Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds by William L. Kidder (Lawrence Township, NJ: Knox Press, 2018)
Gen. George Washington’s granite composure in Emanuel Leutze’s painting of the Delaware River crossing conveys a sense of majesty and leadership. “His Excellency” appears to be in complete control while his armies are organized behind him, carefully maneuvering around large chunks of river ice. The image certainly instills a kind of patriotic awe in the eyes of the beholder.
Was Washington really in complete control of his armies when he took them across the Delaware? Did he know what he was doing? Why was this effort so important at the time? New Jersey teacher and historian William L. Kidder’s recent book, Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds, describes the events surrounding not only the Delaware River crossing, but also the attacks on Trenton and Princeton. Kidder, whose books Crossroads of the Revolution (2017) and A People Harassed and Exhausted (2013) focus on New Jersey during the Revolution, continues to make the Garden State the center of his interests. His admitted hope by publishing his work is to get more people to visit the sites which essentially changed the course of the war. A wide array of letters, memoirs, diaries, maps, and tables are included to enhance Kidder’s narrative. The result is an informative and suspenseful study of the people and places of southern New Jersey between December 25, 1776 and January 3, 1777.
By providing a play-by-play account of the battles and their aftermath, Kidder attempts to show that Washington came into his own as an exceptional military leader by improvising and thinking clearly when the odds were against him. The introduction begins with a portrayal of necessary qualities for leadership; according to Maj. Gen. William Heath: “‘Ambuscade, surprise and stratagem are said to constitute the sublime part of the art of war, and that he who possesses the greatest resource in these will eventually pluck the laurel from the brow of his opponents.’” (p. 1) It becomes Kidder’s goal to depict Washington as the fulfillment of Heath’s description.
The situation seemed more than bleak for the Continental Army in December 1776. Washington and his armies retreated from New York, and Congress withdrew from Philadelphia out of fear of invasion and fled to Baltimore. British Gen. William Howe offered a pardon and a proclamation of amnesty to all New Jersey residents who swore allegiance to George III. Many soldiers were looking forward to leaving because their terms of enlistment were about to end. Gen. John Burgoyne created the British plans to win the war, such as isolating New England and weakening New York City. A series of cantonments in southern New Jersey were set up and occupied by both British and Hessian armies, and the hope was that Washington would give up the fight because he was surrounded in what was considered to be a loyalist stronghold.
Washington understood the odds were not in his favor. He formulated a plan to launch a surprise attack on the Hessian encampment in Trenton on Christmas, when their guard would be down. Washington believed that this attack, if successful, would make other victories possible:
By the time Washington was putting the final touches on his plan, he was not just interested in a quick symbolic victory at Trenton, but saw Trenton as a first step in driving the British out of New Jersey. Leaving New Jersey occupied over the winter would not be acceptable to his officers, the Congress, and many ordinary supporters of the fight for independence. (p. 84-85)
An attack on the garrison at Trenton would allow for further attacks and restore the ability of Whigs to control the New Jersey government.
What followed was a well-coordinated and well-executed plan of action. New England sailors and fishermen (looked down on because of the presence of blacks) manned boats for the Continental Army. Washington was able to then bring his entire army across the Delaware River, crossing at various points. The surprise on Trenton was complete. The Hessian commander, the popular “soldier’s soldier” Col. Johann Rall, did not believe that the Americans were capable of such an attack, and he ignored warnings of troop movements. Rall suffered a mortal wound, which was probably better for his reputation after his troops scattered in confusion:
They [sic] Hessians who escaped were not a cohesive unit such as a regiment or battalion and in many cases not even complete at the company level. They had fled in terror from a battle which had been a surprise and then an uncoordinated series of prods and retreats. There had been no central rallying point or a standing set of orders to keep unites coordinated. They were skilled and brave soldiers, but they had been badly led by their commanding officers who had made the all too common error of underestimating his opponent. (p. 156)
Kidder made this story more interesting by giving details of how the battle affected not only the Patriots, but also the Hessians, the British, Loyalists, and civilians. Soldiers were given medical treatment in people’s homes, while onlookers were killed by stray gun and cannon fire. The testimonies of various members of these groups in the battle provide a unique picture of Washington as a firm but compassionate “hands-on” commander. Hessian soldiers were treated kindly in the hopes that more would be tempted to desert.
While Washington was plotting his next move, news of Trenton was being sent out in many directions. Congress as a result ended up giving Washington almost dictatorial powers so that he could continue in his success and get more soldiers to remain in the Army. British troops fought with the Patriots outside of Trenton on January 2, 1777, at Assunpink Bridge, hoping to immobilize Washington and keep him in Trenton. Lord Cornwallis, in charge of the British armies in New Jersey, called off the attack when night approached. Washington took advantage of that mistake and marched his forces out of Trenton and towards Princeton early in the morning on January 3. A bloody engagement was fought later in the day, ending in a British retreat from the town. The book’s discussion of the aftermath of the battle includes descriptions of the grisly wounds suffered by many.
A cast of famous Revolutionary War historical figures adds to the story of the battles. Including civilians and historical “unknowns” makes the leaders more realistic. Lord Cornwallis and General Howe were integral to the British actions. The well-known physician/politician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, knew some New Jersey loyalist families. Gen. Henry Knox wrote about what he witnessed in battle to his beloved wife Lucy. Alexander Hamilton participated, along with future president James Monroe. Financier Robert Morris was on hand to take messages back to Congress, and he was instrumental in providing Washington with badly needed cash for the troops.
Each chapter in Ten Crucial Daysis arranged chronologically, detailing the events in the order they occurred. The author includes possibly every available resource to tell the story with accuracy. He employs an interesting technique in his writing by including a series of questions at the end of each chapter: What would happen next? What would Washington do after the battle? How would the Congress react? It is as if the questions make the book more suspenseful. It is a welcome distraction from the blood and gore that Kidder offers the reader. The maps are interesting, although most are nearly identical to each other with only small variations.
The editing was done poorly. There were several misspellings which should have been easily caught. Also, one chapter was named differently in the table of contents than what appeared at the beginning of the chapter itself. These errors of course were minor and in no way take away from Kidder’s book. Ten Crucial Days is not only for those who are fond of New Jersey, although residents of the state will be proud of how crucial Trenton and Princeton were to change the fortunes of the Patriots. The story has a sense of the dramatic to it, which is not an easy task when working with so many details. Kidder’s portrayal of Washington as a battlefield commander is well worth the read.