In October 1775, an American general from Rhode Island named Nathanael Greene writes that he wishes the American troops had more gunpowder. Greene is an officer in the American army, though he’s only been a soldier for six months. Although he is a Quaker, and inexperienced with fighting, he is clever and hardworking. Like many important Americans in the Revolutionary War, Greene is very young.
The chapter immediately establishes the crisis of resources in the American military. In contrast to the British military, the American army is poor and desperately in need of supplies. Nevertheless, it has attracted plenty of ambitious, intelligent young men, such as Nathanael Greene.
Greene grew up in Rhode Island. His parents didn’t give him much in the way of an education, but they raised him to be deeply religious. On his own, he read the works of the English political philosopher John Locke. In 1770, Greene began running a foundry in the nearby village, and he married his wife, Katherine Littlefield, in 1774. In his free time, he studied military strategy, and took part in organizing the local militia. By 1775, he had been placed in charge of the entire Rhode Island regiment, and left for Boston to help with the war effort.
Greene is representative of the American ethos of hard work, meritocracy, and personal ambition. He succeeds because of his own talents, rather than his family’s wealth or social status. Notice, also, that Greene is an admirer of John Locke, the English philosopher whose theories were an important inspiration for Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers.
Greene knows that the American troops are untrained. British soldiers consider them “a rabble in arms,” and even George Washington privately says that they’re “raw materials” for an army. Yet the American troops outnumber the British troops two to one.
Even though the American army is disorganized, Americans officers have good reason to be optimistic for the war with Britain, since they have more men on their side for the time being.
In 1775, the American forces are mostly based outside of Boston, on Prospect Hill. The British army has taken Bunker Hill and Charlestown, not far away, and George III has sent new troops to Boston. Both sides recognize that they needed to get “the lay of the land,” and hire cartographers to map the area. George Washington has spent little time in Massachusetts, but he knows the British are planning another attack. He also knows that the American army needs more gunpowder. Meanwhile, the troops spend much of their time drinking and “carousing.” They don’t have many supplies, but there’s plenty of food and drink in the camp. There’s also a deadly “camp fever” going around—probably dysentery, typhus, or typhoid.
George Washington faces many challenges in the coming months. His men are disorganized and lazy, and they’re in desperate need of military supplies such as gunpowder. This passage establishes a pattern for the rest of the book: for long stretches of time, Washington’s men remain in one place, waiting for an inevitable conflict with the British army.
Within his first month of command, George Washington realizes that he needs to introduce more discipline. Soldiers are whipped for laziness. But even with Washington’s new disciplinary measures, the American troops come across as disorderly, untrained, and filthy. They spend their days digging trenches and piling up mounds of earth to defend against the impending British attack.
Even though the American forces aren’t actively fighting the British at this time, they keep busy by building up fortifications. Even still, the Americans’ come across as amateurs at war, contrasting with the highly experienced, regimented British army in Boston.
The American soldiers must provide their own guns and “uniforms” (although some uniforms are just ordinary clothes). Many of the guns are old and heavy, but the best “musket men” can fire a gun three or four times a minute, and many have had guns since they were children. Most of the soldiers are farmers, artisans, or fishermen, so they’re used to hard manual labor. Some soldiers are only teenagers, others are drifters without any profession. Some soldiers are in their fifties, while others aren’t yet teenagers. John Greenwood is a sixteen-year-old soldier. He grew up in Boston, where he learned how to play the fife (a small flute)—a skill that allows him to stay with the army for free, earning eight dollars a month to play for the soldiers.
In part, the American soldiers are so disorderly because they’ve only recently become soldiers, unlike the highly trained British troops. Notice that McCullough doesn’t say anything about the soldiers’ ideals or belief in democracy or liberty. As much as anything, the passage suggests, the American soldiers are fighting with Washington because they’re in need of a good, steady job.
A sizeable portion of the American army is black. George Washington, a Southern slave owner, didn’t want blacks serving in the army, but out of necessity he’s forced to accept black soldiers. Other commanders write that black soldiers are “equally serviceable with other men,” and often very brave. Some other soldiers desert the army out of cowardice or racism, or because they’re needed back at home.
Although the American army is somewhat more meritocratic than the British army, this meritocracy for the most part doesn’t extend to its black soldiers, who face plenty of racism from their peers. The fact that many soldiers desert the army early on reinforces the point that many of them aren’t particularly committed to independence or other lofty ideals.
By midsummer, American troops from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania have joined Washington’s army. Many of these men are “backwoodsmen of Scotch-Irish descent.” They’re skilled gunmen, but largely indifferent to training or discipline. Washington orders all troops to build defenses against the British. By early August, the English and American troops are organizing night-raids on each other’s camps. The British use their greater supply of gunpowder to bombard the Americans. But there are also many British deserters, many of whom are “half-starved.”
