Based on extensive research in both American and British archives, 1776 is the story of Americans in the ranks, men of every shape, size, and color, farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, no-accounts, and mere boys turned soldiers. And it is the story of the British commander, William Howe, and his highly disciplined redcoats who looked on their rebel foes with contempt and fought with a valor too little known. But it is the American commander-in-chief who stands foremost -- Washington, who had never before led an army in battle.
McCullough’s narrative is second to none, and his research is typically on top of his game. I’ve been a fan of his since the first book of his that I read, “The Path Between the Seas.”
The problem with “1776,” though, is not its narrative or facts. Its problem is that much of the book deals with General Washington’s military campaigns in 1776, yet lacks any maps other than some color photographs of British maps. These maps were useful to the British, but useless to readers in modern times.
McCullough obviously wrote his book with the aid of maps, as he goes to great pains at times to describe movements, maneuvers, topography, geography and terrain: rivers, creeks, plains, heights, gullies, neighborhoods and even streets. Yet, for some odd reason he and his publisher denied his readers of the same aids, rendering his descriptions as essentially useless—worse actually: frustrating and distracting.
If you can get that behind you, you will enjoy the book immensely but be deprived of depth and understanding of the brilliant maneuvers and disastrous blunders committed in every the military campaigns. You will not grasp the complexity and daunting challenges each side of these conflicts faced, or context and scale.
What is so baffling to me about this is that six to eight simple maps could have overcome this. Instead, we are given illustrations and photographs of things or people, some of which are marginally or completely useless.
You can do better in reading about the military campaigns of 1776 with books that contain appropriate maps, including the Pulitzer-prize winning, "Washington's Crossing." But, McCullough still wonderfully captured something special in his book: Washington’s humanity, failings, indomitable character, perseverance, belief and ultimate triumph on behalf of his country. You learn of those who faithfully served him through victory, defeat and setbacks; of those who betrayed him; of shifting loyalties based on news from the battlefields; and of a base of believers who depended on Washington to deliver what the Declaration of Independence promised, namely, freedom.
Let me conclude by saying that I just finished this book today and cannot move on to my next one. McCullough’s “1776” has given me pause, moved and forced me to stop and ponder the wonderful character and leadership of George Washington, and to stand in awe of the several thousand beleaguered troops who stuck with him under imaginably harsh conditions. They, together, delivered on the promise in the closing line of the Declaration of Independence: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
McCullough brings George Washington front and center as the dominating personage of the story. That position is not the result of any conscious attempt by McCullough to amplify the importance of Washington. When you look at the facts we know about that era Washington simply stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Even when his skill as a general was found wanting his character and drive more than made up for it.
McCullough gave ample space to everyone involved. I felt he did a better job than most American writers in the way he treated with the British in this book. I learned at least as much or more about them because they often get short shrift in histories of this eventful year.
McCullough shows excellent command of the source material and makes very good use of primary sources. From short quotations sprinkled through the text to one-half page inset quotes he brings the story of that era in the words of the men who lived through it. The text itself is excellent literature that helps to make the book a quick read.
The combination of staying close to the facts as they occurred minute to minute and excellent writing is for me the hallmark of good history writing. The author has refined his craft and reading this book was an enjoyable experience.
At the time he wrote this book McCullough had won two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards. There is a hint in the style of his writing that the author expects his work to be cited as an authoritative text. At this stage in his career he should be allowed a bit of dusting off his legend and McCullough at times takes advantage of his prestige. It does not detract from his writing if anything he makes sure that the whole book is worthy of his reputation.
This book had a somewhat slower pace than Washington's Crossing where the emphasis tilted toward the action of the events. I thought that both books worth equally worthwhile. I can only go to a four and one-half stars but five is reserved for the great and this book while not great was excellent. The concise treatment of the topic, the emphasis on the stories of the people involved and the literary style of writing make it easy for me to recommend this book to those who do not ordinarily read history.
I found this book to be impossible to follow, on first reading, because I did not have a deep enough understanding of the Revolutionary War to understand the context. Then, when I came back to it after reading Chernow's Washington biography, I was able to follow it, but found it didn't add much information to what was in Chernow. However, Chernow's book came out five years after McCullough's, and when I went back to the relevant chapter in Chernow I found that 1776 was heavily cited in the footnotes. So a lot of 1776 might have been original when it first came out.
Overall, I would say the Chernow biography is a must-read, and that 1776 adds some color. McCullough does have more of a flair for the dramatic. I would have given 1776 5 stars except I found that the lack of maps was a huge drawback to following the battles.
It is, however, yet another book that fills in the background of the simple stories taught in American grade schools. We all know that America “won the war” and became an independent country, but most people probably imagine that the war was, by and large, a success, and that it was a success because of Washington’s brilliant leadership and the dedication of his loyal troops. McCullough shows us that the reality of the situation could hardly have been more different.
Washington was inexperienced and made numerous blunders, many of which could have led directly to defeat of not only his army, but of the whole cause. Without the input and guidance provided by his more experienced or educated generals, the war could have ended differently.
The majority of American troops were a ragtag band of uneducated, poorly drilled, ill-disciplined, and badly armed men who were reluctant to join the army in the first place, often deserted or crossed the lines to surrender or change sides when times were tough, and often fought poorly. Some of the blame can be laid on their officers, often more concerned about being reelected than imposing military discipline, and usually lacking in any military training or experience themselves.
