1776 - David McCullough Finding a point to start when wanting to learn about American History is appealing in itself. With history, finding a beginning is always tricky. I could have started with Christopher Columbus’s voyage, for instance. But my rationale for choosing 1776 was to follow the events and individuals that decided there should exist a United States of America. I wanted to know why they wanted independence, who was involved, how events came into play, not to mention the when and where of it all.

Before reading 1776, I had been familiar with the bare bones of the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution and figures such as Thomas Paine, George Washington, and John Adams. But they revolved around their own orbits, never intersecting. With 1776, I found a book that tied these events and people together. More significantly, it filled in most of the missing pieces while never losing my interest as a reader. I’m glad to say it has also inspired me to learn more about characters such as Nathanial Greene and Henry Knox, people I had never heard of before.

I learnt a great deal about the kind of Army that General George Washington led and how he wasn’t really a General at all. Not when you compared him to his British counterpart. The British were far superior in their choice of Generals and other officers all of them being suitably educated to reflect a military command, and professional soldiers. Washington, Artemus Ward, Israel Putnam, Greene, Knox and other Generals were a collection of tradesmen, physicians, lawyers and the like. Washington, Greene and Knox were self-educated in the ‘military art’ and although Washington had served in the French and Indian War, he had not earned any distinction to deserve this latest commission as Commander-in-Chief.

However, Washington, Knox and especially Greene were intelligent, enterprising and hardworking men.
They were good-natured and born leaders with Knox being a mere 25 to Greene’s 33 and Washington’s 43. The relatively informal relationships they shared also allowed for good ideas to be taken to the top quickly which would not have been the case in the British Army.

Washington’s army consisted mostly of undisciplined men, soldiers and officers alike, entirely new to soldiering. They were unhygienic, without proper attire and shoes, and spread dysentery about the camps and neighbouring towns like wildfire. They were not paid, housed or armed well. This caused him no endless amount of frustration which he hid. In contrast, the British were uniformed, disciplined, paid and remained in near perfect health.

It seems that Washington faced insurmountable odds in the cards that he was dealt to win this war but he did. I suspect most of them came down to the kind of men he had by his side, his ability to inspire the rank and file, his political savvy in maintaining a close relationship with Congress, and luck.

David McCullough’s 1776 answered most of my questions. He explored the main players of the Revolution in some depth while providing firsthand accounts of what it felt like to be there using letters of little known privates to well known Generals. Detailed accounts of the Boston Siege, Battle of Brooklyn, loss of Fort Washington, skirmishes at Trenton and Princeton were made interesting. The struggle and hardship he described having suffered by the Continental Army, and the rawness of its leaders kept me turning the pages as I continued to wonder how this ragtag bunch led the British to surrender at Yorktown.

Unfortunately, 1776 stops six and a half years before reaching that point. This was a disappointment to me but as 1776 is an accompaniment to “John Adams,” I’m hoping that the story will pick up there. Another minor point was the lack of detail about the lives of the Americans before they declared Independence. The author describes Americans in 1776 as ‘having a higher standard of living than any people in the world. Their material wealth was considerably less than it would become in time, still it was a great deal more than others had elsewhere. How people with so much, living on their own land, would ever choose to rebel against the ruler God had put over them and thereby bring down such devastation upon themselves was for the invaders incomprehensible.’ The Stamp Act and Tea Tax were mentioned briefly but did not seem like cause for rebellion.

All in all, I would term this a satisfying read but one that I wished continued on til the British surrendered at Yorktown.

(Coloured portraits and maps are included which make the battles easier to visualize)