Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution

Murphy, Jim.2010. The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution. New York: Scholastic.

The brave young men who first enlisted as soldiers under General George Washington's command were promised
a few happy years in viewing the different parts of this beautiful continent, in the honourable and truly reputable character of a soldier, after which, he may, if he pleases return home to his friends, with his pockets FULL of money and his head COVERED with laurels.
Of course, anyone familiar with the Revolution knows that nothing could have been further from the truth, which is why the choice of this 1775 recruiting poster makes such an excellent place to begin The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution. After the victories at Lexington and Concord, Congress and soldiers were feeling brave and confident.  It seemed that only George Washington understood the gravity of the situation and the enormity of the task ahead. 

Jim Murphy's latest book is not a chronicle of the American Revolution, but rather a close look at the period between June 15, 1775, when Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental army, and January 3, 1777, when the Continental army defeated the British troops at Princeton, following the famous victory at Trenton on December 26, 1777.  This was, Murphy contends, the most crucial period in the American Revolution, the period when the very survival of the nation hung in the balance.

In seven chronological chapters, Murphy carefully recounts the strategy, battles, and general mood of the soldiers and citizens during this period.  Maps, period artwork and quotations help to set the desperate mood of the times. At one point, after George Washington's "humiliating retreat through New Jersey,"
even a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Stockton, gave "his word of honor that he would not meddle in ... American affairs" and swore allegiance to King George III.
(Here I am left to wonder why one of New Jersey's colleges is named after Mr. Stockton, though he apparently did, at a later date, again swear allegiance to the United States.)

During a retreat from Fort Lee in November of 1776, just barely ahead of advancing British troops, Murphy writes that Washington's
desperate soldiers abandoned cooking kettles, muskets, ammunition pouches, and unnecessary clothing as they staggered along.  A New Jersey citizen recalled that these soldiers "looked ragged, some without a shoe to their feet, and most of them wrapped in their blankets."
As always, Jim Murphy's book is thoroughly researched, highly engaging, and exhaustively indexed.   A timeline, list of Revolutionary war sites, and notes and sources are also included.

As a New Jerseyan, an undergrad history major, and  mother who has accompanied the annual 4th graders' class trip to Trenton, I am quite familiar with New Jersey's Revolutionary history, but still found The Crossing to be enlightening and engrossing.  Particularly interesting to me is the lengthy explanation following the final chapter, of the famously inaccurate painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Murphy has given me new insight into, and appreciation for artist Emanual Gottlieb Leutze's iconic painting, depicting the standing George Washington crossing the Delaware River.  Art (and history) teachers would do well to use Murphy's text to introduce this painting. I plan to take a fresh look at it myself, as unfortunately, in keeping with the book's sepia-tones on white pages, only the back of the book jacket shows the painting in color in its entirety.

Highly recommended.

Enjoy this virtual visit to the present-day site of the famous landing spot,
 Washington Crossing State Park in NJ, where a reenactment is held each Christmas.

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