Saturday, June 20, 2009

David McCullough’s 1776 – Book Review

Need a Father’s Day gift? 1776 is absolutely worthy of your consideration. McCullough wrote his esteemed biography of John Adams in 2001. In 2005, he followed with 1776 as a companion volume. The two books are very different in scope. John Adams is a political history; 1776 is a very detailed military history of that year, concentrating on Washington and his campaigns, particularly in New York.

This book is not a quick read. There is extensive detail on military maneuvers and results. The bibliographic sources and book notes are enormous.

Certain themes are stressed constantly. George Washington was not an experienced or even that skillful a general. But he had incredible charisma with his troops. He also knew how to pick his closest advisors. Three of them, Greene, Knox and Reed, probably could fill books with their own accomplishments.

The many accomplished British generals are given plenty of mention. Of course, their efforts for George III were inevitably doomed, because for how long could Great Britain maintain and supply its army three thousand miles away? I think the most experienced generals knew this. They needed quick, pivotal victories against the colonies, and end this conflict.

Many times they got them. Throughout this whole book, the Continental Army, such as it was, was in a dreadful state. Lack of the most basic necessities, compounded by fierce winter weather, and lack of training, made this army a ragged force often unrecognizable as soldiers. The British had contempt for them. It’s what makes their courage and spirit the more amazing. I liked the many direct quotes from soldiers of all ranks.

I am convinced that to really read and enjoy this book, accompanying maps or battlefield diagrams that are clear and uncomplicated are absolutely necessary. Even with many familiar place names, and I enjoyed that, the chronology of events can be very confusing without maps, which are not included. Probably other military histories need these. Think of Civil War books.

One fact really struck me. By 1776, the colonies had the highest living standard in the world. That’s what the British didn’t understand; why throw that away?

Another thing always amazes me. 1776 was the beginning of the long, bitter Revolutionary War. How the colonies won is amazing. Foreign loans, the entry of the French on our side, and British exhaustion contributed heavily to our victory.

We were a truly divided country. The loyalists understood nothing of why their fellow citizens wanted to lose their good fortune of being part of Great Britain’s empire. The patriots regarded loyalists as nothing less than traitors. How they dealt with these traitors is as dark a chapter as any in American history.

The title “1776” is sparse. “Washington in 1776” describes the contents more completely. He is the focus.

There is a special extensively illustrated version of 1776 available. McCullough has won two Pulitzers, for Truman and John Adams. He is considered a leading historian.

So, all those gift givers, your choice is outstanding. And Dads, you have a topnotch gift. Other recipients, you will enjoy this book. With all due respect to the paperback industry, hardcover editions do add a certain pizzazz. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Note: If McCullough is interested, I would really welcome a biography of President Eisenhower. Comments, please.

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