Give David McCullough credit.
After a hugely successful career as a historian, he set out, in his late 60s, to write a book that was a far cry from his earlier bestsellers.
McCullough had made a name for himself by writing big books that told big stories —- stories about monumental projects, such as the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, and about major historical figures, such as John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These averaged about 700 pages each although his book on Truman was more than 1,100 pages long.
With 1776, though, he was attempting something that, for him, was new. First of all, he didn’t try to tell the story of the entire Revolutionary War, just a single year, the first full year of the eight-year conflict. Then, he narrowed his focus even more to look only at the ragtag army under George Washington.
Finally — and this is the greatest difference — he rooted his book in the words of a multitude of eyewitnesses on both sides of the battles. Rather than provide a sweeping saga, McCullough produced an intimate look at the experiences of the soldiers and others who lived through that year.
The resulting book, published in 2005, has just under 300 pages of text, or about half as many as most of his earlier works.
With so many voices, 1776 doesn’t have the breadth and momentum of McCullough’s larger works. Yet, through those voices, the reader gains a penetrating and often visceral understanding of life in the midst of a rebellion that was far from assured of success.
Here is a quick look at the war through some of those voices:
The scene on the recently seized Dorchester Heights as the American troops awaited an expected attack from the British soldiers in Boston, as described by Dr. James Thatcher: “Each man knows his place, and is resolute to execute his duty. Our breastworks are strengthened, and among the means of defense are a great number of barrels, filled with stone and sand, arranged in front of our works, which are to be put in motion and made to roll down the hill, to break the ranks and legs of assailants as they advance.”
New Yorkers, as described by the Boston-born Henry Knox: “The people — why the people are magnificent, in their carriages which are numerous, in their house furniture, which is fine, in their pride and conceit, which are inimitable, in their profaneness, which is intolerable, in the want of principle, which is prevalent, in their Tory-ism, which is insufferable.”
The bombardment of Chatterton’s Hill in New York by British warships, as described by a Pennsylvania soldier: “The air and hills smoked and echoed terribly. The fences and wall were knocked down and torn to pieces, and men’s legs, arms, and bodies mingled with cannon and grapeshot all round us.”
The assault by British troops on an American stronghold in New York, as described by John Adlum, a laconic 17-year-old private from Pennsylvania: “As I was a good deal fatigued and the firing had in a great measure ceased, I walked to the fort very leisurely. Before I was near the fort the British began to fire at it with a field piece with round shot, at the men who were standing in huddles between the fort and the lines within the abbitis that was round the fort. When I arrived at this work, I sat upon it looking at the enemy who were firing at us with the field piece and not more than four hundred yards of us, or from where I was then sitting, when at length a ball took off a part of two men’s head and wounded another. I went into the fort.”
The march of Washington’s troops to make a surprise Christmas Day attack on Hessians holding the town of Trenton, New Jersey, as described by John Greenwood, a 16-year-old fifer from Boston: “I recollect very well that at one time, when we halted on the road, I sat down on the stump of a tree and was so be-numbed with cold that I wanted to go to sleep. Had I been passed unnoticed, I should have frozen to death without knowing it [as two other American soldiers did that night].”
George Washington’s words on December 29, 1776, when, “in a most affectionate manner,” he was asking soldiers to re-enlist: “My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you.”
George Washington, leading troops into battle on January 1, 1777, against the British in Princeton, New Jersey, as described by one young American officer: “I shall never forget what I felt…when I saw him brace all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him.”
McCullough doesn’t present these voices in isolation, as I have done above. He sets them within his clear, exuberant and sharp-eyed prose.
In contrast to his other books, he stands back a bit here, but he’s not absent. He fills in the gaps between the voices and helps the reader understand the context of what is being said and what is being described.
Here are some examples:
Familiar with adversity — the American soldiers:
It was an army of men accustomed to hard work, hard work being the common lot. They were familiar with adversity and making do in a harsh climate. Resourceful, handy with tools, they could drive a yoke of oxen or “hove up” a stump or tie a proper knot as readily as butcher a hog or mend a pair of shoes. They knew from experience, most of them, the hardships and setbacks of life. Preparing for the worst was second nature. Rare was the man who had never seen someone die.
Vile in the extreme — unsanitary conditions in the American camps
One soldier recorded seeing a dead body so covered with lice that it was thought the lice alone had killed the man…As it was, open latrines were the worst of it, but there was also as recorded in one orderly book, a “great neglect of people repairing to the necessaries.” Instead, they voided “excrement about the fields perniciously.” The smell of many camps was vile in the extreme
Die of the sound — the British bombardment of York Island, now known as Manhattan Island:
It continued without stop for a full hour, a total of nearly eighty guns pounding point-blank at the shore and shrouding the river with acrid smoke. Joseph Martin, who had made a “frog’s leap” in a ditch, thought he might die of the sound alone.
Never forget — the year as experienced by American soldiers:
The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget.
So much has been written over the past two centuries, but David McCullough’s 1776 provides a needed new perspective to the conflict that gave birth to the United States.
Patrick T. Reardon