Review: 1776 by David McCullough


In American history very few years stand out as well as that of 1776. Within the span of a year, American colonists went from loyal subjects of His Majesty King George III to Americans fighting against a foreign invader for their freedom. The events that unfolded in that year are remarkable in many ways. In his book David McCullough captures the events of the year 1776 with remarkable clarity that makes his book, 1776, a significant contribution to the study of 18th century America and the American Revolution.

1776 is divided into three sections with two to three chapters per section. In each chapter McCullough recounts the events of the year in a very accessible way. The first section simply called “The Siege” describes the events on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the Siege of Boston. The middle section discusses the summer of ’76, and McCullough focuses his attention on New York.  The final section concerns the last part of the year, and General Washington and the Continental Army’s retreat from New England. McCullough provides in each section a well balanced description of the military events from both American and British points of view.

The opening chapter of 1776 actually takes place in the fall of 1775 in London. At the opening session of parliament in October of 1775, the King of England George III travels to London to speak to a joint session of Parliament. On topic, as McCullough relays, was the rising crisis in the American colonies. The King declares the American colonies to be in a state of rebellion, and asks for both the House of Lords and House of Commons to support his position. In a general history of the American Revolution, specifically written by an American historian, readers may never encounter the happenings of Parliament in the autumn of 1775. The point to which American resistance had driven members of the British government are presented in this opening chapter. For many in Parliament, the American colonies were in rebellion and deserved to face the full brunt of His Majesty’s Army and Naval forces. The House of Lords, as McCullough says, was in session until midnight debating and eventually voting in favor of the King’s proclamation. However, in the House of Commons, where sympathies for the Americans was far more prevalent the debate went until 4 A.M. before the commoners voted to support the King. Among America’s most staunch supporters were Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox who both made speeches in support of America; although even they agreed that Parliament had not only the authority, but the constitutional right to legislate for the American colonies.

In America McCullough writes about the stalemate caused by the siege of Boston, the piece meal American Army and the stand out military figures early in the Revolution that were among the only bright spots militarily for the American army. Among the stand outs of the American Army include Nathanael Greene. Greene was a Rhode Islander who was self educated in the classics, “Nathanael read Caesar and Horace in English translation, Swift, Pope and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”[1]As the son of a rich business owner, Greene was able to build himself a house and upon his father’s death take over the family business. As a result of the latter, when, “he turned his mind to ‘the military art’” and “having ample means to buy whatever books he needed”, Green became one of the most learned military leaders of the American Revolution. While having no actual military experience at all, Greene was quickly elevated to the level of Brigadier General; he was the youngest general officer in the American army; he was thirty-three years of age. He entered the fray in Boston to find things in disarray. “Washington arriving in the first week of July, was told he had 20,000 men, but no one knew for certain.” As it turned out, Washington only had about 16,000 and of that only 14,000 were fit for duty. McCullough is fair to both sides of the siege, stating that the British had the better position than Washington’s Army.

David McCullough presents the British side of the Siege of Boston next, focusing his attention around the battle for Dorchester Heights. McCullough presents the British consideration for attacking Dorchester Heights from the start of the chapter. The British hoped to end the problems in Boston by taking Dorchester Heights on June 15th. However, this plan was changed as a result of the American movement to Bunker Hill. It took until June 17th to remove the Americans from Bunker Hill in a battle McCullough describes as a, “bloodbath.”[2] With the winter quickly approaching, and the American siege still in full force, the British were at a dilemma. As McCullough presents, the British could either pack up and resettle in New York, or dig in for the long Boston winter. In either case, the winter of 1775 was fast approaching. Like he did in the first chapter with Nathanael Greene, McCullough outlines the most important British officer as he sees it, William Howe. Unlike Greene, Howe had been a professional soldier since he was a teenager and was very well accustomed to military life by the time the American Revolution began in 1775. The winter of 1775 turned into the New Year of 1776 and the British were more in danger of the Americans than they had been in 1775. George Washington convened a war council that also included Massachusetts Assembly man James Warren, and Continental Congressman John Adams. It was agreed that Boston had to be taken and all in attendance agreed with Washington a vigorous attempted would need to be made for the city. But what had Washington most worried was rumors the British were looking to leave Boston and head for New York. He received assurances from Adams that New York should be Washington’s primary aim should the British attempt to take it. All of the American plans were nothing more than plans until General Henry Knox arrived in Cambridge to inform Washington that cannons from Fort Ticonderoga were on their way. By the beginning of March the bombardment of Boston began. The Americans succeeded in driving off the British from Boston, something that a year before seemed impossible for the ragtag Army to do.

David McCullough does a remarkable job throughout the next section discussing the situation in New York. New York was the central issue for both the American and British troops between April and August 1776. Unlike Boston, New York demonstrated how inept at times Washington could be when it came to military matters. Unlike his seasoned opponents, Washington proved every bit the military man who had been captured in one of his only commands during the French and Indian War. McCullough spends a significant portion of the book detailing the movements of the American and British forces and ultimately the Battle of Long Island, where the American Army was beaten horribly. McCullough does a remarkable job at telling the story of the battle for New York crossing back and forth to tell the reader of how both sides went about to execute their plans for taking New York City.

The British defeat of the Americans at Long Island lead to Washington’s decision to retreat from their position. However, the British realized that they had the American Army on the ropes, and to allow them to escape might come back to hurt them later. As a result, the Americans were chased by the British lead by Admiral Howe. The British continued to engage the American forces, driving them further south toward New Jersey. By November of 1776, Washington had made the fateful decision to retreat into New Jersey with what was left of his tattered Army. In their pursuit of the Americans, the British employed the use of Hessian Mercenaries.

The final chapter, fittingly called “The Darkest Hour”, examines the final two months of 1776 as the American Revolution looked to be almost lost. The American Army was in New Jersey, but severely undermanned and lacking provisions. McCullough captures the struggle of the Americans in retreat in New Jersey. With the American situation progressively getting worse, the British decided to go for a different look. General Clinton was ordered to New Port with 6,000 troops and the American capital in Philadelphia began to feel the pressure of the British enclosing around them. In New Jersey Washington was losing troops; loyalists were more prevalent in New Jersey than anywhere else as well. In all, the winter of 1776 was bleak compared to the previous year with the exception of one event. On Christmas Eve of 1776, Washington and his army crossed the Delaware River and attacked an encampment of Hessian soldiers.

In all, David McCullough’s book 1776 does what is rarely done; he looks entirely at the military aspects of the year rather than the political circumstances that enter the history books so often. McCullough, who by his own admission is more of a story teller than a historian, does a remarkable job of making military history accessible and enjoyable to the average reader.

Interested in buying a copy of this book? Visit: Amazon.com/1776


[1] David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 22

[2] Ibid. 70

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 221 other followers