It was December, 1776.
George Washington’s army, encamped on the banks of the frozen Delaware River, was struggling and near death.
As Jack E. Levin recounts in his New York Times bestseller, the famous story of George Washington: The Crossing (with a preface by his son Mark Levin) is riveting. A timely reminder on this Fourth of July 2013 — 237 years later — of the sheer, raw courage it took to bring the United States of America to life as more than the ringing words written on the parchment that was the Declaration of Independence.
While 1776 is usually recalled as the year the Declaration of Independence was written and signed, launching the Fourth of July forever after as a national holiday celebrating freedom and independence, in fact Washington and his new army had a perilous year.
The year had begun promisingly enough. In March, Washington had stunned the British by forcing them to evacuate Boston.
In November of 1775, under the leadership of the 25-year-old Boston bookseller Henry Knox, an unlikely choice by Washington for any kind of military leader let alone the army’s chief artillery officer, a group of Continentals had marched to the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York’s Essex County. There they stripped the garrison of the captured British artillery. Some 60 tons of cannon and armaments, drawn by ox-drawn sleds, were hauled over 300 miles of the rugged, snow, and ice-covered New York and Massachusetts terrain, the latter being the Berkshire Mountains. It took six long and very cold weeks to get the cannon to a waiting Washington, who was newly arrived to the task of commanding the Siege of Boston. The idea of shutting off the British from the Massachusetts heartland and beyond had occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. A determination was made to never again let British troops leave Boston by land. For months now the Americans and British had essentially been in a standoff. The British inside the city and controlling Boston Harbor, Washington and his army controlling everything outside of Boston.
Knox’s captured cannon were wheeled into place on Dorchester Heights, aimed down directly into the historic American city and its harbor. The bombardment began, the British returned fire from their fleet without the range to do any damage. By March 17, with 9,000 British soldiers on board along with a couple thousand loyalists, the British fleet evacuated Boston, never to return.
The problem? Where did the British fleet go?
The word was out that it had sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Washington would have none of it. It made no military sense, and Washington was nothing if not the ultimate military man. He suspected the fleet would show up in the next great urban prize along the American seaboard — New York City. Washington, writes Levin:
…rushed troops overland from Boston to New York City. He set his men digging entrenchments from the Battery to the northern tip of Manhattan Island.
Washington had guessed right. Late in June 1776 the missing British fleet appeared. Lord Howe (the British commander) had more than 100 ships loaded with thousands of British and Hessian troops for an attack on New York City.
And so Levin’s telling of this always astonishing story begins.
By August of 1776, 20,000 “battle-hardened” British and Hessian troops were landed at Gravesend, Long Island. They quickly smashed Washington’s troops that were there to protect Manhattan. The Americans fell back to Brooklyn Heights, where they now had the British in front of them and the East River to their rear. Washington’s entire army was now in peril of being completely wiped out, bringing the American Revolution to a quick and decisive end as an abject failure.
In a stroke of the kind of military genius that he and his American troops would repeatedly summon over the course of the war, Washington:
…ordered his men to gather all the boats they could find and bring them to the East River at dusk. Colonel John Glover’s regiment of Massachusetts fishermen began the enormous task of transporting the American troops in a rainstorm to Manhattan.
Everything went — “guns, horses, food and ammunition.” When the morning fog finally lifted — the British found the American high ground in Brooklyn empty.
Which didn’t stop the British.
Having an overwhelming military numbers they forced Washington from his retreat in Manhattan, capturing the American Fort Washington on the New York shore and Fort Lee on the New Jersey side. Taking not only valuable supplies but capturing 2,600 American officers and troops.
Humiliated, understanding that Howe’s next target would be the American capital of Philadelphia, Washington set out to reach Pennsylvania before the British.
On November 12, 1776, Washington led 3,000 men across the Hudson River into New Jersey.
General Lord Cornwallis, commanding 10,000 British and Hessian troops, quickly followed, confident they’d catch and destroy the Americans in a short time. Pursuing the rebels relentlessly, they did not allow them to rest.
Now the weather turned. It began to rain a cold, chilling rain. Troops began falling ill, many dying. Desertion became a problem. Yet Washington persisted. Marching his rag-tag band across Western New Jersey, chased by the British. A pursuing British officer wrote:
“Many of the Rebels who were killed were without shoes and stockings, and several were observed to have only linen drawers, also in want of blankets, they must suffer extremely.”
And so they did. Yet Washington pushed them onward, finally outrunning their British pursuers and crossing the Delaware River into the temporary safety of Pennsylvania on December 8, 1776.
With the river separating them, the weather turning even colder, for the moment the war ground to a halt.
On the Pennsylvania side sat Washington’s army.
Utterly exhausted, freezing, and starved, they awaited the next move by the Redcoats. It started to snow…large pieces of ice began to form and float downstream.
And the Redcoats?
