I finished David McCullough's "1776" yesteday and accomplished two things: I immensely enjoyed it and I learned several things. The book looks huge but of the 386 numbered pages, only 299 are text (the rest are filled with source notes, a bibliography and an index). A serious reader could polish this off in about two days. A slow reader can complete in a little over a week.
As you can imagine, the book covers the year of 1776 when so much change was occurring in this new land. McCullough stays true to his purpose and does not give any accounting of earlier battles such as Lexington and Bunker Hill. He mentions some of the goings-on at Ticonderoga and some West Virginia battles but deals primarily with what happened in this single year.
I learned of the amazing development of this young country by the time the Revolution was in full swing. Accounts of the early seige in Boston reveals a pretty advanced city, as does the account of the battle in New York towards the end of the year.
I learned that the original purpose for the Revolution was not primarly, if at all, on independence. The English citizens over here wanted to be "left alone" and afforded some semblance of respect and individual rights. On July 5, 1775, the Continental Congress adopteds the Olive Branch Petition which expresses hope for a reconciliation with Britain. They appealed directly to King George for help in achieving this. However, in August, King George III refuses even to look at the petition and instead issues a proclamation declaring the Americans to be in a state of open rebellion. The idea of complete and total severance from England occurred much later in the year, culminating in the Declaration of Independence.
I learned that America was fiercly divided on the subject of independence. Many citizens remained loyal to the King and despised the "rebels." Many who fought in the "rebellion" likewise despised these "cowards" who wished to remain "slaves" to Britain. The nation was cut in two philosophically (some things never change!).
I learned that the Declaration was actually signed on August 2. Here's a recount of those events:
On June 7, Richard Lee, a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, presents a formal resolution calling for America to declare its independence from Britain. Congress decides to postpone its decision on this until July. On June 11, Congress appoints a committee to draft a declaration of independence. Committee members are Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Livingston and Roger Sherman. Jefferson is chosen by the committee to prepare the first draf of the declaration, which he completes in one day. Just seventeen days later, June 28, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is ready and is presented to the Congress, with changes made by Adams and Franklin. On July 2, twelve of thirteen colonial delegations (New York abstains) vote in support of Lee's resolution for independence. On July 4, the Congress formally endorses Jefferson's Declaration, with copies to be sent to all of the colonies. The actual signing of the document occurs on August 2, as most of the 55 members of Congress place their names on the parchment copy.I learned of some individuals who played tremendous roles in the war that usually escape our education and generally have left our memories. I learned of Nathaniel Green, who served as Washington's right-hand man throughout and whose absense due to illness left Washington in the lurch. I learned of William Howe, whose slow methodical planning for the British helped us immensely.
Sadly, we get only scant information on the more well-known Fathers such as Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. I'd love to have more information of the events happening in Philadelphia while the war was raging in Boston, New York and Delaware.
I learned that George Washington was positively human. He suffered from despair and made tremendous military mistakes. Yet, in the end, he was the perfect man for the job at hand - simply a tremendous leader and American figure.
I also saw how God orchestrated so much in this endeavor. One such event was in a planned retreat from Brooklyn during the night of August 29. The Americans were incredibly outnumbered as Britain boasted of over 15,000 men in New York alone. Their ammunition was spoiled from heavy rains. The army was divided in half by some brilliant British maneuvering and the British fleet controlled the waters with a vast flotilla with hundreds upon hundred of gusn. Retreat was the right move and it was an honorable move. Doing it under the cover of night was a tremendous risk and could backfire drastically and easily.
The first American troops to leave were those with the least experience, along with the sick and wounded. They left around 9:00 PM. No one knew what was going on - to keep the British as much in the dark as possible. The leaders in the ranks thought that Washington was ordering a surprise attack and were amazed at the foolishness of such a decision, considering the condition of the men. Slowly, one by one, they realized what was going on.
The first troops could not cross because of the swift current. They had to simply stand and wait. Around 11:00 PM, the northeast wind died down "as if by design" according to McCullough. Then the wind shifted to the southwest and they took off. Some men from Massachusetts crossed the mile-wide river up to eleven times, carrying troops, supplies, horses and cannons. The boats were so loaded that the river was only inches from flowing over the top of the sides of the boats. They did all this in pitch dark with no running lights. Everything was covered in rags, including the cannon and wagon wheels. Talking was absolutely forbidden.
Troops toward the rear kept fires going and created enough of a stir to keep the British thinking all was normal. As the night began to turn to day, it appeared the mission would not be completed. At daybreak, the movement would be detected and those left behind would be annihilated. I'll let McCullough describe what happened next:
Incredibly, yet again, circumstances - fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often - intervened.
Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled in over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night. It was a fog so thick, remembered a soldier, that one "could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance." Even with the sun up, the fog remained as dense as ever, while over on the New York side of the river there was no fog at all.
At long last, Mifflin and the rear guard and the troops at Fort Stirling were summoned (these were the last men). "It may be supposed we did not linger," wrote Alexander Graydon.
Major Tallmadege, who with his regiment was among the last to depart on the boats, would write later that he thought he saw Washington on the ferry stairs staying to the very end.
Graydon estimated that it was seven in the morning, perhaps a little later, when he and his men landed in New York. "And in less than an hour after, the fog having dispersed, the enemy was visible on the shore we had left [behind].
In a single night, 9,000 troops had escaped acorss the river. Not a life was lost. The only men captured were three who had hung back to plunder.
Finally, I learned why the famous "Crossing of the Delaware" was so important. After the debacle in New York, American morale was at its lowest in a period of time repeatedly referred to as "dark" by McCullough. At the end of the year, the period of enlistment would come to an end and a majority of the army would be free to return home. If that happened, the cause was over.
On Christmas, Washington took 2,400 men across the Delaware. He then conducted a surprise raid on 1,500 British-Hessians (German mercenaries) at Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians surrendered after an hour with nearly 1,000 taken prisoner by Washington. The Americans suffered only six wounded (including future president Lt. James Monroe). The victory provides a much needed boost to the morale of all American Patriots.