I'm a major history buff. However, I'll freely admit to having done much more reading in American history than other topics. For example, I've read moI'm a major history buff. However, I'll freely admit to having done much more reading in American history than other topics. For example, I've read more biographies of George Washington than I have histories on Asia and the Middle East combined (unless maybe you give me partial credit for Japan and World War II). And, while such a trend is unlikely to change completely, I have started making some effort to branch out. An early pick for this effort was Tamim Ansary's 2009 Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Ansary's ambitious attempt to introduce the Islamic view of world history is fantastic, and well worth reading for any history fan, especially those like me who have been provincial in their previous reading.
Ansary, who was born of an Afghan father and American mother in Afghanistan and moved to the United States in high school, is very well-suited to act as a bridge for the two worlds for his readers. He is able to see Islamic culture from an insider's point of view while also recognizing its place in relation to the Western view of history, and explain all of that to a Western audience - no small task, that.
Ansary begins with a brief introduction the Middle East (itself a very Western-centric term, of course) before Muhammad's arrival on the scene. He then devotes a large segment of the book to Muhammad's time and that of the first four Caliph's to follow him. Since this was obviously such a major event in the formation of Islamic culture and outlook, the detailed look at this period is worth the space devoted to it, as it shapes everything that follows.
The book then moves into detailing the political, social, and religious changes in and challenges to Islam over the years, and how even dividing that into three themes as I did is an artificial external imposition, since from within Islam, the political, social, and religious are so often all one thread.
Ansary introduces all the major empires, religious schisms, and so on, until the Western narrative collides with Islam, at first with the minor - as far as Islam was concerned - detail of the Crusades - and then later in the 18th and 19th centuries as Western powers and greedy rulers slowly end up with foreigners calling the shots, openly or behind the scenes, in many major Islamic former powers. Ansary then details the natural response to that from Islam as it has sought to take back its own destiny.
Ansary does an amazing job of bringing all the historical figures to life and entertaining the reader. As he states in his introduction, his approach is less an academic tome and more a conversation about just what the heck is going on over there with Islam. For such a broad and sweeping attempt to introduce the Islamic view of the world to readers unfamiliar with it, it's a perfect approach to engage while educating.
I listened to Blackstone Audio's 2009 production of the book, narrated by Ansary himself. The production was very well done, and Ansary does a fantastic job. Author narration can be hit or miss, but Ansary really hits a great tone that's easy to listen to and indeed fits his conversational writing approach, and he nails all the pronunciation that another reader would trip over. The unabridged production runs approximately 17.5 hours.
I've become a fan of Ansary with Destiny Disrupted, and I definitely plan to read more from him - and if possible listen to him. His history of Afghanistan, Games Without Rules, also self-narrated, is high on my to read list. I also aim to read more about some of the topics Ansary introduces from other authors, so much has my curiosity been piqued. Ansary does an amazing job of making a vital part of world history accessible to the average Western reader. Given the modern state of the world, it's imperative we Americans understand how our two cultures ended up where we are. Ansary's Destiny Disrupted is an excellent place to start....more
As a recent cancer survivor - Stage I testicular cancer, and by recent, I mean my hair hasn't grown back from the chemo yet - I found myself wanting tAs a recent cancer survivor - Stage I testicular cancer, and by recent, I mean my hair hasn't grown back from the chemo yet - I found myself wanting to learn more about the disease, and not just handouts from the hospital or a skim of the American Cancer Society's website, as useful as those are. That's when I recalled seeing The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer on some award-winner lists a while back. Indeed, oncologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee's 2010 book was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, and after reading it with the added weight of my own experience, I highly recommend it to anyone looking to better understand this medical terror and how we - patients, doctors, researchers, drug companies, society - got to where we are today in our understanding and treatment of cancer.
Mukherjee goes all the way back to ancient Egypt in starting his tale, and does a very good job of chronicling the understanding different times and places had of cancer. From the bad humors of the ancient Greeks to the gruesome surgeries of the early modern era to the late 20th century guesswork of chemotherapy protocols, to today's search for genetic causes, you'll see how patients were treated, what doctors could or couldn't do, and what research if any was being undertaken.
