Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington crossed the Delaware River Christmas night and attacked the British garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, early on the morning of December 26, 1776.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851

Leutze’s painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though there are many copies including one in the White House.

There are several inaccuracies in the depiction. Wrong flag; too much light (it was night); it would appear they are crossing in the wrong direction; horses were carried by ferries with the artillery, not in boats; probably everyone stood (the gunwales were higher than pictured).

That’s future president James Monroe holding the flag.

Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia. George Washington lost ninety percent of his army and was driven across the Delaware River. Panic and despair spread through the states.

Yet, as David Hackett Fischer recounts in this riveting history, Washington–and many other Americans–refused to let the Revolution die. Even as the British and Germans spread their troops across New Jersey, the people of the colony began to rise against them. George Washington saw his opportunity and seized it. On Christmas night, as a howling nor’easter struck the Delaware Valley, he led his men across the river and attacked the exhausted Hessian garrison at Trenton, killing or capturing nearly a thousand men. A second battle of Trenton followed within days. The Americans held off a counterattack by Lord Cornwallis’s best troops, then were almost trapped by the British force. Under cover of night, Washington’s men stole behind the enemy and struck them again, defeating a brigade at Princeton. The British were badly shaken. In twelve weeks of winter fighting, their army suffered severe damage, their hold on New Jersey was broken, and their strategy was ruined.

Fischer’s richly textured narrative reveals the crucial role of contingency in these events. We see how the campaign unfolded in a sequence of difficult choices by many actors, from generals to civilians, on both sides. While British and German forces remained rigid and hierarchical, Americans evolved an open and flexible system that was fundamental to their success. At the same time, they developed an American ethic of warfare that John Adams called “the policy of humanity,” and showed that moral victories could have powerful material effects. The startling success of Washington and his compatriots not only saved the faltering American Revolution, but helped to give it new meaning, in a pivotal moment for American history.

— From the book jacket of David Hackett Fischer’s excellent, Pulitzer-winning Washington’s Crossing


John Jay

John Jay

John Jay was born on this date in 1745. Jay, a delegate from New York, served in the First and Second Continental Congresses. During the War for Independence Jay served as president of the Continental Congress, minister plenipotentiary to Spain, and peace commissioner (in which he negotiated vital treaties with Spain and France). He was Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation. During the ratification of the Constitution Jay was author of the Federalist Papers, along with Madison and Hamilton. John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States.


The Letter to Mrs. Bixby

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam, –I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln.

[As it turns out, this letter, made even more famous when read in the film Saving Private Ryan, may have been written by John Hay, Lincoln's secretary. Further, only two of Mrs. Bixby's five sons had died in battle. One was honorably discharged, one was dishonorably discharged, and another deserted or died in a prison camp. Not that losing three sons in whatever way isn't horrible enough.]


Today Ought To Be a National Holiday

Hiram Williams was born 89 years ago today (1923). We know him as Hank. Arguably he is one of the two or three most important individuals in American music history. Hank Williams is an inductee of both the Country Music (the first inductee) and Rock and Roll (its second year) halls of fame.

Entering local talent talent contests soon after moving to Montgomery in 1937, Hank had served a ten-year apprenticeship by the time he scored his first hit, “Move It on Over,” in 1947. He was twenty-three then, and twenty-five when the success of “Lovesick Blues” (a minstrel era song he did not write) earned him an invitation to join the preeminent radio barndance, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. His star rose rapidly. He wrote songs compulsively, and his producer/music publisher, Fred Rose, helped him isolate and refine those that held promise. The result was an unbroken string of hits that included “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You),” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Jambalaya,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and “You Win Again.” He was a recording artist for six years, and, during that time, recorded just 66 songs under his own name (together with a few more as part of a husband-and-wife act, Hank & Audrey, and a more still under his moralistic alter ego, Luke the Drifter). Of the 66 songs recorded under his own name, an astonishing 37 were hits. More than once, he cut three songs that became standards in one afternoon.

American Masters

The words and music of Hank Williams echo across the decades with a timelessness that transcends genre. He brought country music into the modern era, and his influence spilled over into the folk and rock arenas as well. Artists ranging from Gram Parsons and John Fogerty (who recorded an entire album of Williams’ songs after leaving Creedence Clearwater Revival) to the Georgia Satellites and Uncle Tupelo have adapted elements of Williams’ persona, especially the aura of emotional forthrightness and bruised idealism communicated in his songs. Some of Williams’ more upbeat country and blues-flavored numbers, on the other hand, anticipated the playful abandon of rockabilly.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Hank Williams’s legend has long overtaken the rather frail and painfully introverted man who spawned it. Almost singlehandedly, Williams set the agenda for contemporary country songcraft, but his appeal rests as much in the myth that even now surrounds his short life. His is the standard by which success is measured in country music on every level, even self-destruction.

