Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Notable Anniversary - Paine's Essay

Two hundred thirty years ago today (12/19/2006) saw the publication in Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania Journal, of "Number 1" of Thomas Paine's famous Revolutionary War essays entitled, The American Crisis. Four days later, it was published at cost in a pamphlet and it spread like wildfire throughout a nation struggling to survive, and uncertain of its future. His most popularly known work, Common Sense, published in early January of 1776, had helped inspire revolutionary fervor throughout the American colonies, encouraging the inhabitants of America to "come to a final separation" from the British Crown with the issuance of our Declaration of Independence on July 4th.

But The American Crisis, the first draft of which was literally written by Paine during the retreat of Washington’s army across New Jersey, played an astonishingly direct role in the salvation of the teetering Revolutionary War effort, just prior to that fateful Christmas week, and indeed throughout the seven long years of that struggle. Washington’s Army was 90% gone and the remainder was on the run late that fall. Congress headed for Baltimore. Yet Paine spoke to all Americans during what was called that “December Crisis,” from Congressman to farm hands, and helped to galvanize public opinion at a time when, in darker moments, General Washington himself was wondering out loud to his aide, Colonel Joseph Reed, if he might eventually have to retreat with his troops beyond the Allegheny Mountains. It is a story we all know bits and pieces of, but a reminder of greatness, both of word and of deed, I suppose is always in order.

According to David Hackett Fischer in his wonderfully detailed work, Washington’s Crossing, (Fischer), Paine resolved to write the essay while the army retreat was crossing the Passaic River on November 22nd, and started work on it as they camped in Newark. By December 7th, Washington’s troops had reached the Delaware River (one day ahead of the British) and Paine headed to Philadelphia to publish what was at that point a rough draft. He finished it at Philadelphia. Congress fled for Baltimore a few days later on December 12th, along with many of the capitol City’s inhabitants in the face of a near certain British occupation. In all of the panic, it took 10 days or so for Paine to get it into print. (Fischer at 138-43)

That first issue of The American Crisis was published a scant one week prior to the Battle of Trenton. The battle commenced with the river crossing on the evening of Christmas Day in 1776, a surprise and victorious attack by the beleaguered American Continental Army, improbably launched in a Nor’easter under nearly unimaginable hardships against the British troop cantonment under Colonel Rall and the Hessians stationed at the Trenton Barracks. Having been chased across into New Jersey from Fort Washington at the northern tip of Manhattan, and then out of Fort Lee in New Jersey, Washington's troops had narrowly escaped across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania and relative but temporary safety. But for the apparent desire of General Howe, even after the battles in New York to yet persuade the Americans to come back into the fold, Cornwallis might have engaged the remains of that beaten army, vastly diminished in numbers and stores, many sick with small-pox and ill-clothed, losing numbers daily to desertion, retreating for their very lives.

During the retreat, Washington has given advance orders to gather up all boats along the Delaware and to destroy any that they could not take to the other side. The Continental army had been outflanked and beaten soundly in Brooklyn (Long Island), escaped by small boats under cover of a fog into Manhattan, thence moved to upper Manhattan, where, after a brief victory at Harlem Heights, they again went on the defensive and escaped by small boats across to Fort Lee New Jersey. They narrowly escaped again, and retreated across the State, again crossing a few waterways with the British in hot pursuit to the banks of the Delaware, where they crossed, with nearly all the boats in tow, and there set up their defensive positions.

Daniel Bray and others of the Hunterdon militia had collected the boats above the falls at Trenton along the Delaware, even up into the Lehigh, and the Pennsylvania Navy did the same along the southern reaches. Colonel Glover and his Marbleheaders knew boats and had enabled those various escapes in and around New York, as well as the Delaware crossing on Christmas night under the command of Colonel Henry Knox. Knox, a Boston bookseller, had taught himself about artillery from treatises in his store, and played an inestimable role in both crossings and returns, as well as the artillery placements at those December battles.

The Battle at Trenton we now know was a turning point in the American Revolution, and was fought a mere six days before the enlistments of many of Washington's troops would run out at the end of the year. Without that victory, and the subsequent victory at Princeton a few days later, it seems incomprehensible how the American Revolution could have been sustained. Washington's crossing of the Delaware was accomplished in those boats, many of which had been hidden from sight behind islands like Malta Island, just at the south end of what is today New Hope, Pennsylvania. Malta Island no longer exists, but the boats successfully hidden behind it in December of 1776 and the ability to transport men and material, including with Henry Knox’s cannons across that swollen and ice-floed river at night in a storm, allowed those men to change history. Approximately 2,400 men crossed that Christmas night, mindful of the secret password Washington himself had penned the night before, as witnessed by Benjamin Rush: “Victory or death.”

Those who stayed behind just north of McConkeys Crossing, finished the grim task of burying 23 soldiers, 22 of them unknown, whose simple markers today still grace the banks of the Delaware river near the Thompson-Neely House. They had died in camp of disease and exposure. They had not deserted or run in the face of such adversity, as many had, and they paid the ultimate sacrifice.

