I’m on a Revolutionary War kick—probably because I listened to Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary and I’m fast on my way to memorizing the musical “Alexander Hamilton.” So I picked up 1776, hoping to round out my understanding of the war a little bit more. (I did learn all this in high school, but who remembers back that far?)
Truthfully, I was a little disappointed. I think I was expecting more of an historical drama, but it read more like a really detailed textbook. If McCullough had humanized the facts a little more by following specific characters from an omniscient narrator point of view, I’d have cared far more. He did do this a little bit, with George Washington, and those were the most engaging parts of the book—I learned what Washington looked like, his reputation with the men, and that while he came off quite stoic, in private letters he was discouraged for the majority of 1776. He’d vent his feelings in these letters, but he’d also find an outlet in writing the caretakers at Mount Vernon about the modifications he wanted on his home. He was very particular, but it struck me as escapism. He didn’t want to be on the battlefield in what looked like a hopeless fight, so instead he’d close his eyes and go somewhere else. He was very much the reluctant leader—reluctant to be the Commander in Chief, and later reluctant to be the first President. But it almost seems like his very reluctance was part of what made him so perfect for the job. He was humble, he knew his limitations, and he wasn’t power-hungry. (I also thought it was interesting that the reason he had money to do what he did for the country when none of the men were getting salaries for quite some time was because he married a wealthy widow, Martha Washington. The money came from her!)
There were some remarkable, almost miraculous stories, though—cloud cover at just the right moments so that the British couldn’t see what the rebels were doing, freak storms that altered both armies’ plans, and the like. For much of 1776, Washington had good reason to be discouraged, as their cause certainly appeared quite hopeless. I assumed the book would cover the entire war and just start in 1776, although the title should have told me otherwise. Indeed, the book ends rather abruptly after 1776, simply summarizing the rest of the war from that point on. But I suppose if he’d covered the entire war with the same level of detail, it would have been way too tedious.
My rating: *** 1/2