Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Crossing

For family movie night last night the Mannions watched the old Disney comedy, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, about which there is not much to say except, How did Caesar Romero keep such a great head of hair?

Last week we watched The Crossing, a movie about the American Revolutionary War's Battle of Trenton that focused, of course, on Washington's crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.

Wasn't bad for a low-budget made for TV movie. Jeff Daniels played Washington. The boys were surprised to see an actor they considered young in the part. But the movie was made in 2000 and at the time Daniels was almost exactly Washington's age in 1776.

Daniels was 45.

Washington was 44!

Being 44 was a bit different for a man in 1776 than it is for us now, but not as different as we'd like to think. We say that considering how people had a habit of dying well before they hit 40 back then, 44 was considered old. This is a way of flattering ourselves that 44 now is still young.

But it was young back then too. Or at least Washington was still young. Youthful anyway. He was thin, in excellent shape, full of energy and stronger and more vital than many men ten and 15 years younger. Part of the reason he surrounded himself with a staff of twentysomethings----Hamilton was 21 in 1776, Layfayette, who wasn't at Trenton but was at Valley Forge a year later, was 20 when he joined Washington's staff.---was that they were the only ones who could keep up with him. There's a story of how when he was middle-aged, Washington came across a group of much younger men who were competing to see who could throw an iron bar farthest. Washington asked for the bar and gave it a lazy heave. It went way beyond the farthest throw so far. The young men were stunned. Washington shrugged, said something like, "When one you beats that, come and get me and I'll better it," and strolled off, confident that he wouldn't be asked to make a second throw. He was right.

The other and more important way Washington was young was that his character wasn't fully formed. He was still growing. He was still learning, how to be a great military leader of course, but also how to be a good man. He was conscious of this and kept himself open to advice, to change, to the fact that he might be wrong, and very often was wrong, and he disciplined his thinking, his temperament, his temper, and his actions accordingly.

In short, Washington became the father or our country because he could admit his mistakes, learn from them, and not just admit them and teach himself a lesson, he could listen to others tell him when he was wrong and learn from what they had to say about his mistakes. He could seek out advice and take it. If this reminds you of any President you know because that President is the very opposite of Washington in this way, I agree with you.

The movie doesn't spend too much time examining this aspect of Washington's character. It's more interested in his determination. It wants to show how important Washington's own example was to keeping the army together, saving the cause of Independence, and winning the war. But it does show it, particularly in his contentious relationship with Colonel John Glover.

Glover was a New Englander, a ship owner and captain from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who had raised a regiment of his fellow New Englanders, most of them sailors, fishermen, or men in trades and businesses directly related to making a living from the sea. Washington's army was made up of many companies like Glover's. They weren't militia. They considered themselves professional soldiers in that they had signed up with the army and were subject to its generals' commands. But they were also apart from the regular army. They were jealous of their own rights, defiant towards authority, and not inclined to just go along because a superior officer ordered them to. They expected to have a say in deciding their own fates. They were democrats.

Washington was an aristocrat.

Glover was an excellent commander and his regiment was one of the best and toughest in the army. Their skills as sailors helped save the army after the defeats on Long Island and Manhattan and their skills got Washington and his men across the Delaware that night. But Glover's men, being New Englanders and used to their independence and their rights, with a long tradition of self-reliance and self-government, did not much care for aristocrats. That's why they were in the fight.

The Crossing has several scenes in which Washington and Glover clash over some decision or wish of Washington's that Glover believes is wrong or ill-advised. Glover tells Washington what he thinks, plainly, rudely, even, with no deference. He is not awed by Washington's reputation, rank, or social standing.

These scenes are true to life, not just in that Washington and Glover really argued like this, but also in that Washington regularly had similar run-ins with many of his commanders and sometimes even with sergeants and privates.

The men loved him, respected him, and were willing to follow him anywhere, but that didn't mean they weren't going to say what was on their minds, stand up for their rights, or do what they knew was wrong or foolhardy just because some general, even the General, told them to do it.

Even after years of hard fighting and training had professionalized the army, it still remained mainly an army of citizen-soldiers who did not put a greater emphasis on the word soldiers than on the word citizens.

When he assumed command of the army, Washington expected to command it as an aristocrat. He expected that when he gave an order his officers and troops would just hop to. It didn't work that way. For Washington this was maddening. An army had to obey its commanders if it was going to fight and not come apart in battle. It was personally insulting as well. And for a while Washington tried to bend the army to his will through corporal punishments and courts martial. Slowly, but a lot faster than it would have on lesser, more vain and stubborn men, it dawned on him that he had to change tactics. He could not run his army the way British commanders ran theirs. He needed to consult with his officers and he needed to let his men, through their officers, have their say.

He needed to be able to admit his mistakes, admit when he didn't have an answer, and admit that there were others who knew what needed to be done better than he did.

There were plenty of people back then, in the army and in Congress, who saw what Washington was doing as a sign that he was weak and indecisive. (They didn't like it that he wasn't an optomist either and never developed a habit of sugar-coating the bad news from the field.) They wanted him relieved of his command and replaced with someone who would be more "energetic" by which they meant more autocratic, ruthless, and reckless with his men's lives.

In his arguments with Glover in the movie Washington is shown to be mainly in the right, but he is also shown backing down, changing tack, changing his mind when he sees that Glover is right.

He is shown being wrong.

He is shown admitting he's wrong.

He is shown apologizing.

<>He is shown learning.

Hope you found the link to the New York Historical Society's Alexander Hamilton exhibit webpage embedded up above. But there it is again, in case. Link came courtesy of Sheila O'Malley. Sheila's a bit obsessed with Hamilton. Just a bit.

Highly recommended: Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.


At 7:55 AM, Blogger Lily said...

Thanks for the rundown, Lance. The mannions must be a well informed demographic.


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