One thing I grew to appreciate from this tour through cancer's history is how lucky I am. My father and his older brother both also had testicular cancer. Reading The Emperor of All Maladies, I discovered that when my uncle had it in the early '70's, chemo for that kind of cancer was still not perfected which is why he didn't get it, that cisplatin, which was the foundation of both my dad's early '80's chemo and mine, was first human-tested in the mid '70's, and that the anti-nausea drugs I had access to - as imperfect as they are - didn't even exist until the late '80's, which is part of why my dad's chemo experience was so much worse than mine. It's amazing to me that treatment for the same kind of cancer - and not even one of the ones with it's own color ribbon - has progressed so rapidly just in two generations, and Mukherjee does an excellent job of tracking all these developments.
Mukherjee's writing is excellent. If I didn't know he was an oncoloogist, I'd swear he was a novelist. He keeps the book moving quickly, and is adapt at covering all the different parts of the story. One of the major things he does that impresses me is how he always keeps a human face on what he's describing. Learning about the researchers and doctors who have been crucial to cancer's story makes their efforts and their struggles more understandable. But Mukherjee is an oncologist and researcher himself, so one would expect him to get that part of the humanization down. What's really impressive is his ability to keep those afflicted by cancer at the center of the story and how the suffering, triumphs, and failures they experience are impacted by the state of medicine at the time of their diagnosis.
Mukherjee does a good job of explaining things so that those without a medical background will be able to follow along. All of my degrees are in the social sciences, as opposed to biological or chemical, but I was able to understand Mukherjee's scientific descriptions well. My wife is a genetic counselor, so I did have a fair idea of how modern cancer genetics is understood, even before Angelina Jolie made BRCA1 front page news, but I don't think the average reader would have trouble following along with Mukherjee's explanations. He manages to describe the science in an easily understood manner without feeling like he's talking down to you - truly remarkable for a doctor!
I highly recommend The Emperor of All Maladies, whether you're a cancer survivor, a concerned family member, or someone lucky enough not to have cancer hit close to you yet. Mukherjee is a fantastic writer, who ably brings the science to the reader and he addresses all the different facets of the story of cancer well in this book. It's easy to see why this book won the Pulitzer....more
As a fan of American Revolutionary history, 19th century writing, and free books, when I saw John Fiske's The War of Independence free for Kindle, I wAs a fan of American Revolutionary history, 19th century writing, and free books, when I saw John Fiske's The War of Independence free for Kindle, I was immediately intrigued. Published in 1889, the 100th anniversary of George Washington becoming the first president and, as Fiske puts it, closing out the Revolutionary era, The War of Independence is a brisk, entertaining introductory read with surprising depth in areas that are often ignored and a writing style that has all the flavor of the late 19th century.
Fiske begins his approach by explaining the different relationships with the British crown each colony had before the Revolution. This goes a long way in revealing why certain colonies were more revolutionary than others. He gives a good summary of the various military and economic stresses in the colonial/crown relationship before the Revolution sparked, such as the French and Indian War and the various acts and taxes enacted by Parliament.
One of the other strengths of this book is its attention to the British politics driving their approach to the rebellion. The assorted factions vying for dominance between the King and the different Parliamentary parties goes a long way in explaining the pre-Revolution Parliamentary acts that went over so poorly and the different strategies pursued by the British during the war itself. Fiske does a fine job explaining the different British players and how their motivations affected British policy.
Fiske does not get too into the actual military movements of the war. He does discuss the major battles, but he does not get into the details of any of them. For an introductory survey, this is a fair approach, and there's no shortage of entire books about the major battles, so it doesn't bother me, but it is worth noting.
Fiske meant this volume as an introductory history for students. That leaves it pretty accessible even today, and his energy and pace help keep the story moving. It's still a 19th century work, though, so it's written at a higher level than one might expect today. As an analogy, consider that Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 Treasure Island is a "boy's adventure" book of that same era, and compare it to today's YA books. Fiske's student volume bears a similar relationship to today's student non-fiction.
