Thursday, May 29, 2014

David McCullough's "1776"

McCullough does his usual fine job in describing the activities of the Continental Army during the year of 1776. It was a very difficult year, filled with all sorts of problems for the army.

We think of 1776 as being a year of great achievement for the Continental congress, because of the Declaration of Independence, but in reality the congress failed miserably in providing General Washington with the troops and supplies he needed to wage the war. The British always had much more manpower, and were better equipped. At times some of the US soldiers had to make do without shoes, even engage in long marches without shoes.

Pay for the US troops was often lacking, and desertions happened on an almost daily basis. Disease was also rampant, and Washington usually could not even calculate how many soldiers he had under his command, so fluid was the day-to-day situation with soldiers dropping out due to desertions or disease.

We like to think of "Washington crossing the Delaware" when we think of the progress of the war in 1776. In reality, the war went very badly that year. The British were forced out of Boston, but they took up residence on Long Island, and then took over the entire city of New York when Washington blundered by not defending a particular entranceway into the city.

By giving us a day-by-day account of the struggles of the army, McCullough paints a good picture of what warfare was like in that era. Communication was always by letter, carried by messengers. The vagaries of the weather determined the outcome of  many battles.

My personal preference would have been a book which covers the entire Revolutionary War. I would also have preferred a more accurate account of the attitudes toward the war in the British Isles. McCullough says that public opinion in Britain was split almost equally. However, George Trevalyan's great history of what the British called "The American War" documents that the war was quite unpopular in Britain, with at most one-third of the people in Britain supporting it. Parliament was kept in line only by bribes from King George, and by the use of "rotten boroughs". Edmund Burke's passionate speeches against the war are considered some of the best oratory ever seen in the British parliament, and he had many supporters.

It is clear from "1776" that the colonies held together against Britain only because of the perseverance and leadership of George Washington. McCullough states that Washington "was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious errors in judgment." But despite these shortcomings, Washington persevered and by  his example inspired his men to believe in the cause of freedom they were fighting for.

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