I made a concerted effort to read on the bus during my commute this week and I finally finished 1776. The actual text is just under 300 pages, so it doesn’t seem like it should take all that long to read, but as it is primarily a military strategy/war book, the prose is quite dense. However, McCullough mixes up the strategy talk with snippets from diaries, letters and proclamations, taking you right to the sweltering August days in Manhattan or the frosty December nights in New Jersey. As a non-practicing historian, there were times that I was totally jealous of McCullough, just thinking about all the rich source material he got to read while piecing together this book.
And then I really thought about all the source material he had to read to piece together this book and I felt really overwhelmed. But he seamlessly weaves us in and out of His Excellency George Washington and other high-ranking officials’ thoughts and letters as well as the men (and women) digging the trenches, suffering the illnesses and walking miles on frozen ground with no shoes. It was fascinating to read about Washington’s resolve, not only in his public and private correspondence, but in his own writings. His devotion to Mount Vernon was not surprising and made me want to visit for the umpteenth time to see the fireplace he referred to in one letter, to see if the contractor had done what he asked.
Though intellectually I knew the Revolutionary War took six years and thousands died on both sides, it felt different to actually read about the ridiculous conditions that the “soldiers” (for most were just farmers or merchants with no training) endured in the slight hope that the United States might be its own country at the end. A lot of politicians like to invoke the Founding Fathers as they gear up for elections, but I wonder if they really know how close they came to losing everything, due to inexperience, indecision and the weather. The year 1776 is synonymous with the Declaration of Independence, which changed the course of history. And that year did change the course of history, but there were times when it could have gone either way, but for a shift in weather, a bit of fog or a (possibly) drunk commanding officer.
I knew the book had to wrap up as it got to December 1776, but I was desperate to read more. As a student of Civil War history, I’ve never delved much further than battles, dates and other things to regurgitate on an American history exam. This should be required reading for all Americans, especially those who invoke the persons found within to support their beliefs.