General Howe decided — why bother now? His troops were warm, well-supplied, and it was now the dead of the American winter. One report after another had Washington and his troops hanging on by their fingernails. Every report the British general had suggested that by the time spring arrived there would be no rebel army — period. The American Revolution was on its icy death bed.
During the American retreat, 39-year old Tom Paine, who had volunteered in Washington’s army, sat down and wrote an essay — The American Crisis. Already the famous young author of Common Sense, it was on that humiliating American retreat that he opened his essay with what would become some of the most famous lines in American history:
“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in the crisis, shrink from the service of his country: but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered: yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Reading this, Levin writes, General Washington was so impressed he ordered that it be read in front of each of his regiments. Yet even Washington, in private, was depressed. Levin finds this downcast moment in a letter from Washington to his brother John:
“I think the game is pretty near up…You can form no idea of the perplexity of my situation. No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.”
The cold became colder. The snow came. Washington and his men huddled together in their camp on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware at McKonkey’s ferry. Across the river and a mere nine miles distant, the Hessian commander Colonel Johann Rall sat in the warmth of a well-supplied Trenton with “1,400 battle-hardened professional Hessian soldiers.”
Washington pondered. A man of action, he looked at his maps. He looked out at the Delaware, filled with “floating blocks of ice,” and back at his men. Men who were desolate, “gathered around campfires freezing and hungry.” Enlistment terms were coming to an end on New Year’s Day. Paine’s “summer soldiers” would doubtless just leave.
He couldn’t just sit there. Something had to be done.
Washington would act.
Calling a war council, he announced his plan. He would take these frozen, starving, ill-dressed and sickly troops, cross the ice-filled Delaware River and attack Trenton. On Christmas Day.
The plan was as audacious as it was desperate. And tellingly very American in character. Writes Levin:
So very determined to succeed at their task were these men that the passwords “VICTORY OR DEATH” were chosen for the attack.
By late afternoon of Christmas Day Washington’s army was on the move. Down they went to the riverbank. They loaded the boats.
Fifty big artillery horses balked at being led onto the boats. They snorted and stamped on the ground with their hooves, rearing up because they were nervous. Eighteen cannons, weighing a few hundred pounds each, had to be loaded and tied down so they wouldn’t move once the boats started their journey across the ice-choked river. If a horse made a violent movement or a cannon broke loose from its mooring, the boat, which was overcrowded with troops, would capsize and all on board would perish because of the freezing water.
They shoved off. The crossing was underway, and Jack Levin does an excellent job of telling the rest of this story.
Why is this story important? What service has Jack Levin performed here?
This is a story of the American character. A reminder, amid the turmoil of an imagined “transformation” of America into a repeatedly failed idea it was never meant to be, of what the real idea of America was from the beginning — and the terrible struggle that ensued to make that idea reality.
The Declaration of Independence, ringing words of passionate belief, was that freezing Christmas night of 1776 still only words.
To make them real there would have to be sacrifice. Men who lost their lives to a British musket ball or cannon fire, men who froze to death or men who starved to death. Yet men who throughout all of these horrors and more — and there was to be much more horror until Washington finally accepted Lord Cornwallis’s sword at Yorktown in 1781 — refused to be the “summer soldier” because they realized with Tom Paine that “tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” These were men who came to understand Paine was right, that “we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
So here we sit 237 years later on the Fourth of July, 2013.
Flooded with issues — Obamacare, amnesty, Benghazi, unemployment, a lousy economy, a Supreme Court intent on ruling by personal fiat driven by personal sentiments, at war with Islamic jihadists intent on wiping out not only America but all of Western civilization.
What to do?
The very first thing to understand is precisely what Jack Levin has so perfectly illustrated — both in this book and in his own very American life. Jack Levin, for those who don’t know, is 88 years old. As the furious battle over immigration goes on, it is worth noting that Mr. Levin is himself the son of immigrants, a stellar example of how a legal immigration policy that welcomes people from all over the world can in fact work. He has lived the American life, passing onto his children — sons Mark, Doug and Rob — his own passion for America and its history.
His last book — Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address-Illustrated — brought to life Lincoln’s address to Americans about the ageless battle for liberty and equality, a book that is more than worth reading again as the Battle of Gettysburg has just seen its 150th anniversary.
The stories of Washington’s crossing the Delaware and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as Mr. Levin has illustrated, are at their core stories of the American character.
The American character — the character that was on display that December of 1776 and again on those three sweltering days of July in 1863 — is the very heart of America.
The American character — the refusal to give up, the ability to combine imagination and daring with action — is the real foundation of a Constitution dedicated to individual freedom and liberty.
On this 237th Fourth of July, Jack Levin could give no better gift to his fellow citizens than the timely reminder of the American character that was at the center of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.
As his son Mark’s old boss Ronald Reagan put it:
“We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
To read Jack Levin’s George Washington: The Crossing is to know that just as was true on that freezing December night of 1776, so is it true today. In the words of Thomas Paine:
These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in the crisis, shrink from the service of his country: but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered: yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Happy Fourth of July.
Image: Wikimedia Commons