While we look forward to July 4th for a day off, barbeques, and fireworks, it is also the day we celebrate our Independence Day. We associate the year 1776 with our Independence as it is the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. However, it was almost 7 years later when the American Revolutionary War was officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. As David McCullough notes in his book “1776” (2005), “The war was longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate”. McCullough does an excellent job detailing the events of 1776 and making the reader feel like he is with George Washington and his troops during that year. As one will conclude after reading “1776”, it was the most difficult year of the war for America and arguably the most trying year for our nation. While George Washington will forever be revered for being the General who led our country to freedom as well as being the first and one of the best Presidents in our history, he was anything but the legend he became and is today in 1776. McCullough does a particularly great job in portraying Washington’s strengths and weaknesses as they were perceived back in 1776. For anyone interested in American history, “1776” is a must read.
The book begins shortly after Lexington and Concord on April 19 and the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 with King George III delivering his speech for war to Parliament. The British sent 3 major generals to Boston for reinforcements: William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. Howe served in the Seven Years’ War or the French and Indian War. Howe led the British to victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill but at heavy costs with over 1,000 casualties. Although the British held Boston after taking Bunker Hill, they were under siege by the Americans. As there is over 3,000 miles between Great Britain and America, it took approximately a month for news to reach Britain. The distance also gave America a significant advantage during the long war. After King George delivered his war address to Parliament, the debate began. Opponents to war noted that America is increasing in wealth, power, and population. If the British proceeded with the war and failed, they would have a powerful enemy instead of a powerful ally in the future. Other opponents also objected to the use of Hessian mercenaries to kill other British citizens. However, the prevailing opinion was that Americans were ungrateful brats that needed to be forced into obedience. The British had defended the Americans from the French. British military and financial support directly led to the rise of America. Consequently, the revolt and lack of gratitude infuriated Great Britain. Overwhelmingly, the House of Lords voted 69 to 29 and the House of Commons voted 278 to 108 in support of war.
Next, McCullough takes us to the American side and George Washington who took over the Continental Army and the siege of Boston on July 3, 1775. While the book centers on Washington, McCullough also does an excellent job detailing Washington’s most important officers. One of the most officers was Nathaniel Greene, who was the youngest general officer and a Quaker from Rhode Island. Another key member of the Continental Army was Major General Charles Lee, who was a former British officer and a veteran of the French and Indian War. He also had aspirations of leading the Continental Army before Washington’s appointment. British General Burgoyne disparaged the Americans as a “rabble in arms”. In general, the British had very little respect for the Americans. However, they did respect Greene’s Rhode Islanders and some Connecticut regiments. The majority of the Continental Army was comprised of farmers and skilled artisans such as shoemakers, saddlers, carpenters, etc. Moreover, they lacked ammunition, tents, and uniforms. Discipline and cleanliness were issues. Camp fever was a significant concern because of the lack of hygiene. Consequently, it was difficult to believe how this “rabble in arms” could stand up against the professional army of the British. In addition, Washington himself shared similar views of his own men. In letters he sent back home to Mount Vernon, McCullough notes how Washington ranted about the Yankees as “exceedingly dirty and nasty” and only had contempt for them. In contrast to his army, Washington was 6’2”, a soldier, and “perfect Virginian gentlemen”.
Although the British had superior forces, they were hesitant to attack the Americans after their heavy losses at Bunker Hill. Although there were minor skirmishes, the British primarily stayed put in Boston. The lack of aggressiveness proved costly for the British. While they knew that the elevated Dorchester Heights above Boston was the key to the city, they did nothing to secure it. Eventually, the Americans fortified the Heights and did it in a single night. The British were stunned the next morning. General Howe commented “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months”. When the Americans captured Dorchester Heights, the British fired their guns at the Americans but the guns lacked the range to hit them at that height. Moreover, British ships could not be within 2 miles of Boston as they would be within the range of the American guns. While Howe was preparing an attack on Dorchester Heights, a storm intervened and delayed the attack. During the storm, Howe reconsidered and decided to have the British evacuate Boston instead. As such, the Americans’ siege of Boston was a success.
With the successful defense of Boston, Washington knew that the defense of New York would be the next battle. However, McCullough details how New York was completely different from Boston. In Boston, Washington knew exactly where the British were and that they were at his mercy once winter set in. In New York, the British controlled the waters with their powerful navy and could attack from any direction. In fact, Charles Lee noted that “whoever commands the sea must command the town”. Moreover, two thirds of property in New York was owned by Loyalists, or Tories. On July 2, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed and the British landed on Staten Island on the same day. The British arrived with an intimidating armada of 120 ships which included Centurion and Chatham with 50 guns each, the 40 gun Phoenix, 30 gun Greyhound with General Howe, and the 64 gun Asia. On July 12, Phoenix and Rose cast off from Staten Island and moved up the Hudson River close to New Jersey. Their goal was to cut off rebel supplies at Tappan Zee by Tarrytown. In a display of their dominance of the sea, the ships made the journey unharmed despite American guns firing along the coast. Moreover, the ships created terror of their own when they returned fire. In addition, American guns, commanded by Henry Knox, were more deadly for the Americans than the British as 6 artillery men died when their own cannons blew up whether due to inexperience, overconfidence, or the men being drunk. Regardless of the reason, it was a foreshadowing of events to come.