Through luck, hard work, and bravery on the part of some of the troops, military strategies informed by some of the high-ranking American officers, and Washington’s ability to create an image of himself as a superb leader, the American army was able to hold its own against the British, at least enough to make the British decide that the costs required to defeat them were not, in the end, worth paying.
In the course of reading the book, I developed an affection for Henry Knox, the Boston bookseller whose extensive study of military books, with a particular focus on artillery, led to his appointment to command of the artillery. In his military service, Knox embodied traits that many regard as part of the American national character: ingenuity, industry, optimism, and loyalty. I had never thought too much about where my city (Knoxville) got its name, and I'm glad to have discovered that it is named after someone who played such a vital role in the establishment of the nation.
Highly recommended for all readers of U.S. history.
He finds a good balance between the military history (NOT my thing) and a narrative around the important characters in the war. They are all presented in a sympathetic manner, even King George III. I found the geography easy to follow along in. He to time to explain the distances and the difficulties involved in getting to the different battlefields. I liked how he vowe in personal recollections of those that where there, down to the lowliest soldier. It made it feel like a history of people not just jerking from battlefield to battlefield.
The book was read by the author and for me this added a more personal touch to the readings. You could tell that he knew the material well and was invested in telling it well. I felt like he was reading it to me. Not some far off mass of people who knew about the material already.
I will want to listen to it again because there are bits that I have missed because something happened and I didn't hear it properly or it just didn't make sense. But that is no hardship at all.
A page-turner from beginning to end, 1776 is a highly readable account of the seemingly insurmountable difficulties George Washington faced while in charge of conducting a war with insufficient numbers of troops, lack of supplies, and without the full support of the people he was trying to liberate. McCullough reveals a very human George Washington, not the idolic god he is often made out to be. He also introduces other key figures of Washington's staff that were crucial to Washington's success as a commander. We meet Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, two young, literary men (Knox was a book seller) who had no military experience at all but proved to be intelligent strategists and, ultimately, a godsend. We also meet the eccentric and egotistical Charles Lee, the only officer with any prior battle experience (including Washington). By no means is 1776 one-sided. McCullough gives equal time to key players in the British military, the Hessians (mercenaries), and the loyalists(or Tories).
In McCullough's recounting of these events, we witness the miraculous, horrific, and very human sides of this conflict. What comes through is Washington's brilliance as a leader not because of military genius (he was at times but as often was not) but because of his perserverance, tenacity and belief in what he was doing.
Oh, McCullough, how I do love thee. Another great book by you, who illuminates the characters and the plot of the American revolution (one of my favorite periods of history). What is most striking about this book is how much Americans sucked at the beginning of the war - how many disasters they faced, how terrible the army was, and above all, how George Washington somehow managed to pull the whole thing together. The fact that he didn't commit suicide halfway through the year is amazing. The Continental Congress was ready to replace him: thank god they didn't.
This reads like a thriller: thanks to judicious use of first person accounts, we really feel like we're in mosquito-filled New York, waiting for the armada to arrive, and it keeps the pages turning. I was extremely angry when it ended - I wanted to read more! Always a good sign.
Some of the strongest passages in 1776 are the revealing and well-rounded portraits of the Georges on both sides of the Atlantic. King George III, so often portrayed as a bumbling, arrogant fool, is given a more thoughtful treatment by McCullough, who shows that the king considered the colonists to be petulant subjects without legitimate grievances--an attitude that led him to underestimate the will and capabilities of the Americans. At times he seems shocked that war was even necessary. The great Washington lives up to his considerable reputation in these pages, and McCullough relies on private correspondence to balance the man and the myth, revealing how deeply concerned Washington was about the Americans' chances for victory, despite his public optimism. Perhaps more than any other man, he realized how fortunate they were to merely survive the year, and he willingly lays the responsibility for their good fortune in the hands of God rather than his own. Enthralling and superbly written, 1776 is the work of a master historian. --Shawn Carkonen
A great thing about a book like this, is the names of the brave men who have essentially been lost over time. Sure we know all about General Washington, but what about Joseph Reed, General Nathanael Green (Washington's favorite general), General Henry Knox, John Sullivan, Lord Stirling and others? In 1776 we learn how these inexperienced men kept the army together while in dire straights, while morale was down. The fact that there was even an army left at the end of 1776 when Washington, along with Greene, Sullivan and Stirling, led them to an unexpected attack and victory at Trenton and onto another victory at Princeton before the year was over, was remarkable.
Some amazing things happened after these victories:
Morale was up. Soldiers who were about to leave at the start of the year, instead stayed, realizing they were fighting for their futures. And the British had a grudgingly new respect for the Americans. One cavalry officer wrote: ...the fashion in this army to treat them in the most contemptible light, they are now become a formidable enemy.
McCullough perfectly captures the ups and downs of the Continental/American army: Sickness, devastating blunders, desertion, loyalty and victory.
This is the perfect account of the men who fought on both sides for the battle for America in the beginning months. Thoroughly researched and exquisitely told, this is the starting point for knowledge of The American Revolution.
The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget.
In the past year I've read biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Certainly aspects of this story were familiar to me, but the focus on one man in the course of a lifetime doesn't allow for a lot of the details of events and different personalities to come through as they did here. George Washington, as in the biography by Flexner, impressed, but this book also allowed such figures as his officers Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox to be given their due. And as a native New Yorker and life-long resident, I couldn't help but be fascinated by the picture of New York City during the revolutionary period and how so many familiar landmarks figured in the story. Anyone who finds American history interesting should find this greatly enjoyable.
A great read though.