1776, by David McCulloch. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCulloch has devoted his book, 1776, to the most decisive year in the American experience. Based upon extensive research culled from many archives, historical societies, and libraries on both sides of the Atlantic, the work enhances McCulloch’s reputation as one of America’s leading historians.
1776 is primarily a military history tracing the dramatic events of the year in which the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The struggle in the New York-New Jersey theaterwould determine the fate of New York City, the most strategically important urban center in the fledgling nation. Much of the book focuses on Commander-in-Chief General George Washington, who repeatedly risked his army’s destruction, sometimes unnecessarily, in attempting to match wits with more competent and experienced British generals. Somehow Washington managed to hold the American army together, despite a string of defeats and disasters in that fateful year.
Just as important, McCulloch shows us, were the sacrifices and hardships of the men in the ranks, who were caught in a losing struggle as of mid-December 1776. The American Revolution was most of all a people’s war. Without the stoic determination of the ordinary soldiers—vilified contemptuously as “rabble” and “country people” by the British, upper class Loyalists, and even fellow American patriots—the revolution would have failed. In this spirit, McCulloch extensively quotes the common people, mingling their words with the pronouncements of great leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This is a truly balanced view of the struggle for independence.
McCulloch’s 1776 provides an important lesson for Americans today: the importance of persistence despite the odds. The “rabble” army took on the world’s superpower and ushered in the Age of Revolution, spreading the message of freedom and forever changing the world. But throughout most of the bleak year of 1776, nothing so grand or glorious seemed even remotely possible to the dispirited colonials, both soldiers and civilians.
In the centuries that followed, American historians glorified the American Revolution and its leaders, especially General Washington, an inevitable consequence in the process of national myth-building. But in truth, the revolutionary war effort was a complete fiasco throughout almost all of 1776 and increasingly unpopular with the vast majority of Americans. As McCulloch emphasizes, the struggle for independence was far from glorious—a colossal near-disaster on every level. Thousands of disheartened American soldiers gave up in disgust and deserted in droves. Large numbers of Americans swore loyalty oaths to the Crown. With General Washington as commander-in-chief in the field, the fledgling American army lost almost every battle almost until the end of 1776.
By mid-December the British and Americans of all ranks doubted that the revolution and the infant nation could survive much longer. New recruits for Washington’s Army had dwindled, while the thousands of soldiers would start heading home at the end of the year when their terms of service expired. By early winter, the situation became so bleak General Washington contemplated withdrawing his shattered army to the west side of the Appalachian Mountains. For their part, the British were confident of complete success, believing that war was already won and the revolution over.
Ironically, the seemingly endless series of American losses set the stage for a sudden reversal. In the waning days of 1776, Washington launched an audacious offensive strike across the icy Delaware River, defeating the over-confident Hessians and capturing Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26th. A second surprising victory at Princeton, New Jersey, in early January 1777 proved the tide had turned.
The American Revolution has become our nation’s most romanticized war, but McCulloch clearly favors truth over glorious mythology. With a refreshing realism, he concludes that “. . . the war was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate . . . . Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning [in 1776] the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.”
Reviewed by Dr. Phillip Thomas Tucker, Air Force Historical Studies Office, Washington, D.C.