"These are the times that try men's souls," Thomas Paine wrote during the fateful year of 1776, and indeed they were. Reeling from a string of humiliating...

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by David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 386 pp., $32

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote during the fateful year of 1776, and indeed they were. Reeling from a string of humiliating and costly defeats, plagued by sickness and desertions, a ragtag American army staggered across the flatlands of New Jersey with British and Hessian troops in close pursuit. Enlistments of all the American troops were due to expire Jan. 1, 1777, and their beleaguered leader George Washington wrote: “I think the game is pretty near up.”

Then a near-miracle occurred: In a desperate attempt to strike a blow before his army disintegrated, Washington led his men across the Delaware River in a winter storm and surprised a Hessian force at Trenton, taking nearly 900 captives. News of the stunning victory spread as rapidly as horses could travel, electrifying the fledgling United States.

Stung by the American victory, the British sent Lord Cornwallis with 8,000 men to finish off Washington’s army. Leaving 3,000 men at Princeton, Cornwallis marched on Trenton with the rest, but Washington slipped behind him and fell upon the British force at Princeton, winning another decisive victory in the struggle for American independence.

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These events come brilliantly alive in “1776,” a superb new history by David McCullough, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Television viewers familiar with McCullough’s smooth, measured tones as a frequent narrator of PBS documentaries will find his written narrative even better.

This is mostly a military history, with plenty of detail about the decisions of generals and the movements of armies, but McCullough also takes time to include many human touches. He tells of a Rhode Island officer known to his men as “Old Snarl”; relates the tale of a continental army deserter who was found “lugging a cannonball, to give to his mother … to use to pound mustard seed”; and describes a military unit of “aged gentlemen” from Connecticut: “They were twenty-four in number … and their united ages reached one thousand. They were all married men, and left behind a hundred and fifty-nine children and grandchildren.”

McCullough also cuts through George Washington’s “marble man” image to reveal a human figure assailed by doubts even while he tried to remain outwardly imperturbable to set a good example for his men.

Washington’s private letters disclosed the depths of his depression and desperation. “Such is my situation,” he said in one, “that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings.” Washington soothed himself during such bleak moments by thinking of his home at Mount Vernon, sometimes writing in excruciating detail the things he wanted done in the ongoing remodeling of his great house.

McCullough opens the book with an account of George III’s October 1775 speech to Parliament, in which the king threw down a gauntlet to the rebellious Americans, ending any hope for a peaceful resolution of Britain’s dispute with her colonies. This set the stage for the events of 1776, and McCullough picks up the story with detailed descriptions of the siege of Boston, the battles for New York, the grim retreat across New Jersey and the miraculous victories at Trenton and Princeton.

“The year 1776,” McCullough sums up, “celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence … a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, such as they would never forget.”

But it also was a year of “phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget.”

“Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning — how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference — the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.”

After 1776, the war would drag on another eight years. But the rest, as they say, is history.