- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005


By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster, $32, 386 pages, illus.


The award winning historian and biographer, David McCullough, has given us major studies that have won popular acclaim. Along with Merle Miller, he rejuvenated the tattered reputation of Harry Truman and made him a paragon of the common man. And he took John Adams and showed how that Founding Father was worthy of our high regard.

In this volume, Mr. McCullough insists that he is chronicling one year in the life of the American Revolution — 1776. But what he is really doing is giving us another interesting biography, this time of Gen. George Washington, and to a lesser extent his fellow generals and a few British adversaries.

The story of Washington is familiar — he was an unhappy youth and later a much criticized officer in the American forces under British command. Unappreciated, he resigned and later married a rich young widow, and lived a life of domestic tranquility as a respected squire in Virginia.

Caught up though in the resentments of the time against the king’s ministers, he offered his services to the patriot cause, and was nominated by John Adams to lead a ragtag army that was essentially staffed by New Englanders. As Mr.McCullough shows, the fastidious and very disciplined general was at first disgusted by the unruly and smelly soldiers from the North. But then at a fateful series of battles, the Americans drove the British out of Boston. It was an incredible victory, one that won Washington’s admiration for his own troops.

But the British armies moved to the more important port city of New York where with their overwhelming naval and land supremacy they drubbed the Americans across the city’s landscape. It was after that series of battles that Washington lost his celebrated composure, and almost suicidally sought to fight on despite the odds and risks to his own life. His closest aides began to question his fitness, for he was indecisive and uncertain how to lead a large army against a disciplined paid imperial force.

Disheartened, with resignations and desertions mounting, a desperate Washington appealed for assistance, but little came from his government or his allies. More and more Americans took advantage of generous amnesty offers from the king. Washington led a disintegrating army of fewer than 3,000 men over the plains of New Jersey on past the Delaware River. With his command at stake, his reputation questioned, his generals often unreliable, he gambled on a surprise recrossing of the river and attacked the British and their Hessian allies on Christmas 1776 in the city of Trenton. To the surprise of nearly everyone, he was successful in taking that city and the hamlet of Princeton.

Mr. McCullough is remarkably vivid as always in explaining the familiar battles to us, especially the battle for Dorchester Heights. He is particularly fond of the 25 year old Boston bookseller turned fighting general, Henry Knox. Knox was the strategist who pulled and prodded cannon and mortar pieces from Fort Ticonderoga near Lake Champlain over the Berkshire mountains and on to Boston. Beside them was Nathaniel Greene, a 33 year old Quaker who was treated as a great field commander, but who was ill in the New York City campaigns.

Despite his reputation as “mad George,” the king is portrayed fairly by Mr. McCullough as a determined young monarch who feared that failure in North America would lead to falling dominoes across his far-flung empire. And so he insisted on waging war while Lord North accepted with great reluctance his orders to proceed and then to fight on.

As for Washington, he was above all a heroic actor who played well his part with all the dignity and determination it demanded. He did not accept mail addressed to “Mr. Washington,” for he was the general. He refused to consider offers that he should surrender or accept royal pardons made by the monarch and his generals. After July 4, he had the Declaration of Independence read out loud to his weary but brave soldiers. King George of Great Britain was right — the colonists wanted not an honest redress of their grievances, but independence. And it was the army more than the Congress that came to embody the revolutionary spirit.

Washington became a unifying hero, not in spite of his errors but because of his perseverance and noble character. He embodied the classical Roman virtues that so many Americans and others elsewhere admired. The war was to continue beyond 1776 until 1781, until the French insisted that the Continental Army join them in Yorktown where they together fortuitously boxed in Gen. Cornwallis’s forces. The Revolution was successful. Now all his errors and hesitations were forgotten. The beleaguered commander became the father of his country and when he gave his command back to the civilian authorities, they loved him even more. They realized that their Cincinnatus would never become a caesar.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of “A Republic If You Can Keep It: The Foundation of the American Presidency, 1700-1800.”

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