The American Revolution has long been referenced as a David and Goliath story where a rag-tag band of freedom fighters took on the biggest superpower of their time. 1776 by David McCullough provides a detailed look at the first year of that war and how the Americans managed to start their journey towards overthrowing their distant rulers. Washington’s leadership proved to be the key ingredient to the success of the fledgling revolutionary forces.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that an aging superpower engaged in a far-away row with people fighting for their home and way of life would do well to not underestimate their enemy. Given America’s flailing efforts over the last 16 years, it is a lesson that doesn’t seem to have survived the intervening centuries.
Takeaway 1: The American military, much like America itself was a disparate collection of people from across the social strata in sore need of unity and mutual respect. Of course, the differences created some challenges for the leadership. Poor discipline both in person and in camping posed early problems for the new general. Frequent fights, desertions, and near mutinies were daily challenges. While the British troops were well disciplined and trained in tactics, the Americans were less able to organize, especially in the early stages of the war. A rudimentary rank insignia using various colors helped to create the structure necessary for discipline.
Takeaway 2: One person can make a difference. It was Washington’s leadership and personal example that tied the various elements together towards success in a common cause. Congressional letter praised that “under your directions, an undisciplined band of husbandmen, in the course of a few months became soldiers.” Washington understood the importance of intelligence gathering and exploitation and it was a key component of his victories. Washington allowed himself to be overruled by the advice of his other generals. Their preference to take Quebec before moving on Boston provided the guns that made the operation successful.
Takeaway 3: Never underestimate your enemy. Leaving a rebel force to strengthen and threaten because you are worried about the harshness of the weather was a fool’s move. Washington rallied his reinforced troop numbers and crossed the Delaware routing the hessians at Trenton. It was the victory that the Americans needed. It inspired the nation even though tactically it was not significant. Trenton was recaptured by Cornwallis shortly thereafter. The British could not imagine Washington a threat or his rag-tag band of soldiers as a credible enemy force. It was their undoing.
The book opens in October of 1775 with King George’s address to parliament about the trouble brewing across the sea. As is often the case in wars, Britain underestimated the amount of blood and treasure that would be necessary to put down the rebellion, with one general boasting that with 5000 men he could end the war. The arrival of the first British casualties back in England had inflamed the populace and lent general support for increased troop deployments to America. The rush to war was not without its critics who did not want to see more bloodshed on the far-flung continent, but Britain’s string of successful conflicts clouded its vision on what was possible in America.
From the outset Washington placed a priority on intelligence gathering efforts. Poor discipline both in person and in camping posed early problems for the new general. Frequent fights, desertions, and near mutinies were daily challenges. Washington developed a rudimentary rank insignia and began the monumental task of bringing together so many disparate elements. As the Army coalesced around his strong leadership, he began looking at attack options: Quebec or Boston. He settled on a raid on Quebec because he lacked the forces for an assault on Boston. The first day of the newly arrived year 1776 saw the order that created a continental army.
The British generals and their outright dismissal of Washington as a real threat because of their sense of superiority would plague them from the outset. Quebec paid off and the guns of Ticonderoga were in the hands of the revolutionaries. With guns in hand the planning for an assault at Boston gained new vigor. Daring nighttime emplacement on the heights above Boston led to a successful route of the British from the city.
After the success of Boston, continentals spread to neighboring states and New York. The challenges and dangers of an Army in the city proved a constant test of discipline. Preparations began to fortify the city against the expected British response. Loyalists were cruelly treated. British rolled into the harbor concurrent with the arrival of news that the US had declared its independence. The declaration turned the rebellion into outright revolution and war. The Brits returned and occupied Staten Island. The size of the British fleet and the cost were strong indicators of Britain’s commitment to quenching the revolution.
Washington’s refusal to accept a letter from Howe that did not address him by his rank is amusing but an important declaration of his role in the new world. Discipline was still a problem especially as troops responded to the British attack. There was significant inexperience on both sides but more discipline and unit cohesion on the British side. During the Battle of Long Island, the American military stood toe to toe and fought the British in the style to which the British were more accustomed. 9000 fled in the dark of night after being routed during the previous battle.
The war highlighted the importance of regular troops and officers trained in the art of war to wage their nation’s battle. It led to calls for a military academy system that stands to this day.
The Long Retreat
With the loss, desertions were again prevalent. Troops were again driven back at Kip’s Bay and the forces driven further northward only to suffer more defeats at Forts Washington and Lee. Washington was forced to retreat into New Jersey. With his troops levels withered away, Washington sought to rebuild his army. The Americans holed up in Trenton and Princeton eventually retreating into Pennsylvania.
Surprisingly the British declared a suspension of hostilities for the winter. Washington reinforced his troops and crossed the Delaware defeating the Hessians garrisoned at Trenton for the winter.
It was the victory that the Americans needed. It inspired the nation even though tactically it was not significant. Trenton was recaptured by Cornwallis shortly thereafter. Despite the relative insignificance of the victory it turned the tides. Recruitment and reenlistment improved. The Congress became motivated to follow through with promises of equipment and salaries. Overnight, the revolution turned form a near lost cause, to a credible movement that would change the world that was.