Wednesday, July 06, 2011

1776 by David McCullough

I did not plan to do so, but I finished reading 1776 by David McCullough on July 4. That would be more appropriate if McCullough had described the scene of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which someone might expect in a book with this the title. The author, however, tells a different story in his book. Instead of focusing on the political developments, he focuses on the military campaign and the leadership of George Washington. 1776 is pretty much an account of Washington's year in Boston, New York, and New Jersey as head of an ill-defined and untrained army. It's a story we do not hear as often as the story of the delegates drafting the Declaration of Independence, but probably it is just as important. The entire revolution could have failed early in the struggle if the British had pursued the rebels after battles or if the colonists had not regrouped several times.

1776 could almost be classified biography, as Washington is thoroughly described and remains the focus throughout the book. He was relatively inexperienced as a commander and made mistakes by not taking advice on several occasions. Readers also learn about his staff, especially Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, and McCullough recounts the battles at Bunker Hill (1775), for New York and Long Island, and around Trenton, New Jersey. I was particularly struck by how the colonials got by without clothes, boots, food, ammunition, and pay. Hanging on was either a miracle or the sign of a big failure by distracted British commanders. General Howe rarely saw anything as urgent.

Readers who have enjoyed McCullough's biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams should try 1776, too. It is a closely-drawn character-center story which should please them.

McCullough, David. 1776. Simon and Schuster, 2005. ISBN 0743226712.

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