Honestly, I don’t know how all of us Americans aren’t British subjects today, if not for quite literally a few thousand men and the “it” factor of a single man, George Washington. I’m as skeptical as anyone of the great man theory of history, but if it applies to anyone in a particular place, time and moment in history, it applies to George Washington, as I understand him, and his role in the American Revolutionary War, through David McCullough’s 2005 book 1776. There’s a reason Washington has been deemed the “indispensable man.” McCullough, although not using that phrase, I don’t believe, supports that rendering, as far as I’m concerned.
I feel as if it’s become popular conventional wisdom nowadays to be like, “Well, actually, George Washington wasn’t that great a general in the American Revolutionary War.” Heck, I heard that at a recent slave plantation tour in South Carolina. Sure, as McCullough is not shy in pointing out, Washington’s leadership stumbled at times, where he seemed indecisive and lost a number of battles in 1776, but there was something else that made Washington … Washington and meant the difference between losing to the British and overcoming nearly insurmountable deficits to defeat them.
But, let’s back up. As I’ve said many a time when going down my history rabbit holes lately with audiobooks and books, I know the general outline of the American Revolutionary War and the American founding, of course, but the specific details? Not really. 1776, told mostly from the military side of things and not the political (the Declaration of Independence, for example, is largely a footnote in this story), fills in some of those specifics and shows how dire it seemed for the Americans through a large chunk of 1776.
That’s the thing. In the 21st century, 1776 has itself become a shorthand symbol of America’s birth and how we kicked British butt. A sort of “yay, America!” kind of year. But 1776 largely sucked for Americans, save for Boston in the spring and the last few days of the year in a rather fortunate win in the Battle of Trenton. After all, while the Declaration of Independence was birthed in 1776, those were just words, words that could spell the death of the men who signed their names to it, if they didn’t win the War.
Not to mention as I forgot, admittedly, the War went on for another seven years after 1776. It’s not the sort of scrappy, but neat-and-tidy underdog victory I remember from school.
The start of the book fascinated me, with McCullough devoting considerable time (and he would do so throughout) to the British perspective on the War, particularly that of King George III and William Howe, the primary general directing the War against the Continental Army. So, I thought it was interesting to get that perspective.
Something else I didn’t know was that early on, even post-Boston Massacre in 1770 and post-Boston Tea Party in 1773 — and for whatever reason, I did not realize those two flashpoints were spread out so far and years ahead of the War itself — independence was not on the minds of the British or the Americans. Even into 1776 and deep into 1776 after a number of battles, there was still thought from both sides of a sort of reconciliation and compromise to bring the Colonies to heel under the British crown.
Another area I was interested in was the logistics. Logistically, I kept wondering, how do the Americans have enough gunpowder, muskets and money for all of this? And the simple, quick answer is: They didn’t. But the longer, complicated answer is that Americans living in the 13 Colonies at that time were considered, as McCullough points out, the most well-off people in the Western world. That’s why the British thought they were dirty traitors and couldn’t quite understand why they were being rebellious. “They had it so good!” sort of thing.
Aside from those logistics and how awful war is at any time, it seems particularly laborious at this time of long-distance, slow communication. For example, King George III makes a speech to the British Parliament in October 1775. The content of that speech didn’t reach the Colonies until January 1776. That sort of three-ish month delay in knowing the latest happenings on either side of the Atlantic was a common feature and theme throughout the War. That would be maddening.
While war is awful, a deeply human aspect of war is that even amid war, humans try to find ways to maintain our humanity. And the British, while stationed in the Colonies, with canons firing off all around them, were still putting on plays, often satirizing the rebels and Washington. When the War finally did encroach on the goofy ceremonies, the people in the audience thought it was part of the play! That’s extraordinary.
To sort of backtrack on my own words about Washington, I do think Washington was a central figure and that if you take him out of the equation, I’m not sure if we win the American Revolutionary War, but two figures who were also helpful to the cause were the unyielding (they served the entire War) Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene at his side. I enjoyed McCullough explaining more (to me) about their role in the War and how helpful they were as Washington’s right-hand men.
The fortification of Dorchester Heights in March 1776 is when Americans announced themselves as a rebel force that would not go quietly into that good night, to ironically quote a UK poet. Under Washington’s leadership, the Continental Army took command of the hills with a view over Boston, establishing ominous canons. Add in a crushing snowstorm and the British high-tailed it on out of there. Consider that, a few thousand men with the Continental Army, if that, were able to expel the occupying British forces in Boston.
