Monday, December 10, 2007

When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots

In Lynne Cheney's third picture book, When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots, she alters the format from the previous books, America: A Patriotic Primer and A is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women. This time, her prose is accompanied by the wonderful oil paintings of Peter M. Fiore. This is truly more of a history book than the first two, as well. Like the other books, this one is recommended for children ages 5 to 8.

Mrs. Cheney, once again, opens with a note to the reader. She begins:

"One of the tales I like to tell my grandchildren is about Washington crossing the Delaware. It's a compelling story, and it helps them understand that our existence as a free and independent nation wasn't always assured. Given the way that the Revoluntionary War was going in the months leading up to Christmas 1776, the most likely outcome was that we would remain a British colony. But then George Washington and his men took history into their own hands and changed its course."

Throughout the book, Mrs. Cheney's text and Mr. Fiore's paintings are accompanied by a quote from a person who witnessed the events of December 1776 and early January 1777.

The actual story begins with November 1776 when the war was not going well for the rebellious colonists. After defeats in New York, Washington and his men had to retreat in the face of a British pursuit. "How could the Americans, who were mostly new to fighting, ever hope to defeat the well-trained British?"

The Continental Army, under the command of General George Washington, managed to reach Pennsylvania, but they were tired, hungry and cold: many of the soldiers had no coats or shoes, and there were not enough provisions to go around.

With the Americans on one side of the Delaware River and the Hessians, the German mercenaries, on the other, Washington met with his generals to make plans for "a bold and daring course" that the Hessians would not expect. They would attack the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, in the early hours of the day after Christmas.

The words of Thomas Paine, who had accompanied the Americans in the retreat through New Jersey, helped to inspire Washington's troops: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and 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."

When the time came to advance upon Trenton, not everything went as planned. The river was clogged with ice. It took longer than expected for Washington's men to cross the Delaware, and two of his commanders were unable to defeat the ice and were unable to continue with the mission to Trenton. However, the march to Trenton proceeded with Washington's 2400 men - an hour after the last of the men and guns had reached the shore, they began the 9 mile trek to the city, "hours later than Washington had planned." Although he had planned to attack before dawn, it would now be daylight by the time they reached Trenton, but it was too late to turn back - they had to continue through the cold and icy weather, and hope they still had the advantage of surprise.

At first contact, it was evident that the element of surprise had been maintained. The Hessians were unprepared and were unable to mount a defense, so they retreated from the city's streets into a nearby orchard. A young Alexander Hamilton and a young James Monroe both participated in the Battle of Trenton. James Monroe, our fifth president, was badly wounded leading a charge against a pair of Hessian cannons. The Hessians attempted a counter-attack, but their commander, Colonel Johann Rall, was fatally wounded as were many of his men. In the end, the Americans defeated the Hessians, capturing 900 of the Germans, while suffering few losses of their own.

Washington's next challenge was to get his soldiers to continue the fight against the British, as they were all enlisted to leave at the end of the year. Extra pay was promised, and he appealed to their sense of patriotism. "This was an hour of destiny, he told one regiment, a time that would decide America's fate. If they wanted their country to be free, they had to keep fighting." He succeeded, as many of his combat experienced soldiers chose to stay.

Expecting to be attacked by the thousands of British and Hessian soldiers in Princeton, "Washington sent out a call for more forces." He orders some of the troops to slow the British advance. When they reached the bridge at Assunpink Creek, returning after their mission, they could see General Washington on the other side.

"'I pressed against the shoulder of the General's horse and in contact with the boot of the General . The horse stood as firm as the rider.' John Howland, Private, Lippitt's Rhode Island Regiment"

The British commander, General Charles Cornwallis, believed Washington was trapped, and could be dealt with the next day. Washington knew most of Cornwallis' men would be with him, outside Princeton, so fewer troops would be within the city. In the night, Washington had some of his men remain in the camp to maintain the fires and make noise typical of a full camp while he moved out with the rest of his troops towards Princeton. Washington's plan worked - it was until after dawn that Cornwallis realized what had happened.

In the first encounter with British troops, many Americans were killed, and those who survived were in retreat. General Washington, riding a white horse, rallied his troops and lead them toward the British line. When the next part of the battle began, the General was between the two lines, and many thought he would surely die. He came out unscathed, his troops maintained their positions, but the British began to retreat. Several hours later, the battle was over, and the Americans had won the day, again.

"General Washington and his men had stood with their country in a time of crisis. When they were cold and hungry, they did not quit. When the conflict was hard, they fought on. And when they won, the victory was sweet. News of Trenton and Princeton spread across the land, lifting the spirits of patriots everywhere. Many a battle lay ahead, but now Americans could think of winning their war for independence. Now they could imagine that their great struggle would have a glorious end."

Mrs. Cheney cites each of the quotes at the back of the book, if one is interested in learning a little bit more.

Unlike Mrs. Cheney's first two picture books, this one lends itself to be read aloud to a group of children. With Mr. Fiore's paintings depicting the events of that winter, children can see what it was like for those brave patriots at the time of our nation's birth. I can only recommend you add this book to your children's book library, either for your children or your classroom.

1 comment:

CJ said...

Wow, great review. I'm going to go out and get this one. Thanks for reminding me of George Washington's story.