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David McCullough’s 1776 is a well written book, starting with its title. It’s a story about the war, yet no actual fighting happens for most of the book. George Washington is often diminished compared to other characters in the book, and readers almost feel sorry for the usually infamous characters such as the loyalists, Hessians, and even King George III. Another surprise is that David McCullough, best known for Rushmore-size biographies of underrated presidents, wrestles America’s founding year into a taut 294 pages of text, describing the trying months that followed the heroics at Lexington, Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill. The result is a lucid and lively work that will engage both Revolutionary War bores and general readers who have avoided the subject since their school days. But forget about Minute Men, Paul Revere’s ride and steely rebels holding their fire until they could see the whites of their enemies’ eyes.
When we meet the colonials encamped around Boston in the summer of 1775, they are a wretched, ill-clad band, voiding ”excrement about the fields perniciously.” Lack of sanitation bred rampant ”camp fever” to go with a smallpox epidemic. Each man consumed, on average, a bottle of rum per day, and once-Puritan Boston was so rife with prostitutes that mapmakers labeled its red-light district ”Mount Whoredom.” When the Virginia-bred Washington takes command, he exhibits the sort of haughty contempt for Yankees that Bostonians of a later era would display toward Southerners. ”These people,” he complained, are ”exceedingly dirty and nasty” and afflicted by an ”unaccountable kind of stupidity.” Washington bristles at the leveling instincts of New England officers, whom he judged too familiar with their men.
The slave-owning general also took offense at the presence of free blacks in the ranks. One of his first orders, later rescinded out of necessity, barred blacks from enlistment. McCullough pairs his earthy introduction of colonial Boston with a pomp-filled opener in London, where King George arrives at Westminster in a chariot drawn by a team of Hanoverian Creams to address Parliament on the state of his ”unhappy people” in America. A parliamentary debate follows. Most Americans may not know that almost a third of the members voted against waging war. Charles James Fox, a 26-year-old fop who wore ”high-heeled shoes, each of a different color,” observed of the prime minister, Lord North: ”Alexander the Great never gained more in one campaign than the noble lord has lost — he has lost a whole continent.”
Fox went on: ”I cannot consent to the bloody consequences of so silly a contest about so silly an object, conducted in the silliest manner . . . from which we are likely to derive nothing but poverty, disgrace, defeat and ruin.” In this and other passages, McCullough deftly sketches characters with a few quotations and details, humanizing a cast of thousands. In Massachusetts, we meet Washington’s idiosyncratic staff, including Nathanael Greene, a Quaker foundryman and limping asthmatic with one eye clouded by a smallpox inoculation. Charles Lee, Washington’s second-in-command, is described by a contemporary as a ”great sloven, wretchedly profane,” and so ill tempered that ”his Indian name was Boiling Water.” McCullough writes with obvious warmth about flinty New Englanders. His portrait of the Virginian who led them is much more ambivalent.
Washington emerges as courageous, indefatigable, a born leader, a military bumbler and a patrician whose trappings rivaled those of the English gentry. Fighting for the ”glorious Cause” of liberty and equality, ”His Excellency” quartered himself in the finest manses of Cambridge and Manhattan, with slaves, a French cook and a tailor in tow. Frustrated by his inability to discipline Yankee troops, he micromanaged the expansion of Mount Vernon from afar, fretting about parlor wainscoting on the eve of battle. More gravely, Washington didn’t have a clue about strategy or tactics, and had to be rescued from his reckless plans by subordinates. McCullough bluntly terms him ”indecisive and inept” as a battle commander, but praises his perseverance and cleareyed recognition of his own and his army’s faults. Washington also showed a talent for night actions (often in retreat) and a capacity to learn from his mistakes. It’s a miracle the Continental Army survived so many early debacles to fight another day.
At several points, fog and storms saved the rebels from imminent disaster. British generals, who often likened the war to a fox hunt, failed to ”bag” Washington and his army when they had the chance. The British also misjudged the resolve of America’s ”rabble in arms.” Typical was the general who crowed, ”If a good bleeding can bring those Bible-faced Yankees to their senses, the fever of independency should soon abate.” That it didn’t is due largely to the resilience of America’s ”citizen soldiers,” most of them farmers and artisans accustomed to labor and hardship. In ”1776,” as in ”John Adams,” McCullough vividly evokes the rustic ingenuity of 18th-century colonial life. Rebels encircling Boston cloaked their advance with hay bales, and fortified their hilltop redoubt with barrels of stone and sand to roll down on the British.
Soldiers lacking muskets ”carried homemade pikes fashioned from scythe blades.” Washington’s famed Delaware crossing was made aboard barges designed to float pig iron. ”1776” is least effective, however, at conveying the core of most war stories: combat. The first, and best, hundred pages center on the siege of Boston, a tense but almost bloodless affair. When the action shifts to New York, the narrative slackens. McCullough writes with great clarity about the complex maneuvers between Manhattan, Long Island and Westchester County in the summer and fall of 1776. But when battle erupts, the action becomes mired in stock images. That a storyteller as versatile as McCullough can’t enliven colonial combat raises a larger question. The War of Independence killed a greater percentage of Americans than any other conflict in our history, except the Civil War.
The stakes could hardly have been higher. Yet Revolutionary War battle seems stubbornly to defy dramatization, in film as well as print. Are we numbed by the parades and rote patriotism of the Fourth of July? Anesthetized by textbooks, which turn the Revolution into a wonkish debate over taxes and governance? Whatever the reason, America’s seminal war has yet to find its Stephen Crane, Margaret Mitchell or Shelby Foote. ”1776” is nonetheless a stirring and timely work, reminding us that it’s soldiers rather than ”tavern patriots and windy politicians” who have always paid the price of American idealism and determined its successes. One of the first to recognize this was Thomas Paine, whose famous words — These are the times that try men’s souls” — were inspired by the sight of Washington’s frayed army in retreat. Washington’s closest aide, Joseph Reed, put it more plainly in a letter to his wife. ”Your noisy sons of liberty are, I find, the quietest in the field,” he wrote. ”An engagement, or even the expectation of one, gives a wonderful insight into character.”