Author: David McCullough
Review by: John Parkerson, international attorney at Hall Booth Smith and honorary consul general of Hungary in Georgia
Most of us, I would wager, have a stack of books that we intended to read at the time we either bought them or received them as gifts. They languish, often for years, waiting for the reader to find the right moment to open the contents. Sometimes a particular event will spur us to give in to curiosity and delve into one of those books. The often-incomprehensible events of this past 2021 prompted me to pull “1776” off my bookshelf, dust it off, and to study how the organized American-British military campaigns that began in earnest in 1776 improbably ended with the surrender of Cornwallis‘s British forces at Yorktown in the fall of 1781.
Tensions between British colonials in the North American colonies and the British Government had been percolating for approximately 10 years before 1776 arrived. Until that year, the American “revolution” had been mostly unfocused protests and an escalating number of violent clashes between His Royal Majesty George III’s Army and the American “loyalists” (remaining loyal to the King), on the one hand; against unorganized groups of rebellious American colonials residing in 13 separate British colonies that more often than not had competing economic interests and social views.
The British Army – the most powerful in the world – was forecast as having the clear upper hand in any serious colonial conflict that may arise. They included thousands of well-trained, battle-hardened veterans, many with experiences combatting native Americans and French encroachments on the colonies’ fringes.
Moreover, the American colonials who remained loyal to the King and the British Empire considered themselves the true “patriots” – an interesting juxtaposition given today’s references to that term. Rebellious colonials, as seen from London, were a law-breaking rabble. At best, they included independent colonial militias that had varying degrees of training and experience, inadequate equipment and absolutely no contacts with militias from other colonies. These ingredients, one may conclude, did not portend the birth of a unified, independent American nation.
Events of 1776 caused changes in that characterization among many in England, in the American colonies, and among Britain’s foreign rivals. The transformation of the disparate American colonial militias into an organized army with a coherent chain of command seems almost miraculous. McCullough attributes this development to a small group of “citizen soldier” military leaders such as, for example, Nathanial Greene (a Quaker and general at 33) and Henry Knox (a bookseller who became a general and chief of artillery at 25), who possessed superb leadership qualities and, in some cases, natural military skills, but no combat experience. At this group’s core stood George Washington – the exception to this lack of military experience, although even he had never organized or led an army in battle. In essence, if they were to succeed against the British, they had no choice but to learn by trial and error.
Predictably, given these circumstances, the colonial army’s military successes in 1776 were few; and campaigns resulted in defeat after defeat. At one point in 1776, Washington could count no more than 6,000 men in his army, as initial enlistments expired, and the Continental Congress failed to raise sufficient funds from the individual colonies to pay and equip remaining soldiers. But these military leaders were persistent and resourceful, and they exercised good judgment. They learned from defeat, relying for the most part on their common sense and ability to inspire troops into action.
By no means did victory against overwhelming odds seem probable by the end of that year; but due to the character and resilience of Washington and his generals, coupled with growing war-fatigue in Britain; eventual success seemed at least possible.
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