Becoming America

1776

By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster -- 386pp -- $32

( below)

Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good A riveting yarn of the first year of the American Revolution.

The Bad It's all action--and less analytical than other accounts of the same period.

The Bottom Line A suspenseful and absorbing you-are-there narrative.

In late June, 1776, the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century began moving into New York harbor. Nearly 400 ships bearing 32,000 British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries would arrive by August. The Americans had forced the British to abandon Boston, and anticipating an attack from abroad had spent the spring fortifying Manhattan and the high bluffs at Brooklyn Heights. The first great battle of the American Revolution was about to take place near New York City.

An Aug. 22 amphibious landing placed 15,000 British and Hessian troops ashore, at Gravesend Bay on Long Island. After a few days, the invaders took advantage of an unguarded road and moved toward the American position under cover of darkness. The Americans awoke to discover an attack under way only a few miles from the Brooklyn defenses. American General John Sullivan, at the head of a few thousand troops and expecting a head-on advance, suddenly found himself outflanked and surrounded. An onslaught of Hessians, equipped with 17-inch-long bayonets, sparked a panic among his troops. As the American line collapsed, thousands of men fled for their lives -- and many ran headlong into an advancing British army. Sullivan himself was taken prisoner.

It would be only two days before General George Washington had to withdraw from Brooklyn altogether. "The Battle of Brooklyn," writes historian David McCullough, "had been a fiasco." Washington and his general officers "had not only failed, they had been made to look like fools."

Such were the times that tried men's souls, compellingly presented in McCullough's 1776. The book is what was once called a corker: a riveting yarn of the opening year in the military campaign that resulted in U.S. independence. Even those who feel that they have read quite enough about the Founding Fathers will be captivated by McCullough's suspenseful you-are-there-on-the-battlefield approach.

At the center of this narrative is, of course, George Washington. For that reason it is worth comparing 1776 with two other recent works: David Hackett Fischer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington's Crossing (2004) and Joseph J. Ellis' best-selling His Excellency George Washington (2004). Fischer's excellent volume covers much of the same combat action as McCullough's but is more analytical -- examining at length, for example, the background of the Hessians and "the American way of war." McCullough is less ambitious, opting for all action all the time. The third historian, Joseph Ellis, has different interests, devoting a mere nine pages of his uneven, often speculative work to the fighting of 1776. Ellis' terrain of choice is inside Washington's head, while Fischer and McCullough focus on Harlem Heights and the Delaware River.

1776, though, is far from a solo act for Washington. McCullough considers a great many subordinate players, including American backers of the British, soldiers' wives, members of the Continental Congress, and rank-and-file warriors -- often quoting from their writings. The author devotes significant space to key lieutenants such as Colonel Henry Knox, the portly 25-year-old former bookseller who helped win the day at Boston by transporting artillery from Fort Ticonderoga across 300 miles of ice and wilderness. Nor is the point of view of the Brits and Hessians neglected.

Just who were these tools of imperialism? We learn that His Majesty's troops tended to be "farmers, unskilled laborers, and tradesmen....drawn [into service] by the promise of clothing, food, and steady, if meager, pay, along with a chance at adventure." They were astonished at the colonials' high standard of living, reports the author. "How people with so much, living on their own land, would ever choose to rebel against the ruler God had put over them...was for the invaders incomprehensible."

Following further humiliating defeats, by mid-November, Washington's army would abandon New York and retreat across New Jersey, leaving both to the oncoming Brits. An alarmed Congress fled to Baltimore from Philadelphia, which became a nearly empty city. "By all reasonable signs," writes McCullough, "the war was over and the Americans had lost."

But, as many readers will anticipate, the events of 1776 (and early 1777) constitute an unusually neat drama in three acts, complete with a surprising and satisfying resolution. In December, Washington struck back in two deft surprise attacks. Crossing the Delaware during a relentless Nor'easter, the rebels first overwhelmed a Hessian garrison in a night raid at Trenton. One week later they struck General Charles Cornwallis' rear guard at Princeton and, in a furious sunrise battle, took 300 British prisoners. Astonishingly, the Americans had turned things around. The war would last six more years. But McCullough effectively captures the ups and downs of the earliest days of the struggle, leaving readers again marveling at the achievements of the true Greatest Generation.

By Hardy Green

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