The year 1776 is a significant one for the US, as that was the year when its founding fathers declared independence from Britain. But 1776 was also a precarious year when the fledgling American uprising led by George Washington could have been crushed after several severe military defeats and setbacks. This grim scenario is made abundantly clear in the book 1776, which describes the near fall and rise of the American revolution during that pivotal year.
I’m not too familiar with American history, especially the American Revolution, of which I just know the bare facts. So the precariousness of the American movement and the desperation of its rebel army during 1776 were something I had no idea of.
Having risen up in 1775 and fought several battles, the Americans actually started the year off in 1776 in a relatively decent position as they laid siege to British forces in Boston. For months, the two sides were in a stalemate, until the Americans took a hill overlooking the city and launched withering artillery bombardments, using heavy cannon that had been audaciously hauled 300 miles from Fort Ticonderoga over hills, frozen lakes, and forests. Having taken Boston, the American army then moved on to New York, where their fortunes would suffer a massive reverse.
A massive British fleet unloaded an army that routed the Americans, forcing them to flee south to New Jersey. By December, calamity awaited the Americans as the British pursued them south. I won’t reveal what happens at the end, though American readers and people familiar with the American Revolution will have a good idea.
McCullough has written a stirring historical account that focuses on the American leaders and army and the dire situation they faced. The army suffered from a desperate lack of supplies and men, a lack of discipline, and a constant struggle in retaining and training men as the force transitioned from a militia to a professional army. At any point, the American army could have come close to collapse and dissolution. After all, they faced a formidable and well supplied foe, that was not only made up of British “redcoats”, but also Hessian troops, hired from Germany and much feared for their valor in battle.
The book focuses on Washington, naturally, and highlights his character as well as flaws such as his indecisiveness which cost the Americans at least one of the battles. But McCullough also shows Washington’s burgeoning leadership traits such as being able to endure criticism, even from a trusted confidante in a letter to another person, and his constant urge to take action, which he found better than not doing anything. This shows the measure of the man. Intelligence, cunning and strategy are important, but so are self-motivation, perseverance, and the humility to bear criticism and learn from mistakes. McCullough also features Washington’s commanders Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, who decided on and brought the cannons overland from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston.
There is also a bit of sympathy for the British. King George III wasn’t as dim or ineffective as history often makes him out to be. The British commanders are described as reluctant to engage in total war, especially during the end of the year, preferring instead to wear out the American forces by attrition rather than kill them in numbers. I wonder if this had something to do with the Americans being mostly white descendants of British settlers, as British armies have not shown much restraint against military foes in India and Africa.