For David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing was roughly a decade in the making. Yet its publication this spring could not be more timely. The story behind Washington's remarkable campaign at Trenton is a story of choices and turning points, of leadership, innovation and sheer will—prominent themes in the run up to the November presidential election.

"The tendency is to view Washington as a great symbol of American values and institutions," Fischer tells PW from his home in Wayland, Mass. "But not as a great general. The story I found was very much to the contrary."

The Los Angeles Times calls David Hackett Fischer "a professional historian with a scholar's command of the facts and a gift for storytelling. He first earned raves for his 1989 epic, Albion's Seed, a sprawling, benchmark work of history that examined the influence of the English in American culture. In 1999, he published another landmark work that astounded reviewers, The Great Wave, which examined price revolutions along with their accompanying political, cultural and social upheavals from the Middle Ages to the present day. Sandwiched between these two expansive efforts, however, was the book that truly brought Fischer's talents to a popular audience, the 1994 classic Paul Revere's Ride; all three titles were published by Oxford.

Both a critical and commercial success, Paul Revere's Ride even caught the attention of Hollywood. Paramount Pictures optioned it for a reported high six figures. It was after that, Fischer says, that his then long-time friend and editor at OUP, Sheldon Meyer, began to urge him to take on the story of Washington's crossing for the press's Pivotal Moments in American History series.

In Washington's Crossing, Fischer once again illuminates a seminal event in American history, as well as a central figure. In a starred review, PW called Washington's Crossing "impeccably researched" and brilliantly executed." Washington's Crossing, PW wrote, "should be seen as emblematic of more than a turning of the war's tide."

"I came to [writing about] Washington in consideration of how the next generation of historical writing would develop." Fischer says. "The irony being that, just as much of the new social history has broadened the history of all peoples, individual actors have begun to disappear."

The campaign at Trenton, and Washington's triumph there, stands as one of the greatest moments in the founding of the American republic. "The events at Trenton were events that concentrated the minds of the people that experienced them," Fischer says.

"The historical record was amazing in its fullness," he enthuses. In balancing the accounts of Washington's crossing, Fischer utilized his usual vast array of sources. Supplementing the array of personal accounts, Fischer tapped numerous archives, including the pension records of Continental soldiers, held in the National Archives, many of which contain supporting affidavits that offer great detail of the events at Trenton. Washington himself, keenly aware of his legacy, kept detailed papers. Surprisingly, a large number of Hessian accounts also exist, mostly in court-martial proceedings. "The Hessians had many courts-martial after Trenton," Fischer explains, "not because they necessarily wanted to, but because Landgraf [the ruler of the routed German militia fighting for the British] wanted to know what happened to his army."

As in his books, Fischer is also an engaging interview. As he cuts for PW the figure of Washington perched high on the Palisades of New Jersey watching as a large part of his army surrenders at New York, outflanked by a brilliant maneuver by the British, the desperation is palpable. The story of Trenton, Fischer says, begins here.

"Watching his army surrender brought Washington to a very low ebb," Fischer explains. "Amid this and the other troubles of the campaign, he lost it at that moment. The men around him were amazed to see their general just dissolve into tears of frustration and despair. From there, the campaign is an extraordinary story of how Washington regained control of himself and his army, and found a way forward."

Even Fischer says he was surprised by the quality of Washington's leadership. For much of the early campaign, his army was barely an army at all, more a ragtag collection of revolutionaries from a nation still in its infancy. United against the British, the Continentals were often bitterly divided among themselves.

"Gradually, Washington found a way to work with these men. He was always listening, always consulting. His greatest success was to tap the skills, knowledge and experience of these men. This kind of leadership was one of Washington's great feats, and it became the very model for an open society and for the kind of leadership Americans now expect."

As the 2004 presidential campaign hits stride, our nation again finds itself at a turning point, once again at war. Fischer's examination of the leader who would become our first president and the events that helped to secure our nation's existence seems altogether fitting.

"There were many disasters along the way to crossing the Delaware," Fischer says. "I found an extraordinary description of Washington sitting on an old broken beehive, shrouded in his cloak, musing over the ruin of his plan, as he wondered whether should he call it off." Fischer's words resonate like history itself. "He decided then, however, that it would be worse to go back than to go forward."