UNITED STATES HISTORY THROUGH FILM

The Crossing

 

*While the Continental Congress was debating independence, the British under General William Howe planned to invade New York and New Jersey with the help of his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe.  Together they had about 25,000 regulars and 10,000 sailors, the largest expeditionary force Britain would amass prior to World War I.  Washington was only able to muster about 19,000 soldiers, mostly militia.

 

*Among Howe’s soldiers were about 9,000 German mercenaries referred to as Hessians by the Americans.  Although many were conscripts, some of them formed highly trained and disciplined units, and as a whole they had a reputation for cruelty.

 

*Unsure where Howe would attack first, Washington split his forces between Manhattan and Long Island.  Instead, Howe landed on Staten Island, on 3 July.  On 9 July, Washington read the Declaration of Independence aloud to the people of New York City, who pulled down the statue of King George III, cut off the head, cut off its nose, mounted the rest of the head on a spike, and melted the rest of the statue (which was made of lead) down into musket balls.

 

*Despite the bravery of the Continental troops, they were forced off Long Island, and only managed to escape with the help of fisherman from Massachusetts led by John Glover who ferried them from Long Island to Manhattan under the cover of darkness, in part through leaving large camp fires burning during a night escape so that the British thought the retreating Americans were still in camp.

 

*Soon Washington was forced completely out of New York City, leaving America's second largest city in British hands, where it would remain until 1783.  However, Washington was able to keep his army together, and prepared to fight another day.

 

*Washington eventually withdrew into Pennsylvania.  Congress itself abandoned Philadelphia.  Washington’s army was down to 5,000 men, about a quarter the size it had been in the summer, and many men’s enlistments were about to run out—most soldiers only signed on for a few months or a year.  As the year came to its close, Washington expected to have an army of about 1,400 men in the New Year.

 

*At this time, Thomas Paine began writing the series of pamphlets he entitled The Crisis, beginning the first volume with the words

 

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 their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

 

*The British had also moved into New Jersey, as had their Hessian mercenaries, although as the weather worsened, General Howe moved back to New York City, leaving New Jersey to his subordinates.

 

*Some of the New Jersey militia harassed the British and Hessians (particularly as stories of rape and pillage by the Hessians spread), preventing them from sending out as many patrols as they should have, thus limiting their intelligence.  However, the commander of the Hessians occupying Trenton said that it was not necessary to build earthworks or other defences, stating that the bayonet would be enough.

 

*Encouraged by the success of several small raids against the British and Hessians in New Jersey, and knowing that his men outnumbered the Hessians in Trenton, Washington planned a daring night attack across the Delaware River.  He would cross on Christmas night, hoping the catch the Hessians tired from their Christmas celebrations at dawn on the 26th.

 

*Bad weather, including ice in the river, slowed their crossing, and they did not arrive on the Jersey shore until 3 AM (instead of Midnight).  Some of Washington’s men did not manage to cross at all due to the weather.  However, a blizzard hid the approach of Washington’s soldiers from the Hessians while local patriots were able to guide Washington’s men to Trenton.

 

--Introduce The Crossing

 

     -The Crossing was produced as a TV movie, shown by A&E in 2000, and depicts events surrounding Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton.  Its portrayal is fairly accurate, although it does give a more prominent role to Alexander Hamilton than he actually played at the time.

 

     -The movie is based on an historical novel of the same name published in 1971 by Howard Fast, who also wrote the screenplay for the TV movie.

 

     -Although set in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the movie was filmed in Canada.  Filming in Canada is common for American TV shows, partly because it is often a bit cheaper, but also because Canada has laws requiring a certain percentage of TV shows and other media shown in Canada be produced there, so filming in Canada makes it easier to sell TV shows there.  Overall, though, the setting and sets look good, although the actual winter conditions were much worse than shown in the movie—although a blizzard too thick to see through would not have made for good television.

 

     -The costumes are also pretty good, although there are a few minor inaccuracies as well as some scenes showing British soldiers wearing uniforms from the French and Indian War, which were in a distinctly different style.

 

     -General George Washington was Commander of the Continental Army and had driven the British out of Boston, but had then lost New York City, although he had at least kept his army together to fight another day—if their enlistments did not run out first.  However, some other officers in the United States army were jealous of his position and a few were even plotting against him.

 

     -Colonel John Glover was a fisherman from Marblehead, Massachusetts who commanded a regiment of other fishermen.  They had saved Washington’s army on Long Island by carrying them across the East River to Manhattan under cover of darkness to escape from the British and Hessian forces on Long Island.

