Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Independence Day

You may have picked up David McCullough’s book 1776 around Independence Day, like I did. I had read his biography of John Adams a couple of years ago, and learned much I had not known about that founding father. In 1776, McCullough takes a different approach to chronicling a piece of our nation’s history—though, effectively, it winds up being a one-year-in-the-life-of biography of George Washington.

McCullough doesn’t whitewash the reputation of the general, but reveals his many failings: misplaced trust in generals who worked under him, tactical misjudgments, ill-timed decisions and hesitant strategies. That the environment was so different then, that his ragtag army was no match for the well-trained British and Hessian troops and their experienced leaders, that communication was difficult and intelligence almost non-existent are mitigating factors in his overall assessment of Washington.

After Washington’s remarkable success in securing Dorchester Heights in March, which led to the British withdrawal from Boston, there was nothing but failure and retreat for many months. Attrition among his ranks, the British capture of some of his generals, and catastrophic mistakes in attempting to defend Brooklyn and Manhattan sent the Continental Army zigzagging north along the Hudson, through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, with the British in hot pursuit. The Congress abandoned Philadelphia in anticipation of the arrival of British forces, and the prospects were bleak.

At the end of the year, with Washington camped on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and a force of Hessian mercenaries lodged on the New Jersey side, there was a brief respite. It seems that conventional wisdom at the time among European military strategists was to defer major engagement during harsh winter conditions, so instead of continuing to drive Washington’s men further, British commanders took a hiatus.

This may not have been understood by Washington—indeed, while the British seemed to know everything about what the Continental Army was doing (thanks to so many Loyalists among the citizenry), Washington had little success in securing information about his opponents.

But one thing he was certain of: he could not retreat indefinitely. He desperately needed a victory to regain the morale of his troops, the waning confidence of Congress and, indeed, the salvation of the fledgling nation.

On the night of December 25, Washington directed a successful surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton, and continued in the following days to Princeton, overcoming a British detachment there.

Though the Revolutionary War continued for five more years, McCullough’s thesis seems to be that its second year, 1776, was the turning point—at least in terms of Washington’s military leadership. Much of it was accomplished through trial and error, but whatever mistakes George Washington made during this difficult year, the portrait that emerges is one of a man who had great integrity.

Until next time…


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