Anyone interested in an exciting and revealing history of the Revolutionary War would do well to check out Fiske's The War of Independence. Fiske does an excellent job of telling an entertaining story, and the writing style is full of 19th century flavor while still being accessible. It's a well worth reading, and you can't beat the price....more
George Washington has been the subject of countless books, from multi-volume biographies to books that focus in on a single aspect of his life. John FGeorge Washington has been the subject of countless books, from multi-volume biographies to books that focus in on a single aspect of his life. John Ferling's 2009 The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon falls into the later camp, looking at the father of our country through the lens of his political career. Overall, it's an interesting book with a fresh - if often cynical - perspective, though I wouldn't recommend it as anyone's first venture into reading about Washington.
From Washington's early days trying to rise the ranks in Virginia, to his French and Indian War service, his colonial Virginia political career, to leading the Continental Army, to his time as the first President, Ferling depicts Washington as constantly looking for advantage and political advancement, while putting a noble, self-sacrificing face on his actions.
For a fan of Washington like myself it can be a bit trying to hear Ferling keep attempting to tear him down, but Ferling does a solid job of establishing his interpretation, and it is interesting to see episodes other biographers gloss over or don't mention at all, or commonly discussed events from another angle. While Ferling didn't dim my admiration for Washington, I do have a more well-rounded view, and I wouldn't say that Ferling ventures into "hacket job" territory at any point.
The main area where I'd suggest Ferling is overly hard on Washington is slavery. Ferling is pretty negative about Washington on that front, but having read Henry Wiencek's excellent An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America I'd suggest that Ferling doesn't give Washington enough credit for his growth on this issue over his life or for the environment he was in.
I would not recommend this book for the Washington novice. It helps to have read at least one general biography of the man to have a baseline for Ferling's alternate view, and since Ferling sometimes skims over less political aspects of Washington's life one might be a bit lost without other background. Reading something along the lines of Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner, His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis, or Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow would be wise before tackling The Ascent of George Washington. Reading Ferling first might also sour you on Washington unnecessarily.
I listened to Tantor Audio's 2009 production of the book, narrated by Norman Dietz. The production was very well done, and Dietz delivers a solid, no-frills reading fitting the non-fiction topic. The unabridged production runs approximately 17.5 hours.
The Ascent of George Washington is an interesting book for the veteran Washington reader, and I recommend it to anyone who fits that category and is looking for a different take on the first president's life. This was my second Ferling book, following Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 which didn't impress me. The Ascent of George Washington, however, was good enough that I was glad to have given Ferling another chance and expect to read more from him in the future....more
In 2003, historian Henry Wiencek tackled the difficult subject of America's Founding Fathers and slavery with his excellent and penetrating An ImperfeIn 2003, historian Henry Wiencek tackled the difficult subject of America's Founding Fathers and slavery with his excellent and penetrating An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. In 2012, he revisited the topic to take on a Founder who comes out much worse for the contest in Thomas Jefferson in Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Wiencek delivers another fascinating look at a troubling part of the American past in examining how the author of the Declaration of Independence justified owning slaves.
While George Washington went from typical Virginia planter to commanding African-American soldiers in the Revolution and freeing his slaves in his will after many attempts to do so in his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson, unfortunately, takes the opposite arc. Wiencek describes how Jefferson changed from a young idealist who had included emancipatory language in the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence to a man who wrote how glowingly about how profitable holding slaves was, deflected any suggestion he push for emancipation in Virginia or emancipate his own slaves, and probably had a relationship with a woman he owned.
Wiencek very carefully follows Jefferson's documented views on slavery over his life, untangled the most obfuscating of Jefferson doublespeak with penetrating analysis and a reliance on the facts. For every Jefferson letter where he speaks about slavery being an unprofitable and heavy burden, he finds an entry in Jefferson's business papers showing how profitable the slaves were in fact. For every claim slaves were unable to take care of themselves or learn complex tasks, Wiencek finds examples of distinguished slave artisans at Monticello and the success of slaves who had run away from Monticello or been freed by other nearby slaveholders. Jefferson had no problems living in one world and pretending it was another, and Wiencek thoroughly tears down the facade.
