Reviewed by Harris J. Andrews
By David McCullough
Simon and Schuster, 2005
David McCullough’s 1776 is one of those well-crafted popular histories that is certain to feature prominently on every history buff’s reading list this summer. The Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer brings all of his formidable writing skills into play, recounting the tumultuous military campaigns of a year that saw the fortunes of George Washington’s fledgling Continental Army—and with it those of the new American republic—rise and fall: from a brilliant and unexpected success at the siege of Boston through failure and defeat in the fighting around New York and New Jersey to redemption in the freezing streets of Trenton.
McCullough’s book is pure, traditional narrative history. He bases much of his account on the actions and experiences of the great leaders: Patriot Generals George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox and their British opponents the Howe brothers, Sir Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis.
But McCullough also includes a chorus of spear-carriers—common soldiers, camp followers, civilian bystanders and politicians. The author employs a poet’s ear in his selection of wonderful quotes drawn from more than 50 diaries, memoirs and collections of correspondence to support his own lively narration. McCullough’s primary focus, however, remains firmly fixed on George Washington’s conduct of military operations and his constant determination to create a well-organized, professional fighting force out of the dispirited, sick and ragged volunteers and militiamen who formed his army.
As enjoyable as the book is, 1776 recounts an oft-told tale, one that has attracted the attention of many historians over the years. While McCullough ably pulls together masses of information, 1776 does not offer much that is new, nor does it offer fresh insights into the lives and character of the primary actors.
McCullough’s descriptions of military operations are fairly clear but suffer from a lack of the informative maps required for military historiography. The inclusion of reproductions of three period maps in the illustration sections does not adequately fill the void.
1776 remains a riveting and moving tale of the year that saw the proclamation of American independence and the descent of the full might of the British empire to crush it. Overall, David McCullough tells a powerful and well-crafted story that is worth the read.