Country Music Hall of Fame

Again from American Masters:

It all fell apart remarkably quickly. Hank Williams grew disillusioned with success, and the unending travel compounded his back problem. A spinal operation in December 1951 only worsened the condition. Career pressures and almost ceaseless pain led to recurrent bouts of alcoholism. He missed an increasing number of showdates, frustrating those who attempted to manage or help him. His wife, Audrey, ordered him out of their house in January 1952, and he was dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry in August that year for failing to appear on Opry-sponsored showdates. Returning to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he’d been an up-and-coming star in 1948, he took a second wife, Billie Jean Jones, and hired a bogus doctor who compounded his already serious physical problems with potentially lethal drugs.

Hank Williams died in the back seat of his Cadillac. He was found and declared dead on New Year’s Day 1953. He was 29.

Yes, that is June Carter in the video.


Black Jack

In all of American history, only two generals have held the rank General of the Armies, George Washington and John J. Pershing.*

Pershing was born on September 13 in 1860. He graduated from West Point, 30th in a class of 77, and was stationed at Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory (near Silver City), serving with General Miles in the last capture of Geronimo. Then he served in the Dakotas at the time of Wounded Knee. Pershing fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and successfully (from the U.S. standpoint) controlled an insurrection while serving in the Philippines.

Still a captain, Pershing was promoted to Brigadier General by order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. That is, he skipped major, lieutenant colonel and colonel. The fact that Pershing’s father-in-law was a U.S. senator and the president had attended the Pershings’ wedding had no bearing on this, of course.

Pershing’s wife and three daughters were killed in a fire in 1915 at their home at the Presidio in San Francisco while Pershing was commander of the Eighth Brigade there. A son survived.

In 1916-1917 Pershing led 12,000 American troops into Mexico in a failed attempt to capture Pancho Villa after his raid on Columbus, New Mexico.

In 1917, Pershing was named commander of the American Expeditionary Force — ultimately 2-1/2 million men. In his memoirs he wrote that his two biggest problems were keeping the British and French from incorporating the American army into theirs and getting the supplies he needed for such a large force.

Pershing was welcomed home a hero in 1919, became army chief of staff, and retired from active duty in 1924.

He died in 1948.

Pershing was nicknamed “Black Jack” as a result of his time as an officer in the 10th Cavalry, a unit of African-American or “Buffalo” soldiers.


* Pershing was awarded the rank General of the Armies in 1919 while still in the Army. Washington was promoted to the rank in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial. Grant, Sherman and Sheridan were four star generals of the army. Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Arnold and Bradley were five star generals of the army. Washington wore three stars, but by law is the highest ranking army officer. Pershing is second; he wore four gold stars.


Earl Warren

… was born in Los Angeles on this date in 1891.

Among the decisions the Supreme Court made under Warren as Chief Justice were those that:

  • Outlawed school segregation.
  • Enunciated the one-man, one-vote doctrine.
  • Made most of the Bill of Rights binding on the states.
  • Curbed wiretapping.
  • Upheld the right to be secure against “unreasonable” searches and seizures.
  • Buttressed the right to counsel.
  • Underscored the right to a jury trial.
  • Barred racial discrimination in voting, in marriage laws, in the use of public parks, airports and bus terminals and in housing sales and rentals.
  • Extended the boundaries of free speech.
  • Ruled out compulsory religious exercises in public schools.
  • Restored freedom of foreign travel.
  • Knocked out the application of both the Smith and the McCarran Acts–both designed to curb “subversive” activities.
  • Held that Federal prisoners could sue the Government for injuries sustained in jail.
  • Said that wages could not be garnished without a hearing.
  • Liberalized residency requirements for welfare recipients.
  • Sustained the right to disseminate and receive birth control information.

(Source: The New York Times)

Warren’s parents were born in Norway (father) and Sweden (mother). Elected governor of California three times (1942, 1946, 1950), Warren was so popular he won both the Democratic and Republican primaries in 1946. The darkest mark against Warren’s public service was the wartime internment of Japanese Americans.

President Eisenhower appointed Warren chief justice in 1953; he retired from the Court in 1969. NewMexiKen considers Warren the most significant historical figure I’ve ever seen in person (briefly at the 1964 New York World’s Fair) — and I’ve seen five presidents.