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1776, David McCullough

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A friend of mine visited England a few years ago. Playing darts and drinking pints with the locals in a pub, the "yank" found himself on the receiving end of a constant stream of harassment. Though generally good-natured, the comments finally exceeded his limit. When it came time to tally his score, he announced "...and eight more, that makes ... 1776!" The uproar that followed clearly demonstrated that everyone caught his reference. It would seem that 1776 was a year long-remembered on both sides of the Atlantic. David McCullough's latest book explains why.

Part one of McCullough's text, “The Siege” opens in October 1775. In London, King George III appeared before Parliament to declare the American colonies in rebellion; some fourteen hours later, Parliament was resolved to wage war in America, against the “rabble in arms.” Meanwhile, Boston lay in siege. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British took possession of the spot and controlled the city of Boston. American troops—only recently organized into any sort of force that could be called an army and still without a flag—controlled the land around the city. McCullough introduces us to the Americans who came to the scene for the sake of “public security.” As winter set in, we see that both British and American forces were miserable.

In this situation we see the January 1, 1776 commencement of “a new army, in which every point of view is entirely continental,” named the Continental Army, and given a flag of thirteen red and white strips with the British colors represented in an upper corner. After surviving the winter of early 1776, the Continental Army makes its move; McCullough shows us the shocking defeat of the British at Boston beginning with the American seizure of Dorchester Heights.

Part two, “Fateful Summer,” shows the Continental Army marching to New York, where the British were assumed next to attempt to assert control over the Colonies. A tremendous display of British firepower and supremacy of the Royal Navy foreshadows the stunning defeat suffered by the troops under the command of General Washington. So tremendous was the loss at Long Island that many of the British assumed that the rebellion would soon dissipate. Even as the military struggled 230 years ago this week, Congress chose to separate itself from Great Britain.

Part three, “The Long Retreat,” shows us the discouragement suffered by the American forces. Confidence in Washington waned and soldiers deserted in waves of thirty or forty at a time—many defecting. The rest of New York would soon be lost, including over 2,800 soldiers captured at Fort Washington. Fort Lee would be abandoned, leaving behind everything: tents, guns, stores, and even the breakfast that was cooking. With winter coming, commissions expiring at the end of the year, soldiers lacking clothing, and morale as low as can be imagined, the darkest hour was upon the Continental Army.

It was in these conditions that Washington decided to take Trenton, attacking the holding force of Hessians meant to keep the village safely under the control of the British for the winter. The Americans fought with tremendous force, securing Trenton and surprising their adversaries just as thoroughly as they had done at Boston nine months earlier. Just about a week later, the Americans attacked again, this time against Cornwallis' rear guard at Princeton. The ferocious battle, all over in the time of a quarter-hour left the Americans victorious.

The war would rage on for years longer—until the Treaty of Paris in 1783—but 1776 would nevertheless be a pivotal year in the history not just of the American continent, but of Great Britain, whose subjects populated the colonies originally, and indeed of the whole world. McCullough tells the story of the events of 1776 with skill that makes it a joy to read. Readers will undoubtedly find themselves afterward thinking not just about what happened but what lessons we might be able to apply from the ordeal in our own time, and in our own lives. I thought back to the words of George Washington, quoted in the beginning: “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” So they have.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-07-05 08:11 AM
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