December, 1992, p. 6-
Howard Fast has shed light on everything from contemporary politics to history. Long interested in George Washington, he wrote Conceived in Liberty: A Novel of Valley Forge in 1939.
REVISING THE RECORD
Did Washington's Wisecrack Tip the Balance?
by Howard Fast
We are always intrigued by the question of what might have been had it been otherwise. Suppose the Nazis had been victorious in World War II? Was there a point where the war could have gone either way? Did the rhetoric of Winston Churchill tilt the balance, and can any individual, man or woman, tilt the balance of history? Suppose I pose the question in terms of our own country, the United States of America. Was there a moment in our history when the whole subject hung in the balance?
Come back to the very beginning. The date is July 4, 1776, and the place is a parade ground in downtown Manhattan Island. On this parade ground, an army of slightly more than twenty thousand men stand at ease. Here are a wonderful assortment of young men, farmers from the New England states, fishermen from the New England coast, Guild Ropewalkers from Boston and Providence, Dutch volunteers from New Jersey, German-speaking farmers from Pennsylvania, light cavalry from Philadelphia in their smart, expensive uniforms, riflemen from Virginia, brigade after brigade, a battery of one hundred shining cannon with eight hundred leather-aproned gunners to serve them, and almost a thousand banners rippling in the wind.
They are there to listen to the reading of a document we call the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and declaimed here in stentorian tones, the orator pausing again and again for the wild cheering of this great army, the army of the newly proclaimed republic, the Thirteen United Colonies of America - an army where the average age is eighteen and a half years, and where none of its twenty thousand are soldiers with any training as soldiers. And across the bay, on Staten Island, are fifteen thousand British and Hessian troops, the very best soldiers in the world at that time. This does not trouble the Americans. They are part of a great volunteer army - and they are certain that the British will be crushed and that the war will be over in a matter of weeks at the most - at which point they will go home and reap their crops and be with their families.
And reviewing this great army is their commander in chief, General George Washington, proud and confident, sharing the confidence of his young volunteers.
But it just didn't work out that way.
The general moved his Virginia riflemen to Brooklyn. The British trapped them there, slaughtering over five hundred - in what is remembered as the dark and bloody wood. The British landed on Manhattan. Their warships sailed up the Hudson River. The British attacked and the Americans turned tail and ran. The buoyant kids who felt that war was a great game found that it was something else indeed. The British encircled the Americans again and again, and over four thousand Americans surrendered. The Americans made a stand on the heights of northern Manhattan, and they were defeated. Thousands of the Americans simply deserted, losing themselves in the woods of Westchester County. The general got what was left of his army across the Hudson River into New Jersey, and the British and Hessians followed him.
He fled with his army south through New Jersey, and the British followed him and attacked him and continued to tear what remained of his army into shreds.
Finally, in December of 1776, less than six months after he had paraded his great army on the meadow in downtown New York, he managed to bring what was left of it across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, putting the river behind him as a bulwark and a way to have a few days of rest and recoupment.
But now, out of his once-great army, only forty-eight hundred remained - less than a quarter of the men he had commanded six months before. He had been promised additional troops from Philadelphia, but they would amount to less than a thousand. A few hundred more would come straggling in - in all less than six thousand. Their food was gone. They lived now on scraps, beggars on the countryside. Their summer clothing was in rags, their shoes worn through - and no chance to replenish their clothes. In return for Washington's pleading, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia sent only enough food to prevent actual starvation.
The British, convinced that the war was over, brought their army back to New York City, leaving an encampment of eleven hundred or so Hessians in Trenton to deal with the Americans should they try to recross the river. When solid ice formed in the Delaware - Washington had seized all the riverboats - the Hessians would cross the river and wipe out what remained of the Americans and the American cause.
So it was as December drew to a close. To all reasonable judgment, the struggle was over, the war had been lost, and what might have been would not be. But what might have been shifted gears. The man called George Washington, whose real self has been lost in the ridiculous miasma we call history and which we teach as history in our schools and on our television screens, decided that the war was by no means over, that what he needed to survive was food, clothing, blankets, ammunition, and cannon to replace the cannon he had left behind in New York - and that the closest and most obvious place to find all this was in the Hessian encampment at Trenton.
Thus, he decided to attack the Hessians, on Christmas Day in the very early morning, before sunrise. He divided what was left of his army into three parts. They would cross the Delaware at three points, attack Trenton from three directions, and overwhelm the Hessians. But his plan fell to pieces. The weather turned foul, rain that turned into icy sleet. The river was full of ice, and the two officers he had put in command of the two-thirds of his remaining forces lost their nerve and never crossed the river. This he did not know until the following day, and with the couple of thousand men he commanded in his section, he began to cross the river.
He had calculated that for his plan to work, he would have to attack in darkness, while the Hessians slept. By midnight, he realized that with only half of his force across the river, he could not attack in darkness. He was on the Pennsylvania shore with some nine hundred of his men still to cross, half-naked kids, wrapped in worn, wet blankets, skinny, shivering. Washington felt he had to get himself across and see what was happening on the other side. Harry Knox, twenty-six years old, onetime Boston bookseller, very fat, artillery chief of the six cannon that remained, was in the rear seat of the boat about to cross.
Washington nudged Knox with his boot and said something to the effect of the following: "Shift your fat ass, Harry, but don't swamp the *** boat!" More or less. More than a dozen people, present or close, wrote down what he - the writer - felt were the general's exact words, but these historical entries took place months or years later. The general, in an age noted for forthright language, had a most extraordinary command of gutter language; and whatever the exact words at the moment, it broke up the men on the dock. Half-hysterical already, their laughter was contagious. "What did he say? What did he say?" went down the line of waiting men. The story grew in the telling, and the men, wet, miserable, dispirited, became hysterical with laughter.
A few hours later, as dawn was breaking, two thousand half-naked, bearded, screaming kids, with no shot fired - a flintlock musket is useless in the rain - poured into Trenton and captured the entire Hessian garrison without losing a man; and once again, the United States of America became a possibility.
Somewhat different, no doubt, from Churchill's rhetoric - but whatever the general's few words were, they saved the day and a good deal more. Suppose he had had no gift for profanity? An interesting alternative.
*** Editor's note: General Washington's language was expurgated for the gentle sensibilities of the AMERICANA reader.