I read McCullough’s biography of John Adams three years ago and found it every bit as amazing as the Pulitzer committee did. In the course of describing John Adams’ life, especially his role in the Continental Congress, involved no small number of words about the Revolutionary War; however, Adams being a congressman and not a military man, the martial details of that time period were largely absent from the book.
1776 was, apparently, written as a sort of companion piece to that biography. It’s both trademark McCullough and also somehow disappointing.
I should qualify that last statement by noting I’m not disappointed with the quality of the book, but rather with McCullough’s decision to cover only a single year, and then only the martial aspects of it. He flirts with so many other interesting topics—the signing of the Declaration, for one, as well as the character of George Washington and some of his more dynamic generals—but veers off before covering them intimately because 1776 is by a large a window into the trials and tribulations of the American army; the brilliant acts and enormous blunders of Washington; the overwhelming military power and curious hesitancy of British commanders. This, I find, is disappointing, if only because I could envision 1776 as a book of thrice the length, covering all the topics I would love McCullough to turn his dazzling skills upon.
But what we have is Washington, a rather green general1, whose success in Boston in early 1776 was followed by an unbroken string of failures, as his army deserted him, the British snatched New York from under his nose, and he managed to avoid the complete collapse of the rebellion only by dint of repeated retreats. As if the year was tailor-made for the scope of McCullough’s book, however, Christmas of 1776 witnessed Washington’s rather miraculous2 crossing of the Delaware and capture of 1,000 Hessians (Germany mercenary soldiers) at Trenton, an important symbolic victory that lifted the flagging spirits of the Americans and put wind in Washington’s sails.
I’m not exaggerating, however, when I say that the entire middle of 1776 is a savage beating of the American army, and Washington’s competence as a general. McCullough even goes out of his way to describe Washington’s successful retreats as military successes, which generosity perhaps betrays in McCullough the same love for Washington as an icon that all of history has seemed to have for the man, however justified. One gets the sense that our history is as it is because of a fortunate confluence of circumstances. The Bros. Howe, of the British Army and Navy, were conservative, and their wish to spare both British and American lives, if possible, created crucial hesitations which allowed the American army breathing room. A more aggressive strategy by the British would have almost certainly doomed the fledgling rebellion.
McCullough begins his book with George III’s address to congress (this, actually, before his “madness”, likely porphyria, was really an issue, and the monarch was actually quite popular), which is an interesting and important choice. Though much of Britain rallied behind the George’s adamant stance, there was no small measure of displeasure, both popularly and in the houses of Parliament, expressed at the notion of sending warships to America. McCullough doesn’t delve too deeply into the basis for this displeasure, but the reader can ad-lib as necessary: war with America is too costly in money, or in lives; still others may have thought, though certainly they were in the minority, that America deserved to be an independent state if it so desired. The important conclusion to take away is that, despite George’s blustering in Parliament, and the committal of 60,000 combined British soldiers and hired Hessians by 1779, commanding officers on the British side were hesitant to spill too much blood3; America was, after all, like Britain’s little brother; Britain had come to America’s aid when it quarreled with France, and France would come (critically) to America’s aid as it quarreled with Britain.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, disappointingly narrow as it might be, 1776 serves as an illustration of just how precarious the American situation was. It is easy, in retrospect, to ascribe the very existence of the United States to an inherent pluck and indefatigability—Luke demolishing the Death Star and the Emperor both with the Light Side of the Force. But it’s always good to remember just how narrowly and how fortunately the young nation accomplished what it did, when it did, in part because the conflict was, despite what Mel Gibson’s The Patriot might lead you to believe, a time when war was about as civilized as war can be, though of course this isn’t saying much at all.