Sunday, August 21, 2011

1776 by David McCullough - Book Review

We often tend to think of 1776 as the glorious year the United States of America was formed and we set off on fighting our way to independence. In fact, it proved itself to be a year of defeat, discouragement, and hardship that helped to form the resolve to continue seeking to go it alone as a nation, but which tested our determination at every turn. The Battle of Bunker Hill, Paul Revere's midnight ride, and the battles of Lexington and Concord were behind us and the hard winter of 1777 in which Washington emerged from Valley Forge with his army still intact was in the future. Hostilities between France and England, an unanticipated future occurrence which changed the course of the war were a couple of years ahead, too. In 1776 George Washington was a largely untested general learning to command and lead. American forces, such as they were, suffered many more defeats than any victories they achieved, and the future of our nation was hardly assured.

In 1776 David McCullough, one of our most read and rewarded American historians, recreates the year and shows the way in which George Washington, a man of huge strengths well-recognized in his own time, was given charge of the American military despite having expressed grave doubts about his deserving or having the capacity to undertake such responsibility. He early recognized the value of able leaders like Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton and others, but was clearly undercut by his second in command Charles Lee. Fortunately, by the end of 1776, Lee was out of the picture, while the other three stayed with Washington throughout the war. One of General Washington's greatest attributes, clearly demonstrated in McCullough's fine book, was his ability to inspire loyalty and listen to good counsel.

Generally, 1776 keeps the focus on what's happening in America, but it also paints a picture of the England of the time and the patriotic fervor which led King George III to continue seeking to control his colonies in America. Meanwhile, the urge to seek independence and throw off the pretty light control of the British rule was fomented by people like Jefferson, Adams, and Thomas Paine. Nevertheless, there were many loyalists who preferred happily to remain British subjects and, especially during the early period of the Revolution, sought to aide Britain in its efforts and oppose the move to create a separate nation. Many of these people were concentrated in cities along the eastern seaboard like Boston and New York, where most of the action of 1776 takes place.

Washington Crossing the Delaware
The book opens with a description of Washington's siege of Boston and the British decision to evacuate from a virtually indefensible position, overlooked by a ridge where American forces were dug in. Upon their leaving, Washington moved as quickly as possible to the defense of New York, placing himself in the difficult posture of controlling the island of Manhattan surrounded by water and subject to attack by the superior British forces arriving by sea. As the British, under general and admiral Howe, brothers commanding the army and navy forces, gradually but effectively surrounded New York, with landings on Long Island and Staten Island and huge naval presence in the waters nearby, Washington found himself caught. After a disastrous battle in Brooklyn, he managed to orchestrate a miraculous evacuation to Manhattan without any further losses and buy himself some time. Soon, however, he was forced to escape across the Hudson River and move as quickly as possible towards the defense of Philadelphia.

Caught along the west bank of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, Washington perceived the importance of an American victory to the continuance of the war effort. He managed to organize and carry off an epic and legendary crossing of the Delaware River to defeat a force of Hessian mercenaries encamped in Trenton on Christmas morning in 1776. A few days after the new year, he doubled down with a successful attack in Princeton, New Jersey before heading to Morristown, New Jersey to encamp for the remainder of the winter. Meanwhile, fortunately, Howe had left for the comforts of New York City. Washington was left with a small and largely dispirited army who, nevertheless soon realized the importance of their two victories, which energized the American people and showed the British that they were up against a significant foe located at the end of a long supply line.

Washington at the Battle of Princeton
Five more years remained before the British surrender at Yorktown. The distraction of a war with France kept Britain from giving its full attention to its former colonies, but the future of the United States was certainly not assured as 1776 drew to a close. Washington, however, had learned much from the year and gained the fuller support of both Congress and the American people, making the year hugely important in the large scheme of things. The George Washington who would become known as The Father of His Country was, indeed, forged and shaped in the misfortunes of 1776.

David McCullough

David McCullough is a masterful writer whose lively yet thorough prose brings history to life. His use of contemporary accounts makes the people and the situations come to life as he balances the political, the military, the personal, and cultural forces that come together to make history live. His previous works from his early account of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge to his masterful and award winning biographies of John Adams and Harry S Truman have helped to clarify important American accomplishments without the rosy glow of myth making hagiography. The two biographies each won a Pulitzer Prize and McCullough has also been a mainstay of historical programming on the Public Broadcasting Network. According to Wikipedia, all of McCullough's eight books remain in print. His most recent volume, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris treats the world of nineteenth century American cultural icons in the French capital.

1776 by David McCullough is published by Simon & Schuster (2005) and is available in book stores and online in all formats.

I bought the book.