While driving cross country back home from a road trip vacation on July 4 I listened to a rebroadcast of On Point’s Tom Ashbrook interview with David McCullough. At one point David noted that many Americans don’t really understand the Revolutionary War, that it has been overshadowed by so much other history. He said that our view is often of men in funny shaped hats fighting off the Red Coats in broad sweeping frontal marches. As he told the tale of the year of 1776 I realized he was right on the money in my case. I knew of the shot heard ’round the world at Lexington and Concord; I knew there was a battle at Bunker Hill and later George Washington crossed the Delaware River to defeat the British and the Hessians.
“The war was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate. By the time it ended, it had taken the lives of an estimated 25,000 Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population. In percentage of lives lost, it was the most costly war in American history, except for the Civil War”(Loc 4798)
The year 1775 closed with the British barricaded in Boston with the Colonists bottling them up. But King George had promised a new influx of troops and got help from Prussia. The invaders packed up from Boston and headed first north, then south to New York. The Colonists got there first but found it was indefensible given the enormous strength of the British fleet that dominated the waterways. The Americans lost battle throughout the year and eventually fled Long Island, then Manhattan and retreat through New Jersey to Delaware. It was on Christmas night 1776 that Washington took his army back across the Delaware River to win two battles and give the new country hope. But it would take another 7 or 8 years for war to end through a treaty in Paris after the victory in Yorktown.
Having read a few war histories now, I’m struck by how important it is for the leading generals to be so calm and resolute in the face of enormous pressures. The revolutionary army had to put up with low enlistments, poorly trained soldiers, lack of ammunition and other supplies; in short it was “a year of all-too-few victoreis, of sustained suffering, disease, huner, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear,… but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country” (Location 4800). I can barely imagine how George Washington handled all this.
War in the age of sails was a world apart from that of steam and engines. The British needed wind and tides in order to bring their ships up the waterways of New York. Certainly, there were weather conditions for D-Day in WWII; but machinery and other advances in technology changed the face of war. Also, the establishment of West Point, Annapolis, and the other military universities have been essential to America’s abilities to fight and win wars.
A terrific read of this pivotal year in our country’s history. I’m going to read the Oxford history of this period in the not too distant future. It is essential, I think, for us to know “what a close call it was at the beginning-how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference – the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.” (Loc 4808)