In addition to a large focus on documentary evidence on Jefferson's views and how he ran Monticello, Wiencek also looks at the archaeological evidence of how Jefferson's plantation worked. He includes descriptions of what he learned from the scholars working on the mountain, and it provides an interesting perspective that adds to the written trail.
No discussion of Jefferson and slavery would be complete without addressing Sally Hemings, of course. Wiencek addresses this major issue evenhandedly and with looking at all available scientific and documentary evidence and concludes that Thomas Jefferson probably was the father of Hemings' children. Wiencek also uses the examples of the Hemings family to explore Jefferson's relationship to his slaves that weren't of this favored family.
I listened to HighBridge Audio's 2012 production of the book, narrated by Brian Holsopple. The production was very well done, with Holsopple providing a neutral, almost conversational voice to Wiencek's words. Holsopple also made it very clear when he was quoting a historical document or person through his vocal framing, which I've found can be a problem with some other non-fiction narrators. The unabridged production runs approximately 11 hours.
I highly recommend Wiencek's Master of the Mountain to anyone interested in Jefferson, slavery, or early American history. It doesn't have the same positive arc that Washington's story does, but that's Jefferson's fault, not Wiencek's, and since there were many more plantation owners like Jefferson than Washington, it's all the more relevant.
Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this audiobook from the publisher....more
I am a huge baseball fan, and really appreciate the history of the game. I've watched Ken Burns' Baseball probably a half-dozen times. As such, I'm thI am a huge baseball fan, and really appreciate the history of the game. I've watched Ken Burns' Baseball probably a half-dozen times. As such, I'm the exact target audience for Lawrence S. Ritter's book, The Glory of Their Times: The Story Of The Early Days Of Baseball Told By The Men Who Played It. This book was absolutely fantastic, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with any interest at all in baseball. Even if you aren't currently interested in the game's history, you will be by the time you finish The Glory of Their Times.
Originally published in 1966 including interviews with 22 players from the early 20th century, and expanded in 1984 with an additional four player interviews, Ritter sets out to capture the memories of the earliest players of the game for the ages, and does so brilliantly. The book consists of a chapter for each player interviewed, and Ritter lets the player tell their own story in their own way. It's absolutely fascinating to hear these players echoing through the decades and describing the way they played the game, their careers, their teammates, their managers, the business of baseball, and even the fans of the day as seen from the player's view.
One of the aspects of the book that I enjoyed most is that many of the players discuss the same events or players, including each other, and it's great getting different takes on all of that. You'll hear all about what the players of the day, including his teammates, thought of Merkle's Boner, or what it was like to play with or against Ty Cobb, or what manager John McGraw was like to play for. By the time you finish the book, you'll feel like you've gotten to know all these other players just as well as the men interviewed, who range from Hall of Famers like Sam Crawford or Paul Waner to a career utility player like Specs Torporcer.
Baseball fans who, like me, have enjoyed Ken Burns' Baseball documentary should read this book. In fact, I re-watched Baseball (once again) only a couple months before reading The Glory of Their Times, and I recognized many of the stories and quotes from the early episodes of Baseball as having come straight from these interviews. So, if you enjoyed those, there's a lot more like that here for you.
Another part of the book that is well done is the inclusion of many, many photographs. Ritter gives the reader pictures of all the interviewees and many of the people they talk about, and the pictures are included in the text when relevant, instead of in a glossy insert in the middle of the book, so they're very effective in helping the reader visualize the events being described.
