Our Low-Rent Revolution: Mucky, Haphazard Victory

1776, by David McCullough. Simon and Schuster, 386 pages, $32.

To most Americans, the year 1776 summons up luminous images, particularly the signing of the Declaration of Independence. David McCullough’s new history of that year reminds us of the grime that went along with the glory. In this rendering, the great drama of that historic year lay not so much in ideas-the proclamation of human equality or the democratic rebellion against tyranny-as in chaotic battles whose outcomes were often decided by chance. Mr. McCullough gives us not the American Revolution of the mind but the American Revolution of actions, ones that unfolded not with inevitability but with haphazardness. In 1776, we get history at ground level.

Mr. McCullough demolishes any monolithic view we may have of the Revolution, such as the traditional one that both sides were unified, England behind a determination to remain America’s parent country and America behind a single-minded dedication to freedom. In England, Mr. McCullough shows, King George III’s desire to suppress the American rebellion met with stiff opposition from the likes of John Wilkes, Lord Mayor of London, who insisted that the war against “our brethren” in America was “unjust … fatal and ruinous to our country.”

In America, the army led by George Washington was inexperienced, poorly trained and at times weakly motivated. Washington himself was an ambiguous figure. His perseverance was powerful, as was his ability to inspire his troops. But he could be self-doubting and indecisive, and he had a Southern distaste for New Englanders and blacks. A Virginia planter, he owned over a hundred slaves, and some of his troops saw what Mr. McCullough calls “stunning incongruity in the cause of liberty being led by a slavemaster.”

Getting down and dirty with the American troops, Mr. McCullough supplies fascinating information that complicates our vision of the Revolution. Most of the soldiers, we learn, were foul-mouthed and bibulous. One observer reported that they consumed a bottle of rum per day per man. Others noted that their tastes in liquor ran to wine, brandy, gin and grog. Although the troops were well fed, they lacked ammunition, tents and uniforms. Many of them neglected to use the open latrines in the camps, preferring to void excrement in the surrounding fields. “The smell of many camps was vile in the extreme,” Mr. McCullough writes. Neither the soldiers nor the officers had much knowledge of military life. Deserters were common, as were those who simply vanished for weeks under any pretext-to go clam digging, perhaps, or to visit their families.

Recreating in vivid detail the military campaigns of 1776, Mr. McCullough focuses on the battles of Boston, Long Island, Harlem Heights and Trenton. One of the rewards of his retelling of these engagements is the sense he gives that some of history’s greatest movements are decided by contingency. By no means was an American victory guaranteed: The British and their allies were better trained and better equipped than the Americans, but the latter were the accidental beneficiaries of arbitrary forces such as changes in weather. Would Washington, for example, have been able to retreat across the East River after the devastating defeat at Brooklyn had a heavy fog not descended on the area? Would his crossing of the Delaware River have had such heroic results if a blinding snowstorm hadn’t helped to disorient the enemies camped at Trenton? Mr. McCullough raises these and other questions, which force us to acknowledge that what seems inevitable in hindsight was to some degree a matter of luck.

To some degree, but not completely. Old-fashioned grit did play a key role in the war. The Americans’ nighttime occupation of Dorchester Heights-“an utterly phenomenal achievement,” Mr. McCullough calls it-was a bold, unexpected move that quickly drove the British out of Boston. The ability of the thinly garbed but determined Americans to descend upon Trenton under brutal winter conditions was another feat of heroism. As for Washington, what he sometimes lacked in self-confidence and certainty he more than made up for in shrewdness and personal magnetism.

Mr. McCullough’s book works well as a historical narrative. But it depends too heavily on stylistic tricks designed to enhance readability. Most of the paragraphs in 1776 consist of just a few sentences, and there are an inordinate number of one-sentence paragraphs. In fact, Mr. McCullough regularly uses as many as four one-sentence paragraphs in succession. Although concision is admirable, it can become a gimmick.

Still, David McCullough should be applauded for producing an informative description of a key year in American history. He shows us that the world’s most powerful nation had its unlikely beginnings in the operations of a ragtag army under the leadership of a less-than-ideal general.

David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author, most recently, of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (Knopf).