Book Review: 1776 by David McCullough


This week I listened to another good book while performing mundane tasks at work: 1776 (2005) by David McCullough.  Since the book was read by the author in his commanding baritone, it was a bit like having a Ken Burns’ film in my ears.

The book named for the most famous year in American history is strictly a military history.  The Continental Congress is barely mentioned and the civilian experience doesn’t appear at all except where it interacts with the military.  Views from both the American and British sides are presented, and while strategy is explained, McCullough wisely avoids dwelling on those tedious parts and focuses strongly on the human element.

The star of this book is of course General George Washington.  His character and leadership is given a lot of credit in keeping together the Continental Army and thus the chances of the Revolution.  Less famed, but given their due are Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox, two New Englanders selected by Washington who prove to be wise and able leaders in their own right.  On the British side, Commander-in-Chief William Howe is given a lot of insight as well as his second in command Henry Clinton.  Towards the end of the book (and the year) Lord Cornwallis is given greater attention as he begins to play a greater role in the war, something McCullough presents as a good move by the British.

In near-cinematic description, McCullough breaks the year 1776 into three parts.  First, the siege of Boston, where the Continental Army by the brilliant stroke of fortifying Dorchester Heights with cannon from For Ticonderoga are able to force the British to evacuate.  McCullough provides evidence that this is paradoxically both more humiliating than the British are willing to let on, yet also not as great a victory as the Continentals contend.  In the second section of the book, the various battles of the New York campaign are explored.  Starting with the dramatic arrivals of ships in the British Fleet in New York Harbor and then the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Fort Washington, and Fort Lee.  Washington tactical mistakes almost lose the war, yet a brilliant retreat of the main army and failure of the British to pursue them into New Jersey save the Revolution once again.  The finale of the book is Washington’s sneak attack on Trenton and victory at Princeton which prove to both tactical victories and necessary morale boosters.

I’m a history geek and particularly like colonial and revolutionary history, so none of this was new to me.  I enjoy McCullough’s lively writing (reading) style and how he focuses in on making it all a clear, concise and interesting story.

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