Let's get this straight: The greatest Christmas in American history was not the result of the Germans being drunk or hung over. Gen. George Washington lost most of his battles -- it has been said that the Revolutionary War was won by brilliant retreating -- so let's not diminish any of his victories, and certainly not the one without which American independence probably would have been extinguished like a candle in a gale.
Among the many things that "everyone knows" that just are not so is that the 2,400 men of the Continental Army won the Battle of Trenton, an operation that began on the night of Dec. 25, 1776, because the Hessian mercenaries had partaken too vigorously of Christmas drink. According to David Hackett Fischer, whose "Washington's Crossing" was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award, the Hessians were weary from a week of constant vigilance against attacks by local insurgents, but they fought well.
Not well enough, however, to prevent a triumph that Fischer, a Brandeis historian, says was -- combined, over the next eight days, with a second Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton -- the most important victory in U.S. military history. Since the Declaration of Independence on July 4, the Americans had lost every battle fought to make independence a fact. The military disasters inflicted by 33,000 British and German troops in what is now Brooklyn, and on Manhattan Island, contributed to Washington's losing 90 percent of his army. New Jersey's loyalty was tilting toward the crown.
By marching his shivering men -- two froze to death on the march -- to the banks of the ice-clogged Delaware River and making the crossing that became the subject of the most familiar American painting, Washington rolled the dice, risking everything. Had he lost the gamble -- had his men been repulsed from Trenton and pinned against the river -- the continent would have been lost. The brief American rebellion would be a historical footnote akin to the insurrections of the Scots in 1745 or of the Irish in 1798, and world history would have been very different.
In New York, Washington had wept while watching through a spyglass as the British massacred Americans who had surrendered. But Washington, Fischer writes, "often reminded his men that they were an army of liberty and freedom, and that the rights of humanity for which they were fighting should extend even to their enemies." To the American officer in charge of 221 prisoners taken at Princeton, Washington said, "Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren." At the end of the war, 3,194 of the 13,988 Hessians who survived the fighting chose to stay in the country whose birth they had resisted. As historian Edmund Morgan says, Washington had "made the war itself an example of what the Revolution meant."
Dining with Washington after surrendering to him at Yorktown, Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who had commanded the forces at Princeton that rushed to relieve Trenton, offered this toast: "Fame will gather your brightest laurels rather from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake." Unfortunately, many small historians believe their function is to deny large men any laurels. Fischer sternly reprimands such historians who have "served us ill":
"In the late twentieth century, too many scholars tried to make the American past into a record of crime and folly. Too many writers have told us we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn't so, and never was."
One reason Americans have made so much history is that they have never believed in History. One of the unfortunate intellectual developments of the 19th century, principally in Europe, was the transformation of history into a proper noun. It denoted a vast impersonal force with its own unfolding logic, governed by iron laws of social development. Marxism was the most consequential doctrine of historical inevitability, but there were others.
Such theories, which are varieties of "historicism," induce fatalism by diminishing mankind's sense of agency. The theories mock the idea of great persons, and the belief that the free choices of small groups could knock History out of its preordained grooves.
Such ideas have largely lost their ability to seize the imaginations of people other than intellectuals, who often are the last to learn things. Still, it is exhilarating to be reminded by historians such as Fischer just how radically wrong the historicists were, and are.