristown for the winter.
The American army begins 1777 with a successful surprise attack on the British, suggesting that Washington has improved as a commander over the course of the last half-year.
1776 ends with two astonishing victories for Washington’s troops. The attack on Trenton is rightly seen as a turning point in the war—the moment when Americans soundly bested their opponents in battle, outfighting and outsmarting them. Many British commanders see Trenton as a minor defeat for their side, but others admit that Washington is a greater general than they’d supposed.
The American army’s victories in Trenton and Princeton aren’t as damaging to the British army as the defeat in Brooklyn had been for the American army. Even so, Trenton and Princeton are important victories for the Americans symbolically—proving that they can match the most powerful military force on the planet, and that George Washington is the great general that he’s said to be.
As 1777 begins, George III once again rides to Parliament to speak about the war. Some members of Parliament continue to denounce the war, as they did in 1775. However, Parliament once again votes to send reinforcements to America to ensure a British victory. In 1783—six years later—the war finally comes to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. At this time, only two of the general officers who had been involved in the Siege of Boston (Washington and Nathanael Greene) are still serving. Henry Knox also continues to fight for the American side until the end of the war.
In the final pages of the book, McCullough jumps ahead from 1777 to 1783, suggesting that Washington’s back-to-back victories put him on a path that would end in his defeat of the British. Over the course of the war, Washington cultivates friendships with many of his commanders, including Greene and Knox, showing that Washington has overcome his prejudices against New Englanders.
The Americans go on to defeat the British largely because of military and financial support from France and the Netherlands. At the same time, it is Washington and his army who win the war—not the French or the Dutch. Washington isn’t a brilliant strategist, and he has made many mistakes by the time the war ends, but he “never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.”
McCullough seems to suggest that Washington deserves the bulk of the credit for defeating the British in the Revolutionary War, a point that not all historians would agree with. Many would argue that Washington was a mediocre, devious commander who only won because the French gave him massive amounts of troops and money. But there is much to suggest that Washington was the wise and pragmatic thinker McCullough portrays. His victories in Trenton and Princeton are confirmation of his talents as a commander.
1776 is remembered as America’s birth year. But for most American soldiers, it was a year of disease, hunger, and desertion—with “all-too-few victories.” Especially for those who served alongside Washington from 1776 until the end of the war, the American victory against the British “seemed little short of a miracle.”
Too often, history classes treat the American revolution as a glorious, idealistic fight for freedom. But, as McCullough has shown in his book, the Revolutionary War was a miserable, painful struggle for the thousands of Americans who actually fought in battle against the British. The Americans succeeded against the British not simply because of their ideals but because of the hard work and dedication of American soldiers.