Pulitzer Prize-winning David McCullough is both America's best- known historian himself and also a familiar narrator of historical documentaries. He frequently narrates historical documentaries by Ken Burns and many times on PBS's "The American Experience." In addition he writes (mammoth) popular histories himself, which not unusually become bestsellers. One of his histories was JOHN ADAMS, which sold over a million copies in hardcover and became an HBO docudrama series. It of course told of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence.
As a companion piece he wrote 1776 (ISBN-13 978-0-743-22672-1, ISBN-10 0-743-22672-0). The purpose of 1776 was to give a military history of when an action went from a revolt to a full-scale revolutionary war that year. Little mention is made of the wrangling in Philadelphia, as it would be redundant. McCullough instead chronicles the state and fortunes of George Washington's army, under-provisioned and incompetent. He also covers the war from the British perspective.
One perhaps might have expected that this would be a story of a glorious year in the fight for independence, but that would simply not be an accurate view. In fact, 1776 was a terrible year for the Continental Army. Following a few lucky victories around Boston, it was an almost unremitting string of setbacks and defeats pointing to what must have seemed an almost inevitable failure. Had such a failure occurred, as it appeared to be doing, most of the major figures of the revolution would have died on the end of a British rope. This book is really about the courage of these people to continue fighting, often with support from their own side that was insufficient or non-existent.
Were it not for the comfort of the successful Battles of Trenton (12/26/76) and Princeton (01/03/77) at year's end this would be indeed a very dark book. However the battles of Trenton and Princeton were no small comfort. They very well may be the turning point of the Revolution as Gettysburg was to the Civil War and Midway was to the Pacific War. It was there that the Continental Army had its proof of concept. Victory of this ragtag band of malcontents against the most powerful military force in the world became a real possibility. The significance of these battles could not be seen at the time.
The British earlier in the year had captured Boston, but Washington seized Dorchester Heights and forced General Howe to retreat from Massachusetts. The defense of New York was similarly ill-fated, with the loss to the British of Fort Washington and Fort Lee. General Charles Lee, the most powerful general under Washington was captured in November. 1776 was very much a bleak year of defeats and mistakes for Washington. The British war effort after the retreat from Boston was hampered, but their goals were all or nearly all achieved over the remaining nine months.
McCullough covers all this at great length. The continental army was slovenly, frequently drunk, often AWOL, and their camps smelled badly of human waste. McCullough does not lionize Washington. The Virginian general (temporarily) bars blacks from enlistment. His strategy and tactics were less than ideal (or even incompetent). He made huge errors in judgment and was frequently indecisive. But he was the right man in the right position and he did inspire his men to keep fighting and to not accept failure.
Where McCullough falls down is in conveying the texture of battle in this pivotal year. One percent of the new country was killed in the course of the Revolutionary War. We can read a Michael Shaara and get some feel for what it is like to be in battle. McCullough's descriptions are factual but colorless. Perhaps at the time few of the participants gave emotional accounts of battle. Nearly every other detail seems covered but getting inside the men's heads. His ability to collect volumes of detail seems to go beyond the possible.
Another fault is the strictures that McCullough has placed on himself. We join the rebellion in progress at the beginning of 1776 and leave the rebellion in progress less than a week into 1777. Not much background is given before that year and we are assumed to know how it all comes out. It is almost as if the author is leaving the way for volumes 1775 and 1777.
Still, the book is a treasury of historic detail and we can almost hear the words being spoken in the author's own voice.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper