I have known about David McCullough for a long time. I think I first saw his books because my Dad used to read them. Last year, I dived into my first McCullough book: The Wright Brothers. McCullough is a master storyteller, and sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Think of this: a people with ties to possibly the most powerful country in the world settle in an unknown land and prosper. After awhile, they want to be represented in the legislature and begin a rebellion. The powerful country sees the rebellion as a mere annoyance and begin to combat the poorly trained and outfitted rebels with their superior forces. And the great twist: the rebels win. That is an oversimplification of the American Revolution, but much of what this book is about. McCullough tells of the genesis of a great nation to be in the year 1776. The year is one of significance but not for the reasons you are thinking. The American Revolution lasted from around 1765 until 1783. The Constitution of the United States wasn’t signed until 1789 (a point many get wrong: for some reason, there is this strange belief that the Constitution was drafted and ratified in 1776). The importance of 1776 comes from the battles fought during this time and the signing of the Declaration of Independence which was a huge turning point in the young nation’s history. McCullough doesn’t give much credence to this event other than a paragraph or two about it’s significance because this book is about the military operations of the year 1776.
The book begins in October of 1775 where King George spoke to Parliament about the rebels. After much discussion, the general consensus was that the Americans needed to be thwarted and bigger military operations, including ground forces and use of the power navy, were sanctioned for use. Around this same time, the British won a victory over the Americans at Bunker Hill. Although this hardly could be called a victory due to the outstanding casualties and wounded the British incurred. Under the leadership of George Washington, the rebels set siege to Boston and miraculously recapture it. The objective for the British was to take New York, so much of the book focuses on the invasion of Long Island and subsequent capture of New York City. There were many advantages of New York and Washington knew this: it would be a strategic point for the convergent of navy vessels of the British. Yet, Washington’s forces lost the Battle for Long Island and subsequently, New Jersey where after, his army was forced down into Pennsylvania. The grand finale of the book was Washington’s surprise attack the day of Christmas where his forces moved across the Delaware River to defeat the Hessian forces at Trenton and Princeton. This, of course, became one of the most iconic battles of the war.
McCullough does an outstanding job at telling a story that is not bogged down by primary source material like many of Erik Larson’s books (I’m looking at you, Dead Wake). There is a balance to the narrative and important quotations and descriptions of people and events that makes this book entirely readable and not dry. He also is able to expertly demythologize much of American history by claiming that we are not certain on some details. Further to this point, there is a lot to American history that is just wrong, particularly in this time period. Urban legends and misconceptions abound in American history, so I appreciate McCullough’s scholarship mixed in with his storytelling.
I really enjoy American history, and I think this book is on the must-read list for anyone who values the story of the Revolution.