I highly recommend The Glory of Their Times. It's a magnificent book that does a wondrous job of drawing the reader into the early days of baseball....more
As any fan of American history can tell you, there are a lot of books out there on the American Revolution. From general overviews to treatises on speAs any fan of American history can tell you, there are a lot of books out there on the American Revolution. From general overviews to treatises on specific battles, you can find a book on just about any aspect of the Revolution. In his 2008 volume With Zeal and with Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America,1775-1783, Matthew H. Spring manages to focus in on a very specific topic - how the British infantry fought - in a way that will illuminate every other book on the Revolutionary War I will ever read.
Springs efforts in With Zeal and with Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (hereafter to be referred to as With Zeal and with Bayonets Only ) are, to say the least, thorough. Every angle of the British infantry campaign is examined. There are chapters on strategy, supply, marching, firepower, principles of command, training - even an entire chapter, befittingly for the title of the book, on the use of the bayonet. Each chapter is filled with firsthand accounts from players on all sides - British, American, Hessian, officer, enlisted, no perspective is left out. Even that old friend of any Revolutionary War reader, American private and author of Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier Joseph Plumb Martin makes two appearances, commenting on the effects of British artillery and on how to evade pursuit from British infantry.
Spring is British, and approaches the war from that perspective. Since most historians writing about the American Revolution are American, it's refreshing to see the British perspective, and fitting since With Zeal and with Bayonets Only is looking at the British side of the war. In this book, you have rebels and loyalists, instead of the usual patriots and Tories. It's a small detail, but it helps keep you in the British frame of mind.
With Zeal and with Bayonets Only illustrates very clearly how the British army fought, what changes they made in the American theater to adapt to the enemy and the terrain, why they fought the way they did, why it worked when it often did, and why in the end it just wasn't enough. Despite Spring's British perspective, he doesn't hesitate to point out flaws with the British army or strengths of the rebels.
The only aspect of the book that isn't quite to my taste is that I generally prefer my history to be more narrative. To be fair, Spring isn't trying to do narrative history, and that wouldn't really fit the subject well anyway. Spring's approach of thoroughly examining each aspect of the British campaign in its own chapter works very well for what he's doing, and you will certainly finish each chapter with a much better understanding of its topic. I mention this mostly to make other fans of narrative history aware of the way Spring structures the book.
With Zeal and with Bayonets Only is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the American Revolution. Yes, it's a very narrow topic, but it handles that topic excellently, and will do a great deal to inform the rest of your Revolutionary reading. It's added much to my understanding of the Revolution, and given me a greater appreciation for what the adversaries of the British army accomplished, whether you call them rebels or patriots....more
Both Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War have seen countless books devoted to them, from general biographies or histories to entire books focused on sinBoth Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War have seen countless books devoted to them, from general biographies or histories to entire books focused on single speeches by Lincoln or single battles of the war. So, the idea of a book narrowly focused on Abraham Lincoln in his role as Commander in Chief is a good one, with a great deal of potential to take a unique view of Lincoln and the war. Unfortunately, in James M. McPherson's 2008 volume Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, he doesn't really live up to the potential of the premise, instead delivering what reads more like a general history of the Union war effort.
McPherson opens with setting up five main ideas about what a Commander in Chief has to be responsible for. Unfortunately, I can't recall what the five things are, since McPherson then completely forgets to mention them (not even so much as a "Lincoln's decision with X addressed Goal Y") until the epilogue. It's just sloppy writing. Without calling back to the five main points he went to such lengths to detail in the opening, McPherson seems to drift in his narrative and doesn't really get back to the premise of the book.
What McPherson gives us is a fairly general account of the Civil War from the Union side. He honestly doesn't even seem very focused on Lincoln. He spends a great deal of time in the field with the cavalcade of Union generals and in the thick of various fights. But those don't really have anything directly to do with Lincoln, much less his role as Commander in Chief. Detailing how Lincoln made his decisions about the war would be more what I'm expecting, but that's not what we get. Reading time after time how each Union general before Grant screwed up I can do with pretty much any Civil War history.
