1776 by David McCullough

McCullough’s book focuses on three events during the opening phase of the American Revolution – the Siege of Boston (April 19, 1775-March 17, 1776), the Battle of Long Island/Battle of Brooklyn (August 27, 1776), and Washington crossing the Delaware River (December 25-26, 1776) made famous by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting. The book does not focus on the most well-known event of 1776: the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), although I would argue that while most people know the date, they erroneously think July 4 is when the Declaration was signed and adopted.

But McCullough’s decision to concentrate on battles rather than documents certainly filled in gaps in my own knowledge about the beginning of the American Revolution, and his focus on a year rather than the entire war (1775–1783) allows him to create a more illuminating portrait of both the war and the people engaged in it.

I had heard of the Siege of Boston before; I’ve hiked to the top of the monument at Bunker Hill in Charlestown. My textbooks in school often glossed over the event stating that it was a victory for the Americans but barely mentioning that the residents of Boston starved for much of the nearly yearlong event or that the Battle of Bunker Hill was really a victory for the British. I can thank my dad for my knowledge about the importance of Dorchester Heights during the event, and I very much appreciated McCullough’s detailed attention to the event.

Boston has changed rapidly in the last 238 years. The area known as Back Bay, which the Americans traveled across at low tide to escape the British, is now home to the Boston Public Library, numerous hotels and shopping centers, and several public transportation hubs. It’s hard to imagine Copley Square as the swampy, marshland it once was, but McCullough manages to weave enough vivid details into his narrative that it is almost possible. The same can be said of Dorchester Heights, which was such a pivotal and strategic stronghold for the Americans during the Siege of Boston, and I cannot be the only one who laughed at the absurdity of the British not noticing the Americans moving cannons behind a line of hay bales towards Dorchester Heights, can I? But, apparently, the British did not see Dorchester Heights, the heights point in Boston, as an area they needed to control since they held Boston Harbor.

The focus on New York City, particularly Brooklyn, was surprising to me because I had heard nothing about the battles there. I suppose the history teachers I had did not want to concentrate on losses, but McCullough presents the Battle of Brooklyn as a major turning point in the war. The losses were so large and so shocking that many of the colonies started to recall their troops or refuse to send replacements and men began to desert left and right. Once again, the Americans managed to move themselves and their equipment without the British noticing thanks to a thicket of fog.

Yet the guerilla-style warfare and lack of bright red uniforms often championed by my teachers as an advantage to the Americans, but McCullough points out that the lack of regiment behavior – standards of appearance, clean uniforms – amongst the American troops meant disease was a constant scourge for them but not for the British. I spent much of this book feeling like my understanding of the American Revolutionary War was being turned on its head and for that I’m thankful that my father encouraged me to read this book.

Book Mentioned:

  • McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. eBook. 388 pgs. ISBN: 9780743287708. Source: Gift.
Book Cover © Simon & Schuster. Retrieved: August 14, 2014.
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