By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: David McCullough
Narration by: David McCullough
David McCullough’s “1776” is about symbols of victory in the first year of the American Revolution. George Washington is a mysterious hero. McCullough slightly raises the curtain on an extraordinary six-foot, two-inch giant in the age of five-foot, five-inch men. McCullough hits the highs and lows of the first year of the Revolution, but it is the few symbolic victories of the Continental Army that make “1776” interesting.
Washington is shown to be a mediocre general. Washington wins few battles. As leader of the Continental Army in 1776, Washington makes several poor strategic and tactical military decisions that could have lost America’s fight for independence. But, with unbounded courage, extraordinary willpower, a dash of luck, and the help of France, Washington manages to lead America to victory in 1783.
Washington, though a poor military strategist, shows himself to be a great leader of men; a symbol of American grit and determination. McCullough does not suggest Washington is the only great leader in the war but he sets an example for great men to follow. Men like Henry Knox, Israel Putnam, Nathanael Greene, John Sullivan, and the infamous Benedict Arnold fight for America’s independence when it seems impossible to win. Each believed in the rightness of the cause; each revered the example set by their taciturn leader.
McCullough explains how Washington exhibits sternness and demands proper behavior, but expects no more from his men than he expects from himself. Washington is described as a strict disciplinarian, an enforcer of good conduct, and a man capable of anger when confronted with behavior unbecoming a soldier. In most cases, McCullough explains that Washington leads by example; i.e. consciously considering his behavior, and disciplining his actions. However, McCullough offers a story of a brawl among the troops that shows a man capable of anger, and imbued with a prejudice of his time.
A fight erupts in camp. Washington gallops toward the fray, tosses his bridle to his Negro man-servant while jumping from his horse. McCullough describes how Washington grabs two combatants by the neck (one in each hand), and ends a fifteen minute melee with the strength of a hardened frontiersman. McCullough recounts how, in the face of battle, Washington berates colonial’ soldiers that turn to run when the tide turns against them; how Washington threatens execution while brandishing a sword at the deserting American’ volunteers. McCullough shows Washington is a man of honor and propriety; i.e. when disappointed by the Continental Congress, the enemy , or his countrymen, Washington is a symbol of courage, determination, and passion.
Washington stands at the front of battle to demonstrate his belief in American independence; regardless of cost. McCullough describes Washington as a very wealthy man who risks his life and reputation for the cause of independence. Washington receives no compensation and, for seven long years, abandons a life of wealth and comfort to lead an army of rag-tag, ill clothed, ill-equipped volunteers against the best trained and armored military in the world. He may have, in part, taken the job for fame, but his greatest desire is to prove himself worthy of his appointment as leader of the Continental Army.
Washington risks everything with a personal understanding of his inadequacy. He forthrightly acknowledges his meager military experience to the Continental Congress while coveting the position. He receives the position because no one else appears better qualified. After several months of military action, Washington is no more sure of his adequacy for the job than when he became General.
Nearing the winter of 1776, Washington’s position as his Excellency, leader of the Continental Army, is being questioned. General Charles Lee, who had shown competence as a military leader, decries Washington’s reluctance to take control of the war from the politics of a Continental Congress. McCullough explains–Lee believes control of the war should be in the hands of a military leader; without interference from the Continental Congress. McCullough suggests Lee recommends to Washington that he threaten to resign if Congress fails to cooperate. Some agree with Lee and believe he should replace Washington because of strategic and tactical mistakes made by Washington in the early months of the war.
As God, fate, or fortune would have it, Lee is captured by the British in early December 1776. Lee cannot become a successor to Washington; and according to McCullough, becomes an ally of the British after capture. Washington is disappointed by Lee’s foolish indiscretion that led to his capture. McCullough notes Lee’s capture is a low point in the war because of Lee’s successful defense of Charleston against the British, earlier in the year. After Lee’s capture, Washington plans a clandestine attack on the British to rekindle America’s fervor for independence. The attack is the famous crossing of the Delaware in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day in 1776.
With plans made by man and laughed at by God, Washington and approximately 2,500 American volunteers intend to cross an ice-laden Delaware river to surprise and defeat an estimated 1500 Hessian mercenaries near Trenton, New Jersey. The plan is to cross at midnight and surprise the British campsite. The weather delays arrival until 3:00 am which compromises the likelihood of surprise. Additionally, two of the three American generals are unable to attack at different locations in the pre-dawn surprise because of the weather. However, Washington and his 2500 men succeed in crossing the river. Washington chooses to pursue the plan despite the lateness of arrival and the failure of his two other generals. Over 1,000 Hessian soldiers are captured. The battle is a resounding success for the Continental Army. McCullough argues that the symbolic import of that success re-energizes America’s war for independence. Though the British command characterizes the Battle of Trenton as a minor skirmish by a mediocre general–seven years later, independence from the United Kingdom is formally recognized by the King of England.
What one ponders from McCullough’s story is its meaning to Middle Eastern’ countries of the 21st century. How many battles will become symbols to energize citizens of Middle Eastern nations that seek independence?