Visiting Washington’s Crossing today reminded me of what was at stake in this fledgling war. Washington was hemmed in by Howe’s troops on the one side and the Hessians on the other. As we walked the site I could see in my mind’s eye Washington agonzing over what course to pursue. If he stayed until winter Howe would have pursued him in the spring. If he crossed the ice-choked Delaware the bloodthirsty Hessians lay in wait. Rather than be captured and hanged, he chose his “death wish”–to cross the River and die in combat. Fortunately it didn’t work out that way. GW and his men caught some booze-crazed soldiers sleeping off their holiday revelry and they staged a surprise attack which yielded the surrender of 918 sleepy-eyed soldiers and a pack full of much-needed supplies. It was one of the first victories of the war for his troops, and one of the finest examples I can think of to teach my students that history is contingency. That is, history is built on the choices people make. Think of what would have happened if Washington had not crossed the River in December? He would have been captured and the War would have come to an unceremonious end.
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