Friday, January 2, 2009

1776 by David McCullough

I was about halfway through this one and I was still thinking that McCullough had simply phoned this one in, that he had done something similer to what Joseph Ellis had done with Founding Brothers or Stephen Ambrose with Nothing Like It in the World—he had simply slapped something together out of bits and pieces he had collected while writing his more serious work. But as I started working my way through the second half I began to realize what McCullough was doing and that he was taking a fresh subject seriously.

1776 is his title, but his subject is really George Washington and the army he led. It's called 1776 because that's roughly the period of time that's covered—from the Siege of Boston to the Battles of Trenton and Princeton—but I'm not sure that's the best title for the book. The Strengths and Weaknesses of General Washington would have been more appropos, because that's what it seems to be about. His success at Boston, his failures in New York, and his successes again in New Jersey, supported throughout by his loyal and capable lietuenants and the Continental Congress. It was a good read primarily because it was able to penetrate the myth that surrounds Washington and present him as a real and flawed human being.

And, as usual with good history, it also shattered some of the historical "truths" we are all mistakenly taught in school. This time, it was most obviously that of the drunken Hessian soliders that Washington surprised on Christmas morning at Trenton, still sleeping off all the carousing they had done the night before.

Far more, however, would be said later and repeated endlessly of Hessians who supposedly, on the morning of the attack, were still reeling drunk or in a stupor from having celebrated Christmas in the Germanic tradition. But there is no evidence that any of them were drunk. John Greenwood, who was in the thick of the fight, later wrote, "I am willing to go upon oath that I did not see even a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy."

Major James Wilkinson, the young officer who had been present at the capture of General Lee and who also fought at Trenton and later wrote an account of the battle, made no mention of anyone being drunk.

Goes to show you can't believe everything they teach you in school.

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