1776 by David McCullough
Review by Bill Doughty
One of the many benefits of the Navy’s Professional Reading list is finding books that bring history to life.
McCullough introduces us to George Washington, King George III, and Benedict Arnold, as well as lesser-known but equally colorful characters like Major General Charles Lee, Washington’s deputy.
About Lee: “He was a spare, odd-looking man with a long, hooked nose and dark, bony face. Rough in manner, rough of speech, he had nothing of Washington’s dignity. Even in uniform he looked perpetually unkempt . . . He had been married to an Indian woman, the daughter of a Seneca chief,” writes McCullough. “Lee was also self-assured, highly opinionated, moody, and ill-tempered (his Indian name was Boiling Water), and he was thought by many to have the best military mind of any of the generals, a view he openly shared.”
Using hundreds of quotes from archived letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts of the time, McCullough shows how the honor of individuals – Americans, “Loyalists,” and the British – was tested in battle. He describes the commitment of leaders and volunteers in fruit orchard battles, city sieges, and long marches through forests in the dead of night. He reveals the courage of the mostly volunteer militia against overwhelming odds, facing the British army and Hessian forces.
Honor, courage and commitment come together in the story of Henry Knox of Boston. Knox was a self-educated bookseller from Boston who enjoyed reading about the “military art” and who became a colonel in Washington’s army.
“Colonel Henry Knox was hard not to notice,” writes McCullough. “Six feet tall, he bulked large, weighing perhaps 250 pounds. He had a booming voice. He was gregarious, jovial, quick of mind, highly energetic – ‘very fat, but very active’ – and all of twenty-five.”
McCullough writes: “The army that had crossed in the night from Brooklyn was, in the light of day on August 30, a sorry sight to behold – filthy, bedraggled, numb with fatigue, still soaked to the skin, many of them sick and emaciated. The army that had gone off to Brooklyn cheering was no more.”
Traveling over snow-blanketed hills and across ice-covered rivers, cutting down trees and using sleds, Knox and his team succeeded in bringing the heavy guns (believed to be 120,000 pounds in total) to Washington. Knox’s heroic act helped deal a powerful and demoralizing early blow to the British.
1776 shows the few victories, but it includes painful details of the losses and the almost hopelessness of the situation at times.
The capture of more than a thousand American prisoners in Brooklyn was part of a terrible campaign in New York, including a retreat into New Jersey.
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
Paine's writings unquestionably inspired the leaders, warriors and patriots of the time. Washington is said to have ordered Paine's words read throughout the Continental Army.
The tide for Washington turned, thanks to freak weather conditions, some political crises on both sides of the Atlantic, and a timely capture of British vessels carrying resources all helped turn the tide for the colonies.
Logistics played a key role in determining the outcome of the war, according to military leaders and historians worldwide, and the story of 1776 and logistics still resonates with allies of the United States today.
In 2007, Vice Adm. Yoshinari Kawano, Commander of the Maritime Materiel Command of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, spoke at the Supply Corps Birthday Ball at Yokosuka, Japan. He talked about the heroism of 1776 from a logistics perspective.
Kawano said he thinks Americans won the Revolutionary War for these reasons: Britain’s long supply lines, blockades against British supply vessels by America’s allies (France, Spain, and the Netherlands), and George Washington’s leadership in capturing British ships laden with provisions and ammunition.
“With this triumph in the campaign, Washington made the Congress acknowledge the importance of building the Navy, and eventually led to the birth of the Supply Corps,” Kawano said.
“What may be said in the summary of these historical events is that the United States won against the Kingdom of Great Britain because it won the war of supply.”
“Our ability to move significant amounts of logistics at sea and throughput them at sea is going to be important in the future,” Roughead said.
Learning the lessons of history and putting history in context is one of the benefits of the CNO’s professional reading program.
Our beginnings were so remarkably tenuous...
In 1776, McCullough writes: “The war was a longer, far more arduous and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or fully appreciate.”
“The year 1776 . . . (was) 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.”
McCullough concludes, “Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning – how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference – the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.”Reading 1776 made me want to pick up Power, Faith, and Fantasy – America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren (2007).
Oren’s book shows that while the 13 colonies fought for their independence, American merchant vessels became a target of the mighty British fleet, North African pirates, and other countries’ navies. This set the stage for American naval hero John Paul Jones, Thomas Jefferson’s engagement of what would become the “Middle East,” and the legacy of the Barbary Wars: “. . . to the Shores of Tripoli.”
But that’s another read.
A version of this review was originally published in the Navy’s Supply Corps Newsletter. In researching links for this posting, I stumbled across an amazingly detailed and provocative blog about the history of this period, a Boston perspective: Boston 1775; worth checking out! Coming soon on Navy Reads, an interview with the chief creator of the Navy Professional Reading Program...