How do you bring seat-of-the-pants excitement to events that took place 229 years ago? And when the ending is known to all? Master historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough answers these questions emphatically by putting a human face to the events of 1776, when a valiant rag-tag bunch of American farmers, plumbers, and blacksmiths fought the British to secure independence for America. McCullough combed through mountains of historic documents on both sides of the Atlantic to write the narrative of this most important period in American history. His efforts pay off in spades because the reader is caught up with the people and the events, which are portrayed in such fine detail that the excitement is palpable until the very end, even though the outcome is known.
Colonial leaders in America were determined to free themselves of British rule. They charged George Washington to lead an army to force the British off American land. For Washington, the task was easier said than done. His army, if an untrained, underfunded group of people of varying age groups and physical ability can be called one, was up against arguably the greatest army in the world. The British had professional soldiers - well trained, well clothed and well fed - and a crack team of leaders who had fought many wars and were keen military strategists. Perhaps this is the genesis of America’s enduring love and support of the underdog, for the American army was definitely the underdog and few gave any chances for their success. King George III, the English ruler, considered the Americans’ fight for freedom a minor uprising by ingrates and did not see the necessity for a large army to fight them. What Washington’s troops did and did successfully is told in riveting detail by McCullough, who makes every attempt to be fair to both sides.
Heroes abound in McCullough’s telling. There is Henry Knox, a bookseller by trade, who braved the elements to trek three hundred miles in harsh winter to bring much needed ammunition from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston. There is Nathanael Greene, a Rhode Island Quaker, who was made a general at the young age of thirty-three and had to pit his brains against astute British strategists.
And above all, there is George Washington. McCullough does not deify this icon of the American revolution. Instead, he portrays him warts and all, and Washington emerges as a fallible human, full of self-doubts when his strategies fail quite miserably in thwarting the British and the morale of the Americans plummet. Yet in the end, we see Washington as a true hero, as he does not give up on the American cause and forces; by sheer will of his personality, his troops soldier on, eking out small victories that cumulatively break the British spirit.
The book is history at its very best. It is a compelling read as we are ushered into ground zero of this pivotal moment in American history.