And so, Thomas Paine's famous beginning of that pamphlet, The American Crisis, famously summoned up not only so many of the feelings of patriotic Americans whose extraordinarily difficult formative struggle and sacrifice has inspired freedom loving people throughout the world. But most of all, it surely summoned up the amplified sentiments, the fears and the fierce pride of those hard, brave men who set out that night with their own, their families and their nation’s fate literally hanging in the balance.

To this day, no one has even come close to saying it better than old Tom Paine did back then and there. He was present, after all, on that retreat. He began . . .

"THESE are the times that try men's souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem to lightly:--- ‘Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value."

One can only imagine how wonderful, how poetically justified it was for General Washington to actually have copies of that pamphlet which he reportedly passed on to inspire his troops as they set out to cross the ice-flow-filled Delaware River that evening. Rutgers University lecturer, Bruce Chadwick, in his fascinating 2004 book, George Washington's War: The Forging of a Revolutionary Leader and the American Presidency, recalls the moment, at page 14.

Washington wanted to give the men some kind of inspirational speech before they boarded the boats, but knew that he was no orator. So, instead, he handed out copies of the latest patriotic essay by Tom Paine, The American Crisis.
. . .
It was perfect for his soldiers. The officers were told to read it to their men just before they began the crossing of the river. They stood in groups, the weather getting colder, the sun receding, the snow on the ground hard against their feet. They moved their legs up and down, as if marching in place, to keep warm. As the night descended upon them, they listened to Paine’s words:
. . .

UPDATE: In his seminal work, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, originally published in 1898, William S. Stryker noted at page 81 (of the Old Barracks Assn. Edition, 2001):
"This address was ordered to be read at the head of each regiment, and the effect of its string, patriotic sentences was apparent upon the spirits of the army."

For George Washington and his Continental Army, the victory at Trenton and days later at Princeton, grew out the convergence at that crucial moment in our American time of a whole series of decisions, placements, unanticipated events, and even clashes of personalities on both sides. Previously quite unrelated, each nevertheless contributed to the ultimate and unexpected success. David Hackett Fischer, for example, details the important effects of the recalcitrant occupied populace of New Jersey, and the militia on all sides, the Hunterdon Rising, Ewing’s Pennsylvania Raiders, and the South Jersey rising. (Fischer, 182-205). Even the British capture of the stubborn General Charles Lee on December 12th allowed for General Sullivan to bring Lee’s troops across the river and into camp as reinforcements in the waning days of December. Along too came the tardy arrival of 500 of General Gates troops, as well as other troop reinforcements.

But beyond those, how do we quantify the indubitable inspiration which men like Paine had --that night, that week, certainly on the mood of populace in general, and surely as the war moved on?

The carefully detailed plan of "multiple" crossings to have taken place that night, and finally approved in a secret war council on December 23rd, fell apart almost before it began. In part that was due to the foul weather. The crossing that did succeed was late, with the artillery finally arriving ashore, fully intact, at around 3 am, delaying the attack some 8 or so miles away, until well after daybreak. But the storm oddly worked in their favor as well. It allowed them cover to build fires on the Jersey side to warm up a bit, only to soak through again as they split up and marched, carefully hoisting the Knox's artillery across Jacob’s Creek, and on to Trenton . . . and into our hearts and minds forever.

In addition to the specific references above to details, such as to Wikipedia links, and to "The Battles of Trenton and Princeton," by William S. Stryker (Riverside Press, Cambridge,1898; Old Barracks Assn. Edition, 2001), “Washington’s Crossing,” by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 2004), and George Washington's War: The Forging of a Revolutionary Leader and the American Presidency, by Bruce Chadwick (Sourcebooks, 2004), readers will enjoy “1776,” by David McCulloch (Simon & Schuster, 2005); “General George Washington: A Military Life,” by Edward G Lengel (Random House, 2005); and “His Excellency George Washington,” by Joseph J. Ellis (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), among others. General Stryker was the Adjutant General of New Jersey, as well as a prolific writer. His book, though over 100 years old, is still looked to as the primary work on the subject. It was reprinted in 2001 by the Old Barracks Association.


At 12:36 AM, December 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How appropriate for this review of significant Revolution history at Christmastime and on the heels of the Iraq Study Group Report. Thankfully, no such document existed during our precarious years fighting for independence 230 years ago.

At 9:15 AM, December 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't have a "google identity," that I'm aware of, but I do want to pay you a non-anonymous compliment.

For many years I have been working on a book on Tom Paine, with the title, "These are the times that try men's souls." I had two versions of how The American Crisis I was used, prior to the Battle of Trenton.

One was that the soldiers were given copies of Paine's piece to read. This was clearly wrong, since two-thirds of all Americans then, including most soliders, were illiterate.

The other was that Paine's immortal words were read TO the soldiers, the questions only being, by whom? And when? Your essay and your sources pin down the answer to these questions, reveal a minor mistake in 1776 by McCulloch, and allow my book to be thelast, best word on the subject.

Thank you.



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