That storm, too? Weather would also be a continued theme throughout 1776, both for the better and for the worse, and to some, as McCullough points out, when it was for the better, it was akin to divine providence.
One of my favorite details given in the book by McCullough is the British perspective of New York. Yup, even at that time, New Yorkers had a reputation and the reputation was that of loose people (morally-speaking), who were taken to swearing too much.
Speaking of New York, that was the second largest American city at the time with 25,000 people. Philadelphia had the largest at 40,000. The next largest cities after those were Boston (15,000) and Charleston (12,000).
The British brought 32,000-some soldiers and dozens of ships to take New York! They brought more soldiers to take New York than New York had people! That helps to give you a sense of the scope and might that the Americans were up against. It gives me goosebumps to consider how nuts that is.
Forget the British numbers for a second and also consider the other factors working against the Americans: 1.) Many of the men were not well-trained and had never seen war; 2.) The Army was not being paid well at all and so, when their time was up, a lot of men wouldn’t re-enlist; 3.) Throughout 1776, a lot of men in the Army deserted, some even linking back up, and begging for mercy from, the British; 3.) Loyalists to the Crown still in the colonies, including in New York, helping the British and sabotaging the Americans (I wonder what became of a lot of loyalists post-1783?);. 4.) Oh, and let’s add in another large item I didn’t know about working against the Americans: the fierce Hessians, who were German soldiers working with the British; 5.) Disease! Forget the time period where disease was more common, war itself helps to manifest the rampant spread of disease and it was not different with the American Revolutionary War. Americans were constantly sick and dying from disease throughout 1776; and 6.) Americans didn’t even have shoes … in the winter!
Against all of those odds, the Americans still won. Again, I can’t convey how miraculous I continued to find American victory to be the deeper I got into McCullough’s book.
Yes, as McCullough points out, the French would be a key ingredient as the War progressed post-1776 and arguably, we wouldn’t have won the Revolutionary War without their help, either.
One of the most miraculous and morale-boosting moments of the War comes around Christmas Day 1776, when Washington leads the charge of one segment of the Continental Army against the Hessian forces in the Battle of Trenton, with two more contingents expected to close in around them. However, due to that dang weather, two of the contingents dropped out. It was only Washington’s going forth, with the famed crossing of the Delaware River.
Even hearing McCullough explain how that crossing happened, I still can’t quite conceptualize it. It’s madness! And yet, those 2,400 men did it and then, even without the other two contingents (meaning, 3,000 fewer men), were able to win. And the most surprising part? With “negligible losses.” That is, only two Americans died that cold night and it was because of the cold, not the Battle. Only five, yes, five, men were wounded. Meanwhile, 22 Hessians were killed, with 83 wounded and 800 to 900 captured.
So, what is it about Washington that makes him a great man of history; what is that “it”? Spirit. McCullough wrote a whole book about American spirit, which I reviewed, and that’s the essence of what made Washington who he was. It wasn’t his battle strategies or his intellect. It was his spirit and his perseverance.
How energizing is it when you see the commander-in-chief, Washington, riding into battle alongside you? Where, at any moment, he could be shot and killed? Or at least, captured? That Washington not only survived 1776 and another seven years of war, but that he managed to go on to serve two terms as President of the United States in the 18th century is extraordinary to me.
Another factor is a particular project of Washington’s that he carried with him to the presidency: a focus on unifying the disparate parts of America across identities, geography and the like. Such was also the case here in the War, despite his dislike of New Englanders, as a Southerner.
All of it seemed to work, as re-enlistments went up and Americans ultimately won the War, of course.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book by McCullough. I will always throat-clear that I’m not a rah-rah patriotic American type of person, but the ideals of America and its story, particularly its founding, are deeply moving and affecting to me. It’s a beautiful, imperfect struggle for liberty and self-ownership, unlike anything the world had ever known before.
McCullough’s 1776 will make you, a 21st century reader, appreciate that struggle even more because 1776 wasn’t the greatest year for America, as it was disappointing, crushing defeat after disappointing, crushing defeat. Until it wasn’t. And that’s kind of our story, huh? Spirit and perseverance.
Oh, and McCullough himself did the reading and his voice is lovely.