The Hudson River Valley is the place to live and visit to understand the American Revolution. Because of New York State’s curriculum and the teacher institutes, map/brochures, and programs of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College, teachers, students, and an increasing number of residents and heritage tourists are discovering how complex that civil and imperial war was, particularly in New York. When I met author David McCullough in Newport, Rhode Island, last July, during the celebration of the 225th anniversary of the arrival of the French expedition particulière, I thanked him for returning the subject of America’s War for Independence back to the public discourse with his biography of John Adams and his newest book, 1776. When McCullough decided to explore the American Revolution, he brought to bear a heavyweight reputation built on two Pulitzer Prizes (for Truman and John Adams) and two National Book Awards (for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback). After weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 1776 has carved out its niche in popular literature as spectacularly as the events of 1776 set the tone for the colonies’ struggle against their mother country, Great Britain.
McCullough chose as the topic of his book the year of the American Revolution to which even the casual student of American history could relate. Although the Declaration of Independence and the battle of Trenton, in New Jersey, were triumphs that year, McCullough found that 1776“was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-to-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, that they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage, and bedrock devotion to country, and that too, they would never forget.” As McCullough has related in an interview, his approach allowed him “to tell the military story of 1776, not the political.” And he tells the story of George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, the Continental Army, and the battles of New York and New Jersey as only he can. The glue for the war—and the book—is Washington, without whose “leadership and unrelenting perseverance, the revolution almost certainly would have failed.”
While 1776 is a national story, New York takes center stage on some 135 of the book’s 294 narrative pages. McCullough found that “The importance of New York was beyond question,” and he quotes John Adams’ assessment that New York was “a kind of key to the whole continent.” General Washington and his British counterparts also understood that the Hudson River was the nexus of population, industry, agriculture, commerce, communications, and logistics. As strategists, they recognized that the Hudson was at once an avenue and a barrier, particularly in the Hudson Highlands. It was an invasion route to and from Canada at the one end and the city of New York on the other. Command of the Hudson influenced the economy and affected the movement of manpower and supplies. Against this strategic backdrop, McCullough relates his tales of triumph and tragedy at or near the Hudson River.
One of the great triumphs of the whole war was the feat by Colonel Henry Knox—one which many observers thought impossible, writes McCullough—of floating and dragging the “noble train of artillery” of fifty-nine cannons, mortars, and howitzers from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston in the dead of winter. Once emplaced on Dorchester Heights and commanding the city and harbor, they added weight to General William Howe’s decision to abandon Boston for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Knox’s reputation was made: the former bookseller was named Washington’s artillery chief. His guns influenced the victory at Trenton, which was the climax of the year and is the climax of the book.
Howe’s next stop was Manhattan, where he and his troops landed in July 1776. Thereafter, New York was the key seat of the war until November 1783. Near-fatal tragedies took place in the battles around New York City. McCullough concludes that the battle of Brooklyn (also known as the battle of Long Island) on August 27, 1776, “had been a fiasco. Washington had proven indecisive and inept. In his first command on a large-scale field of battle, he and his general officers had not only failed, they had been made to look like fools.” Providence and John Glovers’ Massachusetts sailors and fishermen saved the army on the night of August
29–30by ferrying 9,000men across the East River to Manhattan. After checking General Howe at Harlem Heights and White Plains, Washington and Greene once again exhibited poor judgment by trying to maintain Fort Washington (near the present-day George Washington Bridge). When it fell to British and Hessian troops on November 16, the American army lost almost 3,000men, who would be sorely missed in the coming days. The fall of Fort Lee and the retreat across the Jerseys set up Washington’s first victory since Boston—at Trenton on Christmas Day. That triumph—and another at Princeton on January 3, 1777—saved the bid for liberty and blotted away some of the stains of previous failures. McCullough quotes Abigail Adams in a letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren: “I am apt to think that our later misfortunes have called out the hidden excellencies of our commander-in-chief.” Those “hidden excellencies” would sustain the cause—and the Continental Army—through the remaining six years of war, until the Treaty of Paris made the United States of America a reality.
In 1776, McCullough has written a book that proves the idea that well-written history rivals fiction. He is a master storyteller, and the popularity of his latest book is an encouraging sign that his readers understand that the power of historical drama and the trials of men and women struggling to be free transcend the ages. When they have turned the last page of 1776, they will have gained a greater perspective on the bids for democracy ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a heightened appreciation for the difficulties faced by the fledgling armies upon which those bids depend. As McCullough ends his tale, then as now the outcome may prove to be “little short of a miracle.”
—James M. Johnson, Marist College