In 1776, David McCullough writes an intense and thorough history of some of the most important battles of the American Revolution. While he does not try to give a full history of the war, he focuses on a number of key battles that helped to shape the course of the war. In doing so, he provides both the events of the war and some of the other historical information that is relevant to understanding how the colonists defeated the British in the Revolution. Likewise, his work provides critical insights on the life of the soldier during this war. It ends with the Battle of Trenton and starts at Bunker Hill, and McCullough ensures that the reader knows more than he could ever want to know at the end of the work.
McCullough begins by discussing the way the war began. The British quite obviously made their declaration of war after the colonists began to complain and declare their independence. The British war declaration made things real, of course, and the colonists were in need of soldiers to get the war going. This was a battle between two unevenly matched sides. Great Britain was the great power, of course, with a highly experienced, well-trained, and well-equipped army. The colonists had no such thing. They were trying to learn on the fly and recruit on the fly, as well.
The book gets its real start in discussing what took place at Bunker Hill. In that battle, the Americans suffered a loss, but it was not the kind of devastating loss that it could have been. In the early going, when the Americans did not have the numbers they needed to win, they were often content to simply kill as many British as possible. Here, though, the British were able to win by throwing numbers at the colonists in a traditional-style battle. The British lost many men in the battle, and they were significantly weakened as a result of the effort. Even though the colonists lost, they were not completely demoralized, and in fact, the result left Washington and many of his men feeling like they could compete in the war. They used the momentum of this battle to go back after the British.
Washington made sure that his soldiers were back up quickly, and they went to Boston to attack the British position. This was more of an ambush style attack that caught the British completely unprepared. They were ready for traditional war, but not the kind of war that the colonists were about to fight. It did not take long at Boston for the colonists to send the British packing, and they retreated from Boston to England by ship. At this point, the colonists had their first big win, and this was enough of a positive sign that it allowed for more effective recruiting of new soldiers.
One might not be surprised to learn that the British did not give up after one loss. They returned from England more determined and powerful than ever. They had more men, too, and with those extra men, they were able to push the colonists out of Boston. The colonists first went to New York. Later, they had to retreat into New Jersey as the British advanced. The colonists were not completely committed to the cause, either, as many went back to the British in fear that the British were going to win the war.
One of the most important losses, it seems, came at Brooklyn. After losing there, the colonists did not have the moral they needed. There were doubts abounding about what would happen next. Washington understood that if the colonists were going to win the war, he had to do something quickly. This is when Washington developed the plan for the Battle of Trenton, which was clearly the turning point in this particular conflict.
Washington took boats across the Delaware, and this has become one of the most iconic images of the war. Many did not think that the colonists could pull off this kind of attack because of the conditions. The British were among that contingent, sitting completely unprepared for what was to come. Washington got his men motivated to win this war, even after they had been beaten down. When the colonists won at Trenton, things changed completely. Now, Washington’s allure was growing among the population. People wanted to sign up to be a part of the effort. Likewise, news reached Europe that the colonists had a chance, and this prompted France to send support for the war effort.
This was quite obviously not the end of the war, and as the author writes, much more fighting would have to take place before the war was finally over a few years later. Even though those things were certainly important, the war really turned on the important events of this one year, though. The author traces not only the logistical challenges of the men in battle, but he also traces the development of the feelings of colonists on the war. This was important, of course, because one could not fight a war during this time without the manpower to take some losses. People had to think that it was important to fight and potentially die for this cause if the colonists were going to have any chance. The author’s work is almost all about providing the basis for why people chose to continue fighting after 1776. The Battle of Trenton provided the basis for that motivation, prompting men to keep going.