Classic review: 1776

A gripping account of 1776 – a year of "sustained suffering" and "phenomenal courage."

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on May 24, 2005.] In December 1776 Thomas Paine reflected on the year past and wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls."

No American who lived through 1776 doubted the truthfulness of Paine's lament, and no one had had his soul more tried than the commander in chief of the Continental Army, George Washington. At the order of the Continental Congress in June 1775 Washington had taken command of an assemblage of men (not yet an army) that had gathered in the days following Lexington and Concord and were laying siege to the British force occupying Boston.

Over the next eight months Washington turned this rabble under arms into a recognizable force - the Continental Army. He and his army worked to tighten the noose on the enemy until finally in March 1776 the British commander, Gen. William Howe, ordered an evacuation.

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The British retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they regrouped and planned an attack on New York City. Washington got to New York first, where he set to work immediately preparing defenses.

The decision to stand at New York was a political necessity but a tactical mistake.

New York's support for the American cause was essential. To have abandoned the city would have resulted in disastrous political consequences.

Militarily, however, it was impossible for Washington to win. Control of the city, bordered on three sides by water, rested on naval power. Washington had none, while General Howe could rely upon his brother, Adm. Lord Richard Howe, to deliver the world's mightiest fleet.

Washington's tactical disadvantages were compounded by his own errors. Splitting his force between Manhattan and Long Island nearly cost him his army, and his later decision to hold Fort Washington led to disaster.

Had General Howe been a more imaginative and aggressive commander the British might have "bagged the fox" in New York. That they did not, however, was not due to incompetence or lethargy, but rather, as David McCullough rightly points out in "1776," to the British command's adherence to 18th-century tactical doctrine. Howe did what he was expected to do and he did it well.

Howe's mistake was in believing that occupying territory was the same as winning the war. On the other hand, Washington understood that holding ground was less important than preserving the Army.

As long as the American Army existed, the goal of independence was vital and real. Washington understood, as Howe and other British leaders did not, that this was a revolution, not a war.

Washington got whipped in New York, but he was not beaten. He, along with his generals, the best being Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene, had shown courage and perseverance, while the men in the ranks had displayed loyalty to a commander they had come to respect. The American retreat from New York was disheartening, but the year ended with an astonishing counterattack at Trenton that gave spirit to the Army and the emerging nation.

"1776," McCullough writes, "was a year of all too few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, ... but also of phenomenal courage, and bedrock devotion to country."

Since McCullough's appeal as a historian and writer is so widespread, it is a certainty that more Americans will read this book than were alive in 1776. [Ed. note: fewer than 4 million.] Indeed, is there anyone interested in our nation's history who has not heard his voice or read "John Adams," "Truman," "The Path Between The Seas," "Mornings on Horseback," etc.?

McCullough's writings dominate American history. Why?

In great measure it is because of his commitment to thorough research. Original sources are at the heart of all his books. He consistently reaches deep into archives and uses these sources to take us as close to the original events as we are ever likely to get.

His phenomenal success is also due to his skill as a writer. Some academics may whine as they see his books flying off the shelves of Barnes and Noble, when they can't even get space, but his grace and eloquence put their stale prose to shame.

Research and style are important, but there is something else.

What is truly remarkable about David McCullough is his eagerness as an author to allow the actors in the drama of history to speak for themselves. Too often historians are wont to write long paragraphs explaining what was said or written when the original words of the participants convey the historical experience far more directly and eloquently than any modern voice.

But to let documents speak, the historian must step back. This requires an act of modesty and humility often lacking.

During his research in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society, McCullough found a poignant letter. It is only one of many remarkable documents he unearthed during his research in more than two dozen libraries and archives.

On Christmas Eve, the very nadir of 1776, William "Billy" Tudor, an officer who had been with Washington since Boston, wrote to his wife to explain why in this dark hour he remained with the commander in chief:

"I cannot desert a man (and it would certainly be desertion in a court of honor) who has deserted everything to defend his country, and whose chief misfortune, among ten thousand others, is that a large part of it wants spirit to defend itself."

McCullough let Billy Tudor speak for himself.

Tudor's is only one of the many voices in this book that, thanks to McCullough, we can now hear. We should also listen, and take encouragement from the example of the soldiers who followed Washington in the year 1776.

William M. Fowler Jr. is director of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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