Even though it's a general biography of Lincoln, I found David Herbert Donald's Lincoln to be much better at the stated goal of Tried by War than Tried by War is. The approach Donald took was to look only at what Lincoln knew when making his decisions. Donald never goes to any battlefields in his biography, save for when Lincoln himself occasionally visited the Army of the Potomac. After all, the specifics of what happened when the battles started were out of Lincoln's hands. All Lincoln could be responsible for were the commands he gave the generals, not how those generals carried them out. McPherson really could have benefited from taking this same approach. It would have provided much more focus to Tried by War and kept the book to its stated premise, instead of getting bogged down as badly as McClellan leading the Army of the Potomac.
McPherson doesn't really seem to evaluate Lincoln's decisions when he does talk about them, either. Until the epilogue, there's no mention of whether or not Lincoln's suspicion of Habeas Corpus was justified or necessary, or any discussion of if his choices for general in chief could have been better, for example. For a book that is supposed to be evaluating Lincoln as Commander in Chief, those issues need to be the central conversation, not simply confined to the epilogue.
I listened to Penguin Audio's 2009 recording of Tried by War, read by George Guidall. Guidall was adequate, but had issues. The main problem with his reading is that he uses a single voice. Even though Tried by War is a history and not a novel and doesn't have characters per se, you still need to be able to hear the difference when something is being quoted. I could forgive Guidall for not inventing voices for Lincoln, McClellan, et al, but he should have still had a consistently identifiable tone for quotes. He would sometimes have a certain inflection when a quote started, but not always, and it was hard to tell at times when the quote ended and McPherson picked up, because there was no closing inflection. The audio production runs approximately 9.5 hours.
Tried by War is a perfectly solid history of the Union effort in the Civil War. Unfortunately, it aimed to be so much more than that, and made no real effort to reach its own stated goal. McPherson missed a chance for a really great book here....more
In 2003, historian David McCullough delivered the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in Washington, DC. Released as an audiobook in 2005 as The CoursIn 2003, historian David McCullough delivered the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in Washington, DC. Released as an audiobook in 2005 as The Course of Human Events, this speech is a 45 minute love letter to the field of history itself, and a joy to listen to for those who share McCullough's passion.
My first encounter with McCullough was his audio book reading of his Revolutionary War history 1776, so I already knew going into The Course of Human Events about McCullough's great oratorical skills and his mastery of the subject. As he notes in the speech, when he delivered The Course of Human Events he was working on 1776 at the time, and a great many - though not all - of his examples and stories come from the Revolutionary era.
One of the themes the McCullough builds in this speech is that none of the famous figures of the past lived in the past. In fact, they all lived in their present, and the success of their struggles was anything but certain at the time. By learning about how they overcame the challenges of their present, we can find courage and learn to overcome the challenges of our present. It's a powerful theme, and McCullough makes a strong case for it.
McCullough also discusses how he discovered his own joy of reading and of history, and cites some of the books that influenced him, as well as books that inspired and influenced the Founding Fathers. This is a great resource for history fans, and I've already requested some of these books from my library to discover for myself.
This speech is just that, a speech, and not a full book. But if you're a fan of McCullough, you'll be delighted anyways, and motivated to read more of his work, as well as those works he mentions in the speech.
If you're a history fan, you'll love McCullough's eloquent tribute to the field with The Course of Human Events. If you're not a history fan, you might just be after you've listened to this speech....more
I've been reading a lot of American Revolutionary history lately, and even so, David Hackett Fischer's 2003 volume Washington's Crossing, winner of thI've been reading a lot of American Revolutionary history lately, and even so, David Hackett Fischer's 2003 volume Washington's Crossing, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history, stands out as excellent. Much like David McCullough's fantastic 1776, Washington's Crossing focuses in on a narrow portion of the Revolutionary War and brings it to vivid life.
Washington's Crossing is devoted to an in-depth look at the New Jersey campaign of the winter of 1776-1777. However, Fischer doesn't just dump you into the icy Delaware River without some background. He starts off by examining each of the three armies involved, the American, British, and Hessian, looking at where they came from, how they viewed the Revolution, how they operated, and what their goals were. This section is extremely interesting, and did a lot to enhance my understandings of all sides.
