Thursday, June 30, 2016

1776, by David McCullough

This week I'm reviewing another book from David McCullough and in the front matter the author actually states he meant this book to be a sort of supplement to his biography of John Adams, which I talked about here. And I will say that this book definitely feels like a supplement rather than a full text in its own right. The subject matter is a chronological history starting with King George III's declaration to Parliament in October of 1775 that the colonies were officially considered to be in rebellion and a resounding vote approving necessary war measures. The book then follows the military struggles of both the Americans under George Washington and the British under William Howe. The book wraps up with Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton in late December and early January of 1777, affirming that this war, like so many others, would not be a quick and easy victory for either side but drag on for many years.

The focus, as I mentioned, is largely on the military campaigns of 1776. The Declaration of Independence and the Continental Congress's deliberations, as well as the deliberations in Parliament and the opposition to Lord North's war policy, are mentioned in passing but do not receive a tenth of the focus that Washington, Howe, and their armies receive. So in that way I can see how this book is more of a supplement than a full text in its own right. It seems to me that while he was performing research for his biography on John Adams, McCullough probably came across quite a lot of research material, especially with the Siege of Boston in late 1775 and early 1776 near Adams's home in Braintree. However as it doesn't really fit with the narrative of Adams's life, him being occupied with a variety of other things at the time, if McCullough wanted to talk about it he had to create another book.

By focusing on just the military campaigns, especially the northern campaign, McCullough keeps the focus extremely narrow. Clinton's failed expedition to South Carolina is mentioned, but only in passing and not in any great detail. On the one hand this is very good because it keeps the narrative tight and focused without branching out into too many things and trying to do too much in too little space. But on the other hand, it feels kind of odd to keep the focus so narrow and almost ignore so many other things happening during such an auspicious year for Americans. If you want a text that goes into great detail about the northern campaigns of the American Revolution in 1776, then this is an excellent text for that. Otherwise most things fall outside of its purview.

A few of the primary sources utilized by McCullough I was already familiar with, having encountered them in Chernow's Washington: A Life and the events were familiar to me from that text as well. The book talks about Washington assuming command in late 1775 of the American forces entrenched around Boston and keeping the British bottled up, and Henry Knox's amazing achievement of hauling cannon from Fort Ticonderoga hundreds of miles in the dead of winter to fortify high ground outside Boston overnight. The British had already been planning to leave Boston, but the arrival of Knox's artillery made Howe's mind for him and the British were forced to retreat to Nova Scotia. The success of Boston was to be short lived and Washington soon had his army on the march for New York City, correctly assuming it would be the target of the next British attack. What follows is the disasters of Long Island and Brooklyn, Washington's miraculous but ignomious retreat across the East River, and the eventual loss of New York to the British followed by the disasters of Forts Lee and Washington on the Hudson River. Faced with criticism by his opponents and his army completely disintegrating at the end of the year, Washington gambles everything on a surprise raid at Trenton and manages to restore morale and hope to the ''Glorious Cause''.

Overall the book's pretty good, even if I found it rather short and extremely limited in its scope. As I said, if you want a book that focuses on the northern campaigns of 1776, this is a pretty good resource. Beyond that narrow focus it's very limited so you'll have to look elsewhere if you want more information on those subjects. But it's a short and informative read.

- Kalpar

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