1776 by David McCullough

book imageThis book has been on my horizon for quite some time. I love learning about history, but I will admit that my knowledge is surface-level at best.  McCullough’s 1776 bumped to the top of my reading list after a recent trip to Boston where I was able to see a few sites related to the Revolution.  I had such an excellent time roaming around the city and that advanced my interest in better understanding the revolutionary period in our history.

1776, however, shouldn’t be considered an overview of the Revolutionary War, which spanned eight years.  1776 only covers what happened in 1776.  The events leading up to the war are barely given the notice of a sentence and not much more coverage is given to the subsequent years of the war.  That said, I closed this book with a heightened appreciation and understanding of the proceedings of that signature year and some of the key players, both American and British.

On nearly every page McCullough boosts his narrative with quotations from diaries, letters, and articles that breathe life into the people and events, and an otherwise detached writing style, allowing the reader to better grasp the impact on soldiers, leaders, and regular citizens.  In school, I remember history being covered far too quickly and often with an emphasis on achievement over actuality.  Battles become abstract concepts and causalities are just statistics.  Overall, I felt that McCullough’s writing flowed smoothly and was easy to read but his style (though definitely more interesting than a textbook) is almost as flat as you might expect from a non-fiction account of history.  That said, his inclusion of these personal anecdotes saved his narrative from being completely emotionless and helped to put a human face on the events.  These were real people after all, with wives and families and farms to tend to.

Devoting his narrative to only one year allows the reader to get a more intimate picture of the war as McCullough was able to give more time and attention to details that might otherwise be passed over.

Throughout the war, desertion was a problem. Early on, men would just lay down their arms and head home.  Not necessarily because they were cowards or had enough or were being defiant (though desertion for those reasons was also common), but because they thought their crops might need tending.  In their minds, if it was harvest time then of course they would go home and help with the harvest, war or no war.  They were volunteers, after all.  McCullough also notes that the men were undisciplined in the military sense, simply not used to being told what to do.  Unlike the British soldiers who typically “had rules, regulations, and traditions down pat,” the American soldiers were often disorderly and untrained, on top of being inadequately armed.

In the absence of being able to rely on quickly snapped and posted mug-shots of wanted deserters, they relied on detailed written descriptions of missing soldiers.  Such as this one, which I found quite amusing;

Deserted from Col. Brewer’s regiment, and Capt. Harvey’s company,  . . . one Simeon Smith of Greenfield, a joiner by trade, a thin-spared fellow, about 5 feet 4 inches high, had on a blue coat and black vest, a metal button on his hat, black long hair, black eyes, his voice in the hermaphrodite fashion, the masculine rather predominant.  Likewise, Mathias Smith, a small smart fellow, a saddler by trade, gray headed, has a younger look in his face, is apt so say, ‘I swear! I swear!’ And between his words will spit smart; had on a green coat, and an old red great coat; he is a right gamester, although he wears something of a sober look; likewise John Daby, a long hump-shouldered fellow, a shoemaker by trade, drawls his words, and for comfortable says comfable.  He had a green coat, thick leather breeches, slim legs, lost some of his fore teeth.”

Washington stayed connected to home throughout the war by sending orders for renovations and modifications to his home at Mount Vernon.   He often wrote to Lund Washington about wainscoting and partitions and chimney pieces, giving careful instructions of what should be done.  In one letter to Lund Washington, along with his instructions, Washington admitted to being “wearied to death.” I will admit that by about ¾ of the way through this book, I too was exasperated.  But perhaps that is an appropriate reaction since by the end of the book everyone involved was exasperated.     Intense battles were fused by long periods of waiting and wondering.  Not only were soldiers being battered in battle but they were also being battered by illness and harsh weather.  There were scourges of dysentery, typhus, and smallpox.  Much of the spread of disease was due to the general filth of the soldiers who, in absence of their wives, were not accustomed to doing their own washing.    They also tended to relieve themselves whenever and wherever the moment struck and Washington had to coach and coax them to abide by sanitary living conditions.

The elements too, were frequently uncooperative.  Nature could be unbearably harsh.  The winter of 1776 was frigid while the summer was marked by unrelenting, fatigue-inducing heat which also further propelled the dysentery epidemic.

I was particularly struck by the account of a thunderstorm that was said to have stalled over New York and raged there for three hours.  It was called “a storm like a hurricane.”

’In a few minutes the entire heavens became black as ink, and from horizon to horizon the whole empyrean was ablaze with lightening.’ The thunder did not follow in successive peals, but in one ‘continuous crash.’

 

The storm raged for three hours, yet strangely the cloud appeared to stand still, ‘and swing round and round,’ over the city.  ‘The lightning fell in masses and sheets of fire to the earth, and seemed to strike incessantly and on every side.’

 

Houses burst into flame.  Ten soldiers camped by the East River, below Fort Stirling, were killed in a single flash.  In New York, a soldier hurrying through the streets was struck deaf, blind, and mute.  In another part of town three officers were killed by a single thunderbolt.  A later report described how the tips of their swords and coins in their pockets had been melted, their bodies turned as black as if roasted.”

Trying times indeed.

Like his soldiers, Washington too, was in many ways untrained and ill prepared for all that he would have to contend with.  He was often indecisive or made poor decisions. Again and again in his letters to Congress he called for “patience and perseverance.”  As he has been commonly quoted,

Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.”

Truly that was Washington’s strength, his sheer unwavering drive and staying power to continue, to carry on, and to not give up.

As McCullough, states near the close of his book, “The war was longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate.”  An upwards of 35,000 people lost their lives.  McCullough’s account does much to shed light on the adversity, the hardship, the suffering, the disillusionment, and the doubts of success that would ensue due to the few victories sustained that fateful year.

History tends to gloss over bleak and austere realities in favor of celebrating success and achievement.   I guess that’s understandable in a sense.  But personally, I strive to develop an appreciation of history (as much as possible) for what it really was rather than only extract enough details to build a swell of national pride.  To a scantily clad soldier trekking through the snow laden fields and woods, not knowing if he was going to be alive tomorrow or ever see his family again, it was more than just “The Battle of Trenton.”  I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d prefer to have an honest, human understanding of the events of our past and strive to feel the gravity of what took place.

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To further my knowledge of this period in our history I’m considering the following additions to my reading list.  If you have any further suggestions, feel free to chime in!