I read "1776" first. David McCullough is one of those rare historical writers who knows well how to capture the reader's attention and interest I read his "John Adams" three years ago and it captivated me. When Sue Eleison alerted me to this one, I had to seize it quickly. I was not disappointed.
In this book McCullough hones in on one critical year -- certainly the pivotal year, of our nation's history. The book has three sections. First, "The Siege of Boston," in which Washington finally prevailed, forcing the British to abandon the city with scarcely a skirmish, second, "Fateful Summer," which included the signing of our Declaration of Independence as Washington drew up his lines to defend New York City. Last, "The Long Retreat," in which Washington successfully avoided being drawn into battles in which there was no chance of victory. His key victory over the Hessians at Trenton (Washington crossing the Delaware) is a precursor to the Yorktown defeat of Cornwallis and the British capitulation; McCullough saves this battle, fought nearly five years later, for another volume. This is a book in which, if one did not know the war's outcome, would be terrifying negative, for except for minor skirmishes, the British were in control and seemed destined to ultimately prevail. Washington's military genius in holding the enemy off is marvelous reading; had he lost at Yorktown, of course, we would probably still be a British colony today!
A pivotal event of that year happened on Thursday, August 29. Faced with an overwhelming enemy force, and almost certain defeat, Washington engineered a retreat of his entire force from Brooklyn to New York, across the river during the night. 9,000 soldiers crossed the river, starting in the night and finishing in a dense fog at 7:00 AM. Not one was lost. The reaction of the British, who began their attack the morning of August 30, was "utter astonishment. The English historian, Charles Stedman, who had been there, called the retreat "particularly glorious," for he reckoned that had Washington not been able to pull it off, the war would have ended in a British victory.
Pick this one up early in the evening; you will not want to put it down.
David Fischer's book concentrates on the events of December, 1776, which he sees as the time when all could have been lost. The battles in and around New York had been a disaster for the Americans; retreat after retreat, Fort Washington had surrendered in late October; Thomas Paine reported the defeat and wrote what would be known as arguably the most important document of the war -- "The American Crisis." It began with these words, which should be familiar to all: "These are the times that try men's souls." First published on December 19, 1776, it was republished as a pamphlet, Paine encouraging others to reprint it freely. A day later it was being read to (and by) the soldiers camped by the Delaware. On Christmas night, 1776, Washington and the army crossed the Delaware and defeated the Hessians at Trenton. This was a watershed event; the war would not end until the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, but the week following that victory was the turning point. We read little of Thomas Paine today; perhaps that is because of his outspoken anti-religious writings. but he, and Washington, and scores of other patriots were instrumental in the American cause, and this book, like McCullough's, deserves our attention.
The events that shaped our nation were contingent. That 50 cent word simply means that the war could easily have gone another way. Fischer's book makes this all too clear. Had Congress not agreed to get out of the loop, turning management of the war over to Washington, had not a certain "exceedingly beautiful young widow" (perhaps Betsy Ross) enticed a Hessian leader, colonel von Donop, to spend the night of Dec 23rd through Christmas with her, unable to assist the Hessian garrison at Trenton, the battle there might have been lost; we might be citizens of England today. But the American victory was decisive, the Hessians losing 918 men, 22 dead and 896 captured. Washington's losses were almost zero.
In fighting the Revolution, Washington, to his everlasting credit, insisted on strict standards for treatment of prisoners and noncombatants. He was aware that the war was, among other things, a "contest for public opinion." Fischer writes: (page 276) "The esteem of others was important to them mainly because they believed that victory would come only if they deserved to win. Even in the most urgent moments of the war, these men were concerned about ethical questions ... ." This lesson of history seems to have been lost in the thinking of many leaders today.
Washington did one other “new" thing in conducting the war -- he actually listened to others. He held councils frequently, drawing out the thinking of his subordinates before reaching crucial decisions. Sometimes he even took a vote in these meetings. Doing this allowed him to create consensus by means of open discussion and a spirit of mutual respect for contrary opinion. He insisted that the war be conducted with a respect for human rights, even that of the enemy. John Adams gave words to this policy, and the country has been the better for it.
A great book.
John W. Burgeson, Published in the Rico Bugle, Rico, Colorado, 12-2-2005