In 1776, David McCullough studies the early months of the Revolutionary War from the perspective of British and American military commanders. In this sense, his account of the war is strikingly different from that found in most history textbooks. Many American historians emphasize the idealistic, philosophical side of the conflict: the Founding Fathers’ belief in independence and democracy. While McCullough mentions this side of the war on many occasions (and has written about it extensively, most notably in his biography of John Adams), for most of 1776 he chooses to emphasize the strategic, military side of the war. More than anything else, his book is an extremely thorough look at Western military strategy in the late 18th century.
The first important point that 1776 makes about 18th century warfare is that, at least by contemporary American standards, it’s strikingly clumsy, disorganized, and capricious. Throughout the book, readers may be surprised by the number of accidents or avoidable blunders on both the American and the British sides of the Revolutionary War. On both sides of the war, there are major lapses in intelligence and communication. The American army, headed by George Washington, often gets faulty information about the British. In New York, Washington’s faulty intelligence about the impending British invasion of Long Island leads to his troops’ crushing defeat. Similarly, it’s suggested that, had a drunken Hessian (i.e., German mercenary) officer named Johann Gottlieb Rall read the emergency message he receives on the night of Christmas, 1776, the Americans might not have defeated their opponents at the Battle of Trenton the next morning. Both sides of the war are often at the mercy of the weather or the terrain. After crossing the Delaware, many of the American troops’ guns stop working, since they’re too wet. Furthermore, fog, wind, and rain prevent American and British troops from carrying out their maneuvers successfully. In short, the faultiness of Western technology (particularly artillery and information exchange) acts as a major obstacle for 18th century soldiers.
But 1776 also contrasts the military strategies favored on both sides of the Revolutionary War, suggesting that the British favor a slower, more methodical approach to warfare than do their American opponents. At many points in the book, McCullough notes the frustrating slowness of the British side, commanded by General William Howe. In New York and New Jersey, Howe has multiple opportunities to push his advantage and attack George Washington’s forces, potentially ending the Revolutionary War with a British victory. Instead, Howe chooses to proceed slowly, allowing Washington’s troops to recover from their setbacks. In part, 1776 suggests that Howe’s methodical style of warfare is symptomatic of Howe’s own personality. But at the same time, it’s also suggested that Howe’s style reflects the conventional 18th century wisdom about warfare. Howe believes that his army’s ultimate goal should be to confront Washington’s troops head-on, preferably on a large, open plain, and defeat them for good. For the most part, he’s uninterested in small, precise assaults on the enemy’s forces—assaults of this kind aren’t considered an important part of 18th century European military strategy. In striking contrast to the British war effort, George Washington favors a looser, faster-paced style of warfare that seems more modern than Howe’s style. From 1775 to 1776, Washington organizes the overnight invasion of Dorchester Heights outside of Boston, the overnight retreat from New York into New Jersey, a surprise attack on the British forces in Trenton, and a surprise attack on British forces at Princeton. While not all of these surprise maneuvers are successful, they suggest that Washington’s approach to warfare, when compared with Howe’s, is less methodical, less concerned with classical ideas about what a battle “should” be, and more open to improvisation. Without ever suggesting that the Americans’ style of warfare is right or wrong, 1776 suggests that the Americans’ victory against the British in the Revolutionary War was a milestone in the history of military strategy, paving the way for more agile, recognizably modern forms of war.
Military Strategy ThemeTracker
Military Strategy Quotes in 1776
He knew how little money was at hand, and he understood as did no one else the difficulties of dealing with Congress. He knew how essential it was to the future effectiveness of the army to break down regional differences and biases among the troops. But at the same time he struggled with his own mounting contempt for New Englanders.
If the desperate American need for leaders had thrust young men like Nathanael Greene into positions beyond their experience, the British military system, wherein commissions were bought and aristocrats given preference, denied many men of ability roles they should have played.
"My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months."
Washington's performance had been truly exceptional. He had indeed bested Howe and his regulars, and despite insufficient arms and ammunition, insufficient shelter, sickness, inexperienced officers, lack of discipline, clothing, and money. His patience with Congress had been exemplary, and while he had been saved repeatedly by his council of war from his headlong determination to attack, and thus from almost certain catastrophe, he had accepted the judgment of the council with no ill temper self-serving histrionics.
Furthermore, as he knew, discipline was hardly improved, and too many of the new troops were raw recruits as unruly as those of the summer before. Some who were lauded as shining examples of patriotism looked hardly fit for battle, like the Connecticut unit comprised entirely of "aged gentlemen."
[George Washington] felt compelled now to violate one of the oldest, most fundamental rules of battle, never to divide your strength when faced by a superior force. He split his army in roughly equal parts on the theory that he could move men one way or the other over the East River according to how events unfolded.
Washington never accounted for his part in what happened at the Battle of Long Island, and for many the brilliant success of the night escape would serve both as proof of his ability and a way to ease the humiliation and pain of defeat. The Americans could also rightly claim that they had been vastly outnumbered by a far-better-trained army, and that given the odds against them, they had, in several instances, shown exemplary courage and tenacity.
Washington, in his report to Congress, called it an accident […] Beyond that he said no more.
Nor was Washington to say anything about Captain Nathan Hale, who was "apprehended" by the British the day after the fire and, it appears, as part of the roundup of suspected incendiaries.
Rather, in eighteenth-century military fashion, he hoped to maneuver Washington onto the open field, and then, with his superior, professional force, destroy the Yankee "rabel" in one grand, decisive victory.
Washington is said to have as he watched the tragedy unfold from across the river, and though this seems unlikely, given his well-documented imperturbability, he surely wept within his soul.
Rall attended a small Christmas gathering at the home of a local merchant and was playing cards when, reportedly, a servant interrupted to deliver still another warning message that had been delivered to the door by an unknown Loyalist, and this Rall is said to have thrust into his pocket.
But as thrilling as the news of Princeton was for the country coming so quickly after the triumph at Trenton, it was Trenton that meant the most, Trenton and the night crossing of the Delaware that were rightly seen as a great turning point. With the victory at Trenton came the realization that Americans had bested the enemy, bested the fearsome Hessians, the King's detested hirelings, outsmarted them and outfought them, and so might well again.