Book Review: 1776 by David McCullough

Too often we associate history with obligatory lessons at school:  boring, petty, meaningless.  We memorize names and dates without affixing humanity to them, without realizing the inexorable bond that links us to those people and events in the past.  Not only were they human, as we are, and their deeds reflect their humanity, from which we can learn to improve our human attributes, but the decisions they made and the deeds they did affected us and made us what we are now.  Nobody was conceived and raised in a vacuum; we are bound to history just as we are bound to our human physical limitations and the elemental conditions of our environment.  We can no more escape our history than we can escape the Earth’s environment without artificial protection.

This is a hell of a book.  It’s well written and fascinating.  Although I like reading history, my main era of interest is the twentieth century, particularly the Vietnam War and the period of upheaval from the 1950s through the 1970s, which is when I grew up in a strange, schizophrenic, evolving America.  But a couple of circumstances caused me to pick up this book.  First of all, a number of articles I researched and wrote about the colonial era and the Revolutionary War piqued my interest.  Second, I found a pristine, almost-free copy of “1776” at the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale and couldn’t pass it up.

I can’t exactly say that this book reads like a novel, because it is too full of excerpts from journals and letters from people who lived through the action, an approach a novel rarely takes.  But it was as exciting and fascinating as a novel.

Every American knows the basic story, of course, from history lessons in high school and grade school.  We’ve all seen the iconic paintings and heard some of the famous quotes.  But this book goes far, far deeper into the heart of what really happened.  It has a three-act structure, just like a model screenplay – and it would make a hell of an epic movie, by the way.  The first part deals with the siege of Boston, the Colonial Army’s capture of the Dorchester Heights, and the abandonment of the city by the British.  The second part talks of the battle of Long Island and New York, a rousing victory for the British and a stunning defeat for the colonists, forcing the American army to retreat south to New Jersey.  The third part addresses the dejected, tattered state of the army as it flees southward and crosses the Delaware into Pennsylvania, only to return to New Jersey on Christmas Day of 1776 for two stunning victories against the British at Trenton and Princeton.

I never really realized what the colonists were up against in the war against the British, but McCullough makes it clear in gut-wrenching detail.  They were farmers.  Kids as young as fourteen, men with wives and children, old folks left their fields and plows to enlist in the Continental Army.  Some had no firearms, no tents, no boots, no uniforms, no winter clothing.  They slept in the rain and mud; they marched through icy fields with bare feet leaving blood trails behind them.  Sometimes provisions were inadequate; many got fed up, deserted, and went home or over to the enemy.  Disease struck down as many as a quarter of the troops at a time.  The fact that any of them kept going at all, that Americans are now singing “The Star Spangled Banner” instead of “God Save the Queen”, is amazing.

And the most amazing character of all is that of General George Washington, who volunteered to leave his comfortable mansion at Mount Vernon to lead the ragtag mob.  The book delves deep into his character.  He was courageous, persistent, resolute, indefatigable, although he was also sometimes depressed and indecisive.  He was the glue that held the army and the fight for independence together.  Although he despaired in the darkest moments, it never crossed his mind to give up.  He inspired loyalty in such talented and courageous men as Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox, heroic patriots themselves, who followed him the full duration of the Revolutionary War.

Fascinating details abound.  For example, one of the keys to the victory during the siege of Boston was acquiring the heavy artillery from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain.  To get them to Boston, Henry Knox and a team of men had to carry them through rugged wilderness in the depths of winter by boat, sled, and wagon for weeks, a heroic effort that enabled the Americans to surprise the British and cause them to flee.  Another vignette tells of an artillery man shot down and killed in the battle for New York.  His wife stepped up to take his place, one of the few women to see action during the Revolutionary War, and held her ground until she became too wounded to continue.

I recommend this book for both entertainment and edification.  It sheds the light of reality on historical stories that have entered the realm of legend.  When you read what America’s forefathers went through during those dark times, it makes you marvel that they had the grit to endure it and see it through to the end.

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