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Born Fighting

Reviewed by Gordon S. Wood
Sunday, May 22, 2005

1776

By David McCullough

Simon & Shuster. 386 pp. $32

David McCullough, America's most celebrated popular historian, has done it again -- written another engaging work of narrative history. This book, however, is very different from his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams. Not only is it much shorter than those gigantic tomes, but it is not the life of a famous person. Instead, it's the story of a single year, the birth-year of the United States.

Actually, it is not a full history of those momentous 12 months. McCullough's narrative completely ignores the political and constitutional developments of 1776, which were of world-historic significance; it mentions the word "equal" from the Declaration of Independence but doesn't do anything with the powerful idea of equality. Instead, the book focuses exclusively on the military operations of the opening months of the eight-year-long war for independence. Of course, without the Americans winning the armed struggle against Great Britain, the Declaration of Independence and all the state constitutions created in 1776 would not have much mattered. Besides, military operations and battles have a life-and-death drama that no description of constitution-making can match. McCullough has chosen to tell a dramatic story, and he does so in an unusually fast-paced style, with very short paragraphs, many of them consisting of only a single sentence.

McCullough has a remarkable ability to paint pictures with words, and he is at the height of his powers in this book -- especially in the first half, which describes the standoff between the British in Boston and the Americans surrounding the city. Much of the last half of the book -- which deals with the battles for New York, Gen. George Washington's retreat across the Delaware and finally his surprise successes at Trenton and Princeton at the end of 1776 and the beginning of 1777 -- will be familiar to those who know something about the military history of the Revolutionary War. But the half dealing with the siege of Boston is much more original and fascinating; indeed, McCullough says he "could readily have focused on that alone."

The battle for Boston took place between the battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 and the British departure from the city in March 1776. When the Virginian Washington arrived at Cambridge in July 1775 as commander in chief of "the army of the United Colonies" (it was not called the Continental Army until the new year), he was stunned by what he found. Not only was the army, made up initially of mostly New Englanders, raw and ignorant of military matters -- with not a single trained engineer, for example, to design and oversee the building of defenses -- but it was also appallingly ill-disciplined (with inexperienced, elected officers who courted popularity among their men) and ill-equipped (with only enough gunpowder for nine rounds per man). When Washington could not get his New England soldiers even to wash their clothes or to dig latrines, he concluded that these Yankees were an "exceeding dirty and nasty" people, "nothing like what he had expected."

He did, however, find two New England officers whom he came to trust and rely on: the 33-year-old Rhode Island Quaker Nathanael Greene and the 25-year-old Boston bookseller Henry Knox. Indeed, these two loyal officers eventually changed Washington's mind about New Englanders. McCullough especially admires Knox, and his description of Knox's expedition -- involving the dragging of 58 mortars and cannon from Fort Ticonderoga at the southern tip of Lake Champlain over the Berkshire mountains, all the way to Boston -- is compelling. Although the mortars and cannon weighed at least 120,000 pounds, Knox got them all to Boston in six weeks without losing a single one -- an astonishing achievement that ought to destroy once and for all the common media portrayal of Knox as a fat bumpkin. Overnight, in another amazing feat, Washington moved several thousand men and cannon onto Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston. This made the British position in the city untenable, and on March 17, 1776, Gen. William Howe and his army, along with 1,100 Loyalists, evacuated Boston.

Washington was hailed as a savior; indeed, Harvard College was so grateful for Massachusetts's deliverance from the enemy that it gave him an honorary degree. Although many on both sides had thought that the war would be short (Washington had told his wife at the outset that he would be home by the fall of 1775), the long struggle was just beginning.

Washington rightly guessed that the British army would next attack New York, and he moved his army of 15,000 men south to defend the city -- a political necessity, perhaps, but with the British controlling the sea and the rivers, a militarily difficult task, and quite conceivably an impossible one. McCullough uses all his considerable narrative powers to build suspense as the British armada slowly arrives in New York harbor in the summer of 1776 -- dozens of ships, then hundreds, bearing 32,000 troops, the largest, most powerful expeditionary force ever sent forth from Britain or any other nation in the 18th century.

What followed was a series of American disasters. The Americans were defeated at Long Island in August, and the 9,000 troops only escaped to Manhattan (then called York Island) by the luck of a storm and fog. Things went from bad to worse as Washington abandoned New York and moved northward. Although McCullough has the greatest admiration for Washington -- who usually saw things as they were, not as he would wish them to be -- he doesn't refrain from criticizing the commander in chief for his indecisiveness and poor judgment during these late summer and fall months of what McCullough calls "The Long Retreat." Washington's decision to defend Fort Washington (where present-day Washington Heights is located) resulted in "an utter catastrophe," McCullough writes, and one that need not have happened.

In August, Washington had possessed an army of 20,000 men. By November, he had lost four battles and had fewer than 3,500 left under his command, with the enlistments of many of these soon to expire. This was the lowest point of his command, but he still was not about to give up. He talked privately of retreating to western Pennsylvania; but when told that if eastern Pennsylvania surrendered, the rest of the state would follow, he is said to have passed his hand over his throat and declared, "My neck does not feel as though it was made for a halter." If western Pennsylvania was not possible, then Washington said he would retreat to western Virginia, or even cross the Allegheny Mountains and carry on what he called a "predatory war" against the British.

The outlook was bleak. When the British commanders offered pardons in November to all who would swear allegiance to the crown, thousands of Americans flocked to the British lines to declare their loyalty to George III. "By all reasonable signs," writes McCullough, "the war was over and the Americans had lost."

It was at this darkest moment -- surely, McCullough rightly notes, the darkest in the entire history of the United States -- that Washington decided to pick off one of the extended British outposts at Trenton. On Christmas night of 1776, acting for the first time as a field commander, he led 2,400 men across the Delaware and surprised the garrison of Hessians at Trenton. The psychological significance of this victory was extraordinary; it was seen, says McCullough, "as a great turning point." The Americans had "outsmarted" and "outfought" the enemy "and so might well again."

After chronicling this battle and the one at Princeton a week later, McCullough suddenly breaks off his narrative. Unlike his earlier biographies, which naturally concluded with the death of his characters, this book ends in medias res , leaving readers wondering how the remaining six long years of the war will turn out. If they want to find out what happened during the rest of the war, they might consult Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 , which has just been reissued.

But it is not just the abrupt ending that tends to limit the reach of the book. Because 1776 is exclusively a story of military events, it cannot fully explain even the opening months of the Revolution. It cannot tell us why so many ordinary Americans initially supported the patriot cause, why so many were willing to risk their lives and fortunes for the sake of these newly United States of America, and why this initial enthusiasm, even in the wake of Trenton and Princeton, quickly waned. Nor can it tell us why Americans separated their legislatures from their executives, why the Articles of Confederation took so long to be drafted, why Americans began seriously to question slavery and why they thought their revolution had worldwide significance. To answer such questions, we need to supplement a military narrative like this one, however stirring, with a different kind of history-writing. ยท

Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor and professor of history at Brown University. His books include "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin" and "The Radicalism of the American Revolution."

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