Both the American and British armies experience problems with defectors and with general morale, suggesting that few of the soldiers on either side is particularly strongly-committed to his government’s cause. Furthermore, both sides of the Revolutionary War are having problems allocating enough resources to keep soldiers well-armed and -fed.
By the end of the summer, Washington’s troops are in a state of decline. Their morale is low, and they continue to behave lazily. There’s also a dearth of blankets and warm clothes, and the coming winter promises to be brutal. Washington, a Virginian, is personally biased against soldiers from New England, but he recognizes how dire the situation is and knows that he, and the army in general, needs to put aside regional differences.
One of Washington’s greatest assets as a leader, as McCullough says at several points, is his realism: he can assess the situation soberly and accurately and prepare for the worst. Notice, also, that the American army is divided along regional lines, so that even Washington himself is biased against soldiers from certain colonies.
George Washington resides in a mansion near Harvard University. There, he speaks with his officers and corresponds with the other colonies. He also takes meetings with visiting politicians and dignitaries, hoping to curry favor and win additional funds for his army. Washington is widely regarded as modest and “amiable,” yet also as an impressive gentleman. He’s famous for inspiring his troops and employees to greatness. His secretary, Joseph Reed, often says that he feels “bound by every tie of duty and honor” to obey Washington’s command.
Washington isn’t just a general. He’s also a talented politician, who raises large amounts of money and political support for his troops. Washington is widely regarded as a charismatic leader, as evidenced by the remarks of his secretary and close friend, Joseph Reed.
George Washington was born in Virginia in 1732, the great-grandson of John Washington, an English emigrant, and the son of Augustine Washington, a tobacco planter who died when Washington was a boy. Washington taught himself to read and write, and at a young age he began a career as a surveyor’s apprentice. In 1753, he traveled to Pennsylvania to protect the colony’s claim to the Allegheny River valley from French troops. After a series of fights with the French, he won a reputation as a talented, resourceful commander.
Washington was born into a wealthy family; indeed, he was one of the wealthiest people in America at the time. However, he was also a hard worker and an ambitious commander who distinguished himself in battle. Washington fought in the French and Indian War, a decade-long conflict in which Americans living in the British colonies fought against French forces trying to seize British lands in North America.
In 1759, Washington “retired” from military life and took over his father’s plantation in Virginia. He married Martha Dandridge Custis, and thereafter lived like an English aristocrat. He loved art and music, and arranged for plays to be performed on his property. He was one of the richest men in America, though not the richest, as he was sometimes said to be. Like most English lords of the era, he enjoyed hunting, and perfected his riding skills while hunting foxes. He was rumored to be very strong.
One of the paradoxes of Washington’s life is that, even though he’s a symbol of American independence and democracy, he was also a very aristocratic, British figure in many ways.
Washington was a charismatic leader, but he also knew his limitations. At the time when he began commanding the American troops, he hadn’t been involved in military life for fifteen years—and even when he’d been a commander, he’d only been involved in backwoods warfare. Yet when he appeared before the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he was able to convince his peers that he was the ideal candidate to command the army.
The Continental Congress was a Philadelphia-based group that included most of the American Founding Fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. McCullough doesn’t discuss the Congress at great length in this book, but the Congress was an important resource for Washington, since it allocated most of the funds for his army.
In September 1775, Washington begins making plans for a surprise attack on British forces in Quebec. He also wants to strike the British in Boston. However, by the middle of September, a mutiny breaks out among Washington’s men. The mutiny is easily suppressed, but Washington is “shaken” by the uprising.
Despite Washington’s charisma as a leader, he’s unable tocontrol his own men—a fact that frustrates and worries him.
The next morning, George Washington meets with his head generals, including General Charles Lee, who fought alongside Washington in the backwoods. In addition to Washington’s head generals, Nathanael Greene is present. Washington argues that the Americans should attack Boston by water. However, the generals argue that it’s too risky to attack the British, pointing out that the troops don’t have enough gunpowder, and if the tide is even slightly too high, the troops won’t be able to enter Boston. Washington accepts his men’s recommendation. However, he pens a long letter to his friend John Hancock, requesting that the Continental Congress send him more money. At the end of September, it does.
Washington seems to value his generals’ opinions, and allows them to talk him out of invading Boston. Washington continues to balance his two roles: as military commander, and as a financial negotiator with the Continental Congress. Without funds, Washington has no way of paying his men, and therefore has no way of waging war with the British.
If asked why they’d chosen to fight, most of Washington’s men would probably say that they wanted to defend their country. They saw the British as invaders, challenging their liberty and autonomy. Few of Washington’s men would have given national independence as a reason. But as the year goes on, there’s more and more talk of independence from Britain. In a letter, Nathanael Greene says that many men want “a declaration of independence.”
To the extent that Washington’s men are fighting for idealistic reasons, they see themselves as fighting to restore the status quo in their own country, rather than fighting for radical change. With the exception of Greene, few American soldiers feel a strong desire to break away from British rule altogether—contrary to what George III claimed in October 1775.
