David McCullough

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on 1776 can help.

In October of 1775, the Revolutionary War is just beginning. American “rebels” have fired on British soldiers at Lexington and Concord, and King George III of England proposes sending thousands of additional troops, including German mercenaries known as Hessians, to America to quell the uprising. George’s policies prove controversial in the Houses of Parliament, but in the end the Members of Parliament approve George’s plan. In doing so, they ensure that the Revolutionary War will be a long, bloody conflict.

Around the same time, the American army is assembled outside of the city of Boston. George Washington, the leader of the American troops, knows that he’s facing a potential crisis. His troops, who hail from many different American colonies, are disorganized and inexperienced, and their morale is low. Washington himself isn’t a particularly experienced military commander. He comes from a wealthy family in Virginia, where he runs a plantation. He has distinguished himself fighting in the backwoods during the French and Indian War in the 1750s and 1760s. While Washington hasn’t had military experience in years, he’s extremely charismatic, and almost everyone who meets him personally feels a strong desire to earn his respect.

The American military at the time of the Revolutionary War is relatively meritocratic, meaning that even soldiers from modest backgrounds can rise in the ranks. One soldier, Nathanael Greene, comes from a working-class Rhode Island family. He hasn’t had much of an education, but he’s taught himself military strategy, and as a result he quickly earns Washington’s respect.

Washington knows that the British army has occupied the city of Boston. He wants to strike at the British, but his generals—including General Charles Lee, with whom he served in the French and Indian War—caution him against attacking too soon. Washington reluctantly agrees to wait. In the meantime, the weather becomes very cold, and the soldiers begin to freeze and starve to death. Despite the cold weather, Washington sends Henry Knox (another young, talented soldier) on a mission to recover British cannons from the abandoned Fort Ticonderoga. Washington desperately needs these cannons, since his army is running low on gunpowder. In Boston, the British troops are commanded by the aristocratic General William Howe, a mediocre commander rumored to be too “soft” for his job.

After Knox returns from Fort Ticonderoga with the cannons, Washington develops a plan to occupy Dorchester Heights, the region just outside of Boston. In only one night, he and his men occupy the Heights and build strong fortifications. The British, realizing that their position in Boston is now insecure, have no choice but to pull out of Boston and sail to New York. This victory provides a major boost for the American troops, some of whom agree to reenlist in the army for all of 1776.

By April of 1776, Washington and his troops have marched into New York. In many ways, New York poses a threat to Washington’s troops: the population is heavily Loyalist (i.e., supportive of King George III), and the city is vulnerable to naval attack from many different directions. By the early summer, British ships have landed near New York, and seem posed for an invasion. In mid-August, the British land on Long Island and begin to advance toward the city. Washington, wrongly thinking that the British have sent just a few thousand troops to Long Island, suspects that the British are planning another invasion along the Hudson and sends only half of his forces out to Brooklyn to fend off the British. In Brooklyn Heights, the Americans suffer a crushing defeat. Pushed back to the edges of Brooklyn, Washington engineers an impressive escape: in only one night, he and his men sneak into boats along the shores of Brooklyn and flee into upper New York before the British even realize they’ve retreated. Here, as in many other scenes from the Revolutionary War, the British hesitate and squander the chance to defeat the American troops once and for all.

Now based in upper Manhattan, the Americans await the next British strike. General Howe orders the British ships to attack via Kips Bay, and in the fight that ensues, the British forces drive the Americans back to Harlem Heights. Soon afterwards, a fire breaks out in the city of New York, destroying more than a quarter of the city. It’s been suggested (and the British forces at the time believe) that Washington ordered the fire to prevent the British from utilizing New York’s resources. However, this has never been proven.

In Harlem Heights, Washington again faces a crisis. He’s almost surrounded by the British, and many of his men desert. By November 1776, Washington’s troops have drawn back to Fort Washington, located on Manhattan along the Hudson River. Washington concocts a plan that involves dividing his army into four groups. One group, headed by General Lee, will stay along the Hudson; another will go north; another, headed by Washington, will go into New Jersey; and a fourth, headed by Nathanael Greene, will defend Fort Washington. However, the British forces easily take over Fort Washington while Greene is out on an expedition with Washington. This is a crushing loss for Washington, and he begins to think less of Greene.

By the end of November, Washington has brought his remaining troops into New Jersey. Most of his men are exhausted and dispirited, and even his friend and personal secretary, Joseph Reed, privately begins to doubt Washington’s abilities to lead. Meanwhile, General Howe argues with his generals about how best to proceed. Howe chases Washington’s troops further into New Jersey, but stops suddenly, allowing Washington’s forces to escape. The American army experiences another major setback when General Lee is captured by the British. The American forces are on the verge of collapse. Washington’s allies in Philadelphia, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, are forced to leave Philadelphia for fear of a British invasion.

At the end of December, Washington enacts a final, daring plan. On Christmas Day, he and his men cross the cold, miserable Delaware River and sneak into Trenton, New Jersey, where a group of 2,000 Hessians is celebrating the holiday. The next morning, in the Battle of Trenton, Washington’s forces successfully overpower their opponents. This is a huge victory for the American side, restoring the soldiers’ faith in Washington’s leadership abilities. Washington scores a second major victory when he launches a surprise attack against British forces outside of Princeton, New Jersey.

1776 is usually remembered as a glorious year for America. But in fact, it was a grim and troubling time for those Americans that fought. In 1783, with the help of the French military, Washington’s army will go on to defeat the British forces, ending the war and winning independence for America.