 

     -General Henry Knox was a former bookseller from Boston who had studied military history and strategy, and who volunteered for the army when fighting broke out.  He had led the men who brought the cannons captured at Ticonderoga back to Boston, and now commanded all the artillery in Washington’s army.

 

     -General Hugh Mercer had been born in Scotland where he took part in the failed Jacobite Uprising of 1745-46, after which he fled to America.  He fought in the Pennsylvania militia during the French and Indian War and joined the Continental Army in 1776 after serving in the Virginia militia.

 

     -General Nathanael Greene was a Quaker from Rhode Island who began opposing British policies in the early 1770s and was suspended from the Quaker meeting in 1773 for his activities.  He joined the Continental Army in 1775 and served with Washington in a number of important battles.  He was eventually appointed overall commander of the Continental Army in the South.

 

     -Lord Stirling was born in New York but claimed a title in the Scottish nobility through a distant relative.  His claim to be Earl of Stirling was upheld in a Scottish court, but overturned by the British House of Lords.  He joined the Continental Army in 1776 and fought very bravely on Long Island.  He was captured, but released as part of a prisoner exchange, and later exposed a plot against George Washington.

 

     -John Sullivan was from New Hampshire, and took part in a raid on a British fort in December, 1774 that captured some British gunpowder, making him an early hero in New England.  He was captured on Long Island, but exchanged in time to fight at Trenton.  He later served as Governor of New Hampshire.

 

     -General Horatio Gates was born in England and was an officer in the British Army in Europe during the War of Austrian Succession and in North America and the Caribbean during the French and Indian War.  After the war he was unable to win further promotion because he did not come from a wealthy family, so he resigned from the British Army and bought a small plantation in Virginia, but joined the Continental Army and was made a general when the Revolutionary War began.  Because of his background in the British Army, he considered himself superior to American officers without that professional background, including George Washington—and some members of Congress agreed.  He would later be part of a failed plot to replace Washington as commander of the Continental Army, and after that would go on to fight in important battles in New York and South Carolina.

 

     -Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis in the Caribbean, but moved to New York an adult and joined the militia in 1775 and raised his own company of artillery in 1776 and joined the Continental Army as their captain.  In the movie he is depicted as a member of Washington’s staff, a role he did take on in March, 1777, but which is not accurate for a depiction of him in 1776.  Still, he was involved in the Battle of Trenton, and played an important role in the battle as an artillery officer.

 

     -Colonel Johann Rall had thirty-five years of military experience in many parts of Europe and in December, 1776, commanded the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, although his men did not particularly respect him.  He had some warning that the American Army was planning an attack, but he largely dismissed these warnings and did not even fortify Trenton, believing he could drive back any possible attack with bayonets, which did often cause American troops to panic.

 

     -Show The Crossing

 

    -#3 includes the order to spike a cannon.  This involved hammering a spike, ideally a metal one, into the touchhole of a cannon and breaking the end of the spike off.  This would make it impossible to use the cannon without at least drilling out the spike, and even then the cannon might be too damaged to use safely.  This was commonly done with cannons that had to be abandoned where the enemy might capture them.

     -#12 and #19 mention General Charles Lee, who was a former British officer with extensive military experience in Europe and North America who was initially viewed as a very promising offer, and who resented that Washington was placed in command over him.  However, because Lee did not actually resign from the British Army until he had already joined the Continental Army, he was eligible for execution as a deserter.  Perhaps to save his live while a prisoner of the British, he helped General Howe plan military operations against the United States.  He was released in a prisoner exchange in 1778 and fought poorly at the Battle of Monmouth, ordering a retreat when he was told to order an attack, and was publicly criticised by General Washington, to whom he responded rudely and was arrested and court-martialled.  He spent the rest of his life criticising Washington before dying of a fever on a visit to Philadelphia in 1782.

 

     -#13 and many other questions deal with General Horatio Gates, a former officer in the British Army.  Because of his military background, he considered himself superior to American officers without the same professional background, including George Washington—and some members of Congress agreed.  He would later be part of a failed plot to replace Washington as commander of the Continental Army (partially foiled by Lord Stirling), and after that would go on to fight in important battles in New York and South Carolina.

 

     -#15 refers to the fact that many members of the Army enlisted for a limited period of time, ranging from three months to a year or more.  Many were due to expire at the end of 1776.

 

     -#16 is true.  General Howe was having an affair with Elizabeth Loring, wife of a prominent Loyalist who apparently accepted the affair in exchange for getting a lucrative job supervising prisoners (many of whom were held on rotting, unsanitary ships in New York Harbour).  Howe was accused by many of ignoring his military duties to spend time with Mrs. Loring.

