Individual Choices, Not Impersonal Forces, Determine History

I’m teaching my American Revolution course this semester. Every time I do, I’m impressed with how character shapes history. In this case, the character of George Washington comes to the forefront.

As 1776 drew to a close, it seemed more likely than not that the fledgling nation was in jeopardy and that the Declaration of Independence was destined to be a silly footnote in history, another testament to man’s folly.

Washington’s army, such as it was, composed primarily of untested militia with short-term enlistments, had miraculously escaped the British noose on Long Island in August. Many would comment on the remarkable feat of ferrying the army from that island over to New York City in the dark of night.

Many others would remark with wonder at the almost-supernatural fog that descended on Long Island that morning, thereby allowing the retreat to end successfully. Divine Providence, many would say.

Yet after that, one might wonder where Divine Providence had gone. The ragtag Americans were pushed back in battle after battle, eventually losing the entire island of Manhattan and licking their proverbial wounds for the winter on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.

Morale in the army and the new nation was at low ebb as Christmas approached. Would the army disintegrate completely? Was this experiment in independence over before it could even begin?

I’ve often taught that history does not revolve around impersonal forces (such as economics). Rather, it’s the individual choices we make that determine what happens next.

Washington took a risk. He knew the mercenary Hessian troops just across the river in Trenton, New Jersey, would be “celebrating” Christmas in their traditional manner—getting stone-cold drunk.

That’s when he made the decision—called rash by some in his ranks—to cross the river in the dead of night and march straight into the Hessian encampment, taking them by surprise.

Who hasn’t seen this famous painting? Leaving aside for the moment whether Washington actually stood up in the boat in this heroic pose, he nevertheless was embarking on a desperate and heroic endeavor.

It worked. The surprise was complete. The Hessians surrendered quickly.

British general William Howe was in the area and vowed vengeance for this brazen act. He attempted to surround Washington’s army, but Washington fooled him, again moving his forces during the night while keeping enough camp fires burning to make Howe believe the army was still there.

In the morning, Washington’s troops ran into a contingent of British near Princeton. At first, the troops were timid and started a retreat. Washington himself then rode to the front and rallied them. The result: another stunning victory.

When news of these back-to-back military successes found its way into the newspapers, the reeling nation’s morale rose immediately. Washington, by his personal courage and determination, had single-handedly revived their hopes.

Historians, of course, note that this was hardly the end of the trials and that morale would rise and fall throughout the next few years, depending on the circumstances. Washington would face more hard times, even to the point where some in Congress sought to remove him as commander of the army.

Yet this winter of 1776-1777 was crucial to the continuing struggle, a struggle that eventually saw the establishment of America’s independence.

I often call George Washington the indispensable man of this era. This is just one example of why that is true. And I repeat: individual choices, not impersonal forces, are the determiners for how history unfolds.

Assessing the Battle of Bunker Hill

Sometimes, a victory is more of a defeat and a loss is more of a victory. That’s the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution.

To be as historically accurate as possible, most of the fighting actually took place on Breed’s Hill, but that’s not what’s important here. The chief significance of this battle is that an untrained, makeshift militia took on the disciplined British army and came away with greater confidence.

After the skirmish at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Massachusetts militia surrounded Boston, intent on never allowing the British troops out again to ravage the countryside. British General Howe was just as determined to break the siege. Thus, on 17 June, Howe finally made repeated attempts to dislodge the colonial militia from the aforementioned hills.

Every time the British troops charged up the hill, they were met with a strong volley from those militia; they would retreat and charge again.

One of the weaknesses on the colonial side was a shortage of ammunition. The story handed down (hard to document) is that militia colonel William Prescott gave the following command in order to conserve ammunition: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” That command has become legendary, so much so that Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson gave us this classic, one that I like to use in my course on the American Revolution:

I love historical humor.

Due to the lack of ammunition, the British eventually took both hills, but the battle was a significant morale-booster for the inexperienced Americans. They continued to maintain the siege of Boston despite the loss.

Overall, in this battle, the British suffered 200 deaths and another 800 soldiers wounded; the colonists lost only 100, with 300 wounded. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, a type named after a Greek general who experienced “disastrous successes.” Gen. Howe lamented that his victory had been “too dearly bought.” Conversely, Nathaniel Greene, who would become one of the American heroes of the war, wished that his side could “sell them another hill at the same price.”

Today, there is a monument on Breed’s Hill that commemorates the battle. I’ve climbed to the top. In front of it is a statue of Joseph Warren, an ardent patriot leader who died in that battle.

It was shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill that George Washington arrived to take over command of what he hoped would develop into the Continental Army. But that’s a post for another day.