Sunday Book Review: 1776

February 21, 2010

I’ve just finished reading David McCullough’s 1776, which tells the tale of the critical year of the American Revolution, from the Siege of Boston to the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, largely through the eyes of the nascent American Army and its commander, General George Washington.

While I love reading History, there’s been a decided lack in my education when it came to Colonial America and the Revolutionary period. That, frankly, is due to the miserable way it was taught in junior and senior high school; nothing could have been more boring. And that’s a shame because the conflicts and struggles that lead to our independence comprise a fascinating story, one that was crucial to the subsequent history of Humanity.

So, I set out several years ago to fill that lack; 1776 is the latest effort.

McCullough’s work is the story of the campaign during and following the Siege of Boston. While that ended in an American victory with the British evacuation, the subsequent tale was one of almost unremitting defeat and misery. New York City was foolishly defended and then lost in a series of battles at Brooklyn, upper Manhattan Island, and White Plains, in which the small Continental Army was almost destroyed. (Had British General Howe shown more initiative, perhaps he would have caught Washington and ended the Revolution. One of the great What-Ifs of History.) Pursued across lower New York and into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, suffering from a nearly shattered morale and plagued by desertions and refusals to reenlist, the Americans survived to score what can justifiably be called miraculous victories in the freezing cold of December and January at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey. In the wake of those battles, General Howe ordered his troops into winter quarters. The Continental Army had survived its most parlous year.

Over the course of McCullough’s narrative, we meet characters of the drama on both sides, such as General Nathanael Greene, the Quaker turned soldier who may have been the best general on our side, to the wretched Lord Rawdon, who thought the increasing number of courts-martial for rape during the New York campaign was proof of the British Army’s improving spirits.

Central to the story, however, is George Washington himself. Portrayed as an amateurish and inept strategist and tactician (Washington had never commanded an army before) whose mistakes and indecisiveness in New York nearly cost us the war, it was the strength of his character more than anything that kept the army together during its worst days. Devoted to the men under his command and to the cause, itself, Washington inspired almost instant loyalty bordering on devotion from his officers and troops. His perseverance in the face of defeat after defeat may have been his greatest quality, enabling him and his troops to carry on until fortune finally turned their way.

McCullough tells his story well, often quoting from diaries and letters from officers and soldiers on both sides. This isn’t a tale of politics and diplomacy, but that of America at arms. He tears away the softening gauze in which time shrouds all distant conflicts to let us see through their own words the suffering of the Americans, Loyalist and Rebel alike, as war consumed both property and lives. We also see the bravery and loyalty of the soldiers of both armies, from General Lord Cornwallis’ nighttime crossing of the Hudson to attack Fort Lee, to the Massachusetts fishermen and sailors who worked miracles to get the army out of New York and, later, across the Delaware in a freezing storm.

With an extensive bibliography and myriad footnotes, 1776 is a good example of popular history at its best: an exciting story, eminently readable and accessible, even to those with only the merest knowledge of our earliest history. Highly recommended, and you can buy a copy at Amazon*.

*(Dear FTC, yes, I do get a few pennies if someone actually buys the book. Oh, the horror.)

RELATED: Today is Washington’s birthday; Power Line has posted a remembrance.