 

     -#22 shows that Glover made a point of being a plain man, as most upper-class people wore wigs as a status symbol and part of the style of the day.  However, George Washington is notable for never having worn a powdered wig, partly to present himself as a man of the people.

 

     -#25 is part of a plan to attack the Hessians when they are hung over from celebrating Christmas.  In fact, the evidence suggests that they did not get drunk and were sober on the day of the attack (although some were described as dazed and tired from being woken up unexpectedly by the early morning attack).

 

     -#30 is spoken by Captain Heineman (who may be a fictional character), and highlights the fact that there were many people of German ancestry in the United States, particularly in Pennsylvania and that German would be a very important language in the United States until the First World War.  Indeed, the number of Germans was so great that there was serious discussion early in our history of publishing all national laws in both English and German (although the legend that a plan to make German the official language of America instead of English failed by one vote is untrue—no-one imagined that English would not be the primarily language of the United States).

 

     -#31 is possible.  Soldiers did smoke many things when they could not get tobacco, including dried cow dung (which is not healthy, and is rumoured to be hallucinogenic) and corn silk.

 

     -#32 is true—small icebergs did float in the Delaware River and were a real danger to Washington’s men.  Furthermore, a white-out blizzard made it almost impossible for his men to see on their march to Trenton, although it did also conceal their approach from the Hessians.

 

     -#35 may be true—Knox weighed around 300 pounds (although he was about 6’3” tall, about as tall as George Washington himself, and very tall for that time period).  Furthermore, when Washington is depicted teasing him about his weight when the men get into the boat, that is based on actual events.  It is not know precisely what Washington said at the time, but he is known to have made a joke about Knox’s weight and telling him not to sink the boat.

 

     -#40 is not accurate.  Hamilton was never sent on a mission to kill sentries in their guard house, although he did play an important role in the battle by aiming his cannons along an important road in Trenton.


     -#44 was a serious concern.  Many armies did loot their prisoners’ possessions, especially in European wars and in Indian warfare.  Indeed, for many soldiers, particularly mercenaries and Indians, the chance to pillage their enemies was a major incentive to go to war.


     -#47 is inaccurate.  The movie claims that none of Washington’s men were killed or wounded.  In fact, two were killed and five wounded (including future president James Monroe, who was shot in the shoulder and nearly bled to death and carried the bullet in his body for the rest of his life).  Still, that was a remarkably small casualty rate (although many more men died not long afterwards from exposure to the cold).

 

     -#49, #50, and #51 are all true, as is most of the information presented at the end of the movie, although General Mercer actually died nine days after receiving a bayonet wound at the Battle of Princeton, not from being shot, as is stated in the movie.

 

*The Hessians were caught off guard, although a sentry managed to sound the alarm, and the Hessians were able to form a line that provided some resistance.  However, they were not able to hold off the American forces, particularly as American artillery began firing into their ranks--some of the artillery was commanded by Alexander Hamilton, who had to keep his finger over the touchhole of his cannon to keep it from freezing over.  Miscommunication led to the Hessians splitting their forces until they finally fell apart after Colonel Rall was mortally wounded.

 

*22 Hessians were killed, 83 seriously wounded, and 896 captured.  A few managed to escape because they were on the far end of the town from where the attack began.  Washington only lost two men killed and five wounded (one of whom was Lieutenant James Monroe, who was wounded in the shoulder and nearly bled to death—he carried the bullet in his body for the rest of his life), although many men died the next day of illness, exposure, and exhaustion.

 

*Although this was not a large battle, and Washington crossed back into Pennsylvania shortly afterwards, it offered a great lift to American morale, encouraging re-enlistment and breaking the Hessians’ reputation as unbeatable killing machines.

 

*The Battle of Princeton a week later was another small, but important, American victory.  On 29 December, 1776, Washington again crossed the Delaware and re-occupied Trenton.

 

*Washington then marched the bulk of his army to Princeton, where he rapidly defeated most of the force defending the town, although General Hugh Mercer was mortally wounded in the battle.

 

*Unlike at Trenton, he did not capture the majority of the British, as they managed to break through Washington’s lines with a bayonet charge and escape, but Washington captured numerous wagons full of supplies and further increased American confidence, even though he soon fell back to a defensive position further from the British lines.  Although he had not lost many men, Cornwallis withdrew from parts of New Jersey.

 

*Even more important, after these victories, France, England’s traditional foe, prompted by Benjamin Franklin who had recently arrived in France and charmed the sophisticated people of Paris with his wit and humour, as well as his fame as a writer, scientist, and inventor, began to send some aid, in the form of money and materiel, but not yet men or ships.

 



This page last updated 6 February, 2019.
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