The challenges Washington faced with Continental troops from all over the colonies and militia only vaguely under his command, the plans of British commanders Admiral and General Howe to pacify the countryside and aide the surely-numerous Loyalists in keeping the colonies under the King, and the economic and historical reasons Hessians became excellent mercenaries, and more - all of this was illuminating. Finally, Fischer gives an overview of the disastrous routing of the Continental Army during the New York campaign, which lead to the dire straights the Cause found itself in by November 1776.
Once he turns to the New Jersey campaign, Fischer breaks the action down into four main parts - the Battle of Trenton, the Battle of Assunpink Creek, the Battle of Princeton, and the Forage Wars. The Battle of Trenton, of course, is where the title of the book - and the famous painting - comes from, and was the initial shock that stunned the British and Hessians. Fischer does a great job of setting the scene for just how big a gamble this was for Washington. He also dispels the common myth about the Hessians being drunk on Christmas, as instead explaining how their openness to attack was a combination of fatigue from being on watch for days on end for militia who had been harassing them and an assumption that no one could be crazy enough to attack in the intense blizzard that, in fact, served the American purpose excellently by covering their approach.
My favorite part of the book, in fact, may be the part detailing the Battle of Assunpink Creek (also known as the Second Battle of Trenton). I hadn't even heard of this battle before. It was the British counterstrike after their loss at Trenton, and the Americans were forced into defending the indefensible city they had just taken from the Hessians days before. Through a combination of bravery from the men, ingenious generalship from Washington, and a willingness to fight the way that worked, instead of the way the British expected them to, the Americans not only won the battle, they were able to slip away from under the British's very noses in the middle of the night and make their way to Princeton, surprising the British once again with the American ability to show up where they weren't expected.
What followed was the Battle of Princeton, where the Americans ran into reinforcements headed to Trenton and defeated the British in a pitched battle on open field - a first. In less than two weeks, the Americans had run up several victories against the British, and rallied a Cause they seemed nearly dead only a month before. But they weren't done yet. The rest of the winter was consumed by the Forage War, in which the Americans - mostly militia - harassed the British in their winter quarters and while they attempted to supply their army from the countryside. By the spring of 1777, the British had gone from assuming the war was nearly over to, among some major leaders and many of the men, believing it could not be won.
Fischer covers all the bases in Washington's Crossing. He explains the motivations of the people and forces involved, he compellingly describes the battles with a novelist's flair, and he clearly lays out the effect the events of this book had on the Revolution as it continued. He really leaves no angle unexplored in this thorough effort, and is entertaining all the while.
One detail that aided the book greatly was the care given to the visual aspect of history. Maps of all the major encounters are plentiful, as are portraits of the major players, and they all appear in the text when the person is introduced, and not sequestered in a glossy break in the narrative midway though the pages of the book. This may not seem a big deal, but so many histories and biographies manage to mess it up that it's refreshing when it's handled well as it is in Washington's Crossing.
Finally, a comparison, since I mentioned it at the beginning, to David McCullough's 1776. There is certainly overlap between the two books. 1776 mainly covers between the Siege of Boston and the Battle of Princeton. It does so quite well, and is fantastic at covering the American side of the story. Washington's Crossing covers from the Battle of Long Island to the Forage Wars, and gives more attention to the British and Hessian side of the story than does 1776. Both are excellent and I recommend them to any fan of American history. If I had to pick one, it would probably be Washington's Crossing, by the narrowest of margins.
British General Lord Cornwallis, known to Americans as the loser at Yorktown in 1781, was also involved in the New Jersey campaign, and told Washington after Yorktown, "When the illustrious part that your Excellency has borne in this long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels rather from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake." Cornwallis was right - as important as the later battles of the war were, Washington saved the Revolution with the Continental victories in the New Jersey campaign. Washington's Crossing will show you why.
I highly recommend David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing to any fan of American or military history. Fishcer's work is compelling, thorough, well-researched, and most of all enjoyable. History fans will not be disappointed....more