At the end of September, it’s discovered that Dr. Benjamin Church, head surgeon for the American army, is a British spy. This is shocking news—he’d been an outspoken proponent of American values, and he was widely respected for his integrity. Church’s treachery is discovered when soldiers apprehend a woman carrying a letter Church has written to the British. He’s tried, found guilty, and exiled to the West Indies.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, both sides wage espionage campaigns against their opponents. For instance, Washington is now known to have had many powerful informants in the British army.
On October 18, delegates from the Continental Congress, including Benjamin Franklin, confer with Washington and decide not to approve an attack on British troops in Boston, since this would risk the destruction of Boston itself. A week later, British forces attack and burn the city of Falmouth. Washington receives another blow when his secretary, Joseph Reed, announces that he needs to leave Washington and tend to his family.
The Continental Congress still sees itself as fighting to restore the status quo in America—which means protecting American cities and American property—rather than fighting for independence at any cost.
The weather is getting colder, and rations are getting scarcer for Washington’s men. Washington finds it difficult to get over his bias against New Englanders—every day, they disrespect his authority in some way. However, he begins working closely with two talented New Englanders: Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, a colonel from Boston who is well-versed in military tactics.
Washington begins to get over his bias against people from certain American colonies when he gets to know Greene and Knox. This suggests that the American army is a strong meritocracy, where anyone talented can succeed, regardless of their background (although, as McCullough has already noted, this doesn’t apply to African American soldiers).
Washington first meets Henry Knox in July 1775, and he’s impressed with Knox’s intelligence. In the fall, Knox suggests that the American forces try to recover the British cannons in Fort Ticonderoga. American forces had captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British earlier in the year, but the British cannons in the fort are still there. Washington sends Knox on a mission to claim the cannons.
In contrast to the rigid, methodical organization of the British military, the American military as run by George Washington encourages its commanders to pursue risky, flexible ventures, such as the recovery of the cannons.
As Knox is leading his men out to Fort Ticonderoga, the weather gets colder. Washington realizes that his men need to conserve their gunpowder. Snow falls in November, suggesting that the winter will be long and miserable. Scurvy and smallpox are rampant in the camp, and many American soldiers desert their stations. At the end of November, the British send a boatload of homeless Bostonians to Washington’s encampment. These people are sick and starving, and Washington orders for them to be cared for even though he recognizes that the British are trying to spread disease to his troops.
The deployment of homeless Bostonians to Washington’s camp represents both a shift and an intensification in British military strategy, in two ways: Washington’s resources are already strained without having to shelter civilians, but this development also increases his troops’ exposure to illness. Washington’s decision to care for these displaced Bostonians despite this exemplifies his courage and compassion as a leader.
As the year comes to an end, many American soldiers have the opportunity to leave the army. Washington, knowing that many will choose to leave rather than reenlist, sends a letter asking the Continental Congress to give him more money to pay the men to stay. The situation is dire: Washington’s army is on the verge of collapse. Then, unexpectedly, Washington gets good news. An American privateer has captured a British vessel stocked with guns, cannons, and mortars. It’s a huge victory for the American side.
It’s a sign of the low morale of the American military that so many soldiers want to leave. However, Washington attempts to boost his men’s morale by offering them more money upfront. The prospect of recovering the Ticonderoga cannons provides another boost to morale, since it means the Americans can finally match the British technologically.
In the weeks leading up to reenlistment, Washington and his generals try to incentivize his troops to reenlist, but they continue to show little motivation. Meanwhile, there’s no news from the expedition to Quebec, nor from Knox’s expedition. In December, the Continental Congress changes its mind and gives the go-ahead for Washington to attack British troops in Boston, even if it means destroying the city itself.
The Continental Congress is clearly becoming more desperate, as suggested by its sudden reversal regarding the destruction of Boston. The Congress knows it needs a quick, decisive victory against the British forces, no matter the costs.
On December 24, a snowstorm blows through Massachusetts, causing some soldiers to freeze to death. On the final day of the year, soldiers leave by the thousands rather than reenlist. However, “substantial numbers” of soldiers stay behind—possibly as many as 9,000—and new soldiers arrive, many of them from distant colonies. Washington declares that his army is now a “Continental Army,” uniting people of many colonies under one cause. He displays a new flag to honor the army, with thirteen red and white stripes. When the British see it, they think it’s a flag of surrender.
The soldiers who choose to stay in the army are motivated by a mixture of idealism and practicality. They know they stand to make more money fighting for another year, even if they’re risking their lives. They may also respect Washington and believe in the American political cause. Nevertheless, the British continue to regard the Americans as a weak opposition, as suggested by the British forces’ confusion about the new American flag. The new flag symbolizes the growing cultural unity of the American military, and of the Revolutionary cause in general.