1776 by David McCullough (Another title I read in keeping my promise to find good non-fiction.)
This is a great story written by a great storyteller. David McCullough has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (If this doesn’t mean anything to you, let’s just say this guy is among the best of the best American history writers.)
As a book about a momentous period of history, it’s short—under 300 pages excluding the endnotes—a factor that is often a deal breaker here at COHS. And its brevity is part of its success—it’s a tightly woven story of the trials and triumphs of George Washington and the Continental Army. The reader meets many players in the American Revolution from both sides of ‘the pond’.
Previously, I had only read of King George III as a madman, and was surprised to find him pretty reasonable in this account. I learned why the leaders of the British Army and Navy made some costly decisions that, on the surface, appear blundering and foolish, but on closer examination, had merit. I understood why Washington ‘crossing the Delaware’ is so famous an event. I even learned about William Lee, the slave who served with Washington, always by his side and in the thick of things.
Though the success of the American Revolution depended on many people—and they are given credit here—George Washington is the star of the book. He takes the most ragtag, miserable group of diseased, undisciplined men, who several times flee from battle (you won’t read that in your history book!), and wins a war for independence. Success didn’t follow a straight line, and many important battles were lost along the way, causing Washington to despair and his second in command (Charles Lee) to privately question Washington’s ability to lead.
1776 began so badly for Washington that he wrote to Joseph Reed (an adjunct general):
“I have often thought how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting of a command under such circumstances, I had taken my musket upon my shoulders and entered the ranks, or, if I could have justified the measure to posterity, and my own conscience, had retired to the back country, and lived in a wigwam.”
Reed, along with Charles Lee came to criticize Washington for indecision—which was, as 1776 shows—a valid criticism. But Lee is the worst sort of backstabber. In an encounter that seems like it should have come from a fictional tale of intrigue, Lee wrote a letter to Reed about Washington:
“[I] lament with you that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage. Accident may put a decisive blunder in the right, but eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the men of the best parts if cursed with indecision.”
This letter was accidentally delivered to Washington, who opened and read it! Imagine if you were risking your life, your reputation and the future of the colonies for independence and then found out that your ‘second in command’ guy is doing this behind your back! You’ll be surprised to found out what Washington does. (And don’t worry, fate will eventually deal with Lee.) Persevering through these kinds of trials points to Washington’s greatness. As I read, this story was one of the most memorable in the book because my mind linked it to the stories of some politicians today who whine about being criticized and then throw in the towel (or their job as governor), moving on to write their own scathing criticism of those who don’t agree with them. Maybe they should be reading this book instead of having their own screeds ghostwritten.
The other scene that stuck with me was the story of Henry Knox and the movement of cannons from Fort Ticonderoga (New York) to Boston. That’s 300 miles in the dead of winter—horrific conditions—with 120,000 pounds of artillery. This was amazing in that it was brilliant and almost impossible at the same time. It’s the kind of thing that inspires true admiration. Read it!