Washington knew that the British attack will either come through Long Island or a direct landing in New York (currently known specifically as Manhattan). Washington believed the attack would be from New York but divided his forces. Ultimately, the British decided to attack Long Island. A British dynamic that McCullough touches on is the rocky relationship between British generals Howe and Clinton. They were at odds in Boston as Clinton was unable to convince Howe to take Dorchester Heights. After Boston, Clinton was sent to South Carolina but was too cautious and defeated at Fort Sullivan by General Lee. When he joined Howe in New York, they continued to disagree. Eventually, Howe won out on his idea to attack Long Island. However, Clinton won out on his idea of a night march, which Clinton and Howe both led. Committing a large force to a night march in an unknown country was a risky tactic. However, it paid off as they completely outmaneuvered the Americans and eventually had them surrounded during the battle. When defeat was imminent, the American troops ran to the Brooklyn lines. 250 Marylanders attacked to cover the retreat. Witnessing the sacrifice, Washington commented “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose”. During the Battle of Brooklyn or Battle of Long Island, 300 Americans were killed and 1,000 were taken prisoners. Although the Americans had strong defenses in Brooklyn, their backs were to the East River. As the British commanded the seas, their ships could potentially seal off any escape. Consequently, Washington ordered a stealthy night retreat across the river back to New York before the British noticed and moved their ships to cut off the retreat. Nevertheless, the battle was a complete disaster. Washington made critical mistakes by dividing his forces against a superior foe as well as being indecisive as he was unsure whether the news of an attack on Long Island was real despite receiving the information on the eve of the attack. Per the words of McCullough, “Washington had proven indecisive and inept. In his first command on a large-scale field of battle, he and his general officers had not only failed, they had been made to look like fools”.
Events would go from very bad in terms of the Battle of Long Island to worse. 3 weeks later, the British invasion of New York occurred in Kips Bay. The British Navy pounded the Bay with its guns and the Americans fled and allowed British troops to land unopposed. In watching his troops flee, Washington went up to the line, threw his hat on the ground, and screamed “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”, and called the conduct “shameful”, “scandalous”, and “disgraceful and dastardly”. Although the Americans still had a foothold at Harlem Heights in the form of Fort Washington on the northern part of the Island, the British controlled New York after landing in Kips Bay. Prior to the invasion, Washington asked Congress to burn the city so the British could not use the city or its supplies. However, Congress ordered Washington to leave the city unharmed as it believed it could be retaken. Ironically, an accidental fire destroyed 500 homes and a quarter of the city while the British had control. With the defeats, American soldiers were deserting 30 to 40 at a time and many of them switched over to the enemy. The British had another victory at While Plains. The biggest blow would be at Fort Washington with George Washington witnessing the disaster at Fort Lee on the New Jersey side. In taking Fort Washington, Hessians scaled rock slopes against Americans firing at them and gained admiration for overcoming all difficulties amid significant resistance. 2,837 Americans surrendered, which was an even bigger loss than the Battle of Long Island. The British would also cross the Hudson River to land at Fort Lee to scale the Palisades, a perpendicular footpath. However, Washington learned of the attack ahead of time and ordered his troops to abandon the fort beforehand. Nevertheless, New York was completely lost and Washington his army was on the run and on the ropes.
Washington retreated from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. However, Washington only had at most 3,000 soldiers left. As such, the British had no opposition in New Jersey. As it was known as the “Garden of America”, the Hessians were known for plundering the plantations of New Jersey. As Washington was in dire straits, he requested General Lee to bring his forces to Washington for reinforcements. However, Lee had been infuriated by Washington’s blunders in New York. Moreover, Lee defeated Clinton in South Carolina and was the only true American hero at the time. As such, he trusted his own judgment over Washington’s. He felt no need to aid and follow Washington and did not respond to multiple requests for help. Moreover, he set out to undermine Washington and questioned his leadership. However, we remember George Washington and not Charles Lee for a reason. General Lee would be separated from his army at Basking Ridge and was captured by the British. Although it was another gut wrenching blow to the Americans at the time and Washington was furious at Lee’s foolishness, it was probably a lucky break for Washington in the long run as Lee could no longer undermine Washington’s command. With Lee’s capture, Congress also fled Philadelphia to Baltimore. For the British, they believed they had captured the only American General that posed a real threat to them. As such, it was looking very dire for Washington and his country at the end of 1776.
When General Howe went back to New York for the winter, Washington devised a plan to attack the Hessians in Trenton. His troops crossed the Delaware River the night of December 25 and 26 and caught the Hessians completely by surprise on December 26. Nathaniel Greene led the attack and there was “savage house-to-house fighting”. The Americans killed 21 Hessians, wounded another 90, and captured approximately 900 Hessians. Not one American was killed in the battle and only 2 died on the night march. John Hancock described the victory as “extraordinary” as he noted the men appeared “broken by fatigue and ill-fortune”. On January 1, 1777, Cornwallis reached Princeton for a counterattack. However, the Americans were able to defeat the British again. Nevertheless, the Battle of Trenton was the key moment as it rejuvenated American spirits and stopped the British momentum. On December 27, 1776, Congress authorized Washington to have all the power needed to keep the army together. For 6 months, Washington was a “virtual dictator”. However, Washington noted that “Instead of thinking himself freed from all civil obligations by this mark of their confidence, I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established”. That quote speaks loudly to the character of Washington. After reading “1776”, I became a lot more aware of the fallacies of Washington but gained an even greater respect for him. Time after time, we have seen absolute power corrupt individuals absolutely. For Washington to have absolute power and be willing to relinquish it, it is a testament to his commitment to democracy and his character. As a nation, we are fortunate that the right person was entrusted with the fate of the country at the right time.
McCullough summed up Washington as he stated that “He was not a brilliant strategist of tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.” In his letters to Congress, he called for “perseverance and spirit”. I think it is important to remember that great men were not always great men. They became great men when they showed the world what they were really made of after they failed and their backs were against the wall. Their “perseverance and spirit” to prevail is why history remembers them. It is certainly the reason history remembers George Washington.