Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: 1776 by David McCullough

Author: David McCullough
Copyright 2005
Simon & Schuster
(First Simon & Schuster paperback edition 2006)

Book Summary

So I swerved off the Civil War pathway briefly to read this entertaining and enjoyable book on another period of American history, but for a long while, I did not realize the subject had changed.

Discussions and mentions of topics like "rebels," differences of attitudes between Virginians and Southerners (see p. 43 for one example), bold plans by the underdog force trying to form a new country (pp. 50-1), difficulties finding money to pay troops (p. 54), and the motivations of troops to fight in such a war (also page 54) all sounded themes extremely familiar to me through my Civil War readings.

Perhaps all these topics could be found in any war, or especially in rebellion or Civil War where one group or region is trying to sever ties with a "mother country" but all those topics and more all caught my attention and perhaps even led me to a better understanding of the Civil War.

At several times in the narrative, the author mentions George Washington's dislike and distrust of Yankees and New Englanders, such as on page 41 when McCullough quotes Washington as calling Yankees "dirty and nasty" and goes on to say Washington "had only contempt for 'these people'" claiming the problem was a "kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people, which believe me prevails but too generally among the officers."

In the past, I have often read of the Southerners' attitudes towards the Northerners during the "Second American Revolution" but did not realize such similar attitudes existed so long before that conflict. Seeing such expressions from Washington and the descriptions of his mistrust of the people from this different region makes me understand a bit better how and why such an attitude existed by the 1850s and 60s. It was not something new that had developed over time and during the various battles over slavery, but, rather, a feeling that existed before the colonies became a nation. This eye-opening reading really fascinated me and gave me a new perspective on some of these attitudes.

Beyond these and other similarities to the Civil War (rag-tag bunch of rebels with rags for clothes, few shoes, hard marching and much building of fortifications, for further, but not all,  examples), this book simply was enjoyable and informative. Not only did it describe the events surrounding what became known as the Continental Army during 1776, including the Siege of Boston and the battles of Brooklyn and New York, but the author did a fine job of focusing on the humanistic aspects of many of the men involved, such as Washington, his assistant Joseph Reed, General Nathaniel Green, British General William Howe and others.

Instead of simply praising Washington for his greatness and the triumphs he eventually achieved, McCullough shows Washington's self-doubts, his questioning of the commitment of his Yankee soldiers, his occasional bouts of indecisiveness and points out mistakes Washington made. He does the same for the British generals as well, but also shows how experience could be a good teacher, especially for Washington and Greene. Even men who did not make the rank of general are represented in similar fashions, especially in regards to the challenges they faced and emotions they felt.

McCullough showed great candor in referring to the day that American General Charles Lee was captured as an "exceedingly lucky" break (p. 264) for the rebel troops, despite the British hopes that the imprisonment of their former comrade and the man they regarded as the colonists' premier military man would bring the war to an end.

Another similarity to the Civil War is the occasional mention of hopes for a decisive battle or short war, on both sides; like the later war, however, both would be disappointed in the failure of that wish to come true.

One small change I may have liked in this book would have been a short prologue, with some information on what happened to some of the characters of this story in later years, men such as Howe, Greene and Henry Knox, but that's a small quibble and, perhaps, simply a subject for which I need to find other reading. The ability of McCullough to make the reader feel greatly informed yet hungry for more is impressive, I must admit.

I truly enjoyed this narrative, and found it to be very readable and pleasurable. Unlike many historical writings, it does not have footnotes cluttering up the pages, and while that may not be ideal, the lack of such distractions added to the enjoyment of this book, much like the feel from reading Shelby Foote's three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. McCullough did include source notes at the end of the book, as well as a long bibliography.

After reading McCullough's fine work, the "four-score and seven years" that separated this fascinating and important year from the era of a famous speech in a small Pennsylvania town do not seem to be so far apart in terms of attitude and similarity of the type of fight ongoing. Perhaps this will also help me to gain a better appreciation of the Civil War era claims of both sides of "upholding the Revolution" that seem so frequent at times, especially in the presence of sectional tension so much sooner than I realized and in the similarity of the actual fighting.

Although I do have a "Civil War Obsession," I am glad I stepped back in time and read this fascinating narrative of another remarkable time on this continent. The military struggle of 1776 was harsh, tough, and unpredictable, but makes for a compelling and enjoyable story when told by an author of the skill of David McCullough.

What a fascinating and enjoyable read!

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