By the time I was halfway through 1776, I was wondering how on Earth our National Anthem isn’t God Save the Queen. The Battle of Bunker Hill was technically a loss and the taking of Boston went off with hardly a shot. The year of our birth say very few good things happen to Americans. The four battles fought in New York, after Washington and The Continental Army ousted the British from Boston can hardly be called anything but an unmitigated disaster. If it wasn’t for the famous crossing of the Delaware and the battle of Trenton, there would be hardly anything to buoy the chances that America would actually win. And even that victory wasn’t as pivotal as history would make it to be.
With no standing army it doesn’t come as much surprise that chaos reigned over the Americans during those early days of the conflict. Lack of food, all but non-existent pay, and disease running rampant through the camps made many a volunteer pick up and go home; for that’s all Washington had during that first year, volunteers. He was still carving out his mythical status and so every mistake he made, and he made more than his fair share, cut into the troop’s confidence in him. That’s what surprised me most about this book: how human Washington really is.
Time has a way of propping people up on impossibly high pedestals. Flaws are forgotten and strengths are augmented to god-like proportions. So to see an American History like McCullough shine a light on the many flaws Washington had was refreshing. While Washington was an amazing man, he wasn’t the nearly perfect command history likes to portray him as. McCullough puts it best:
He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moment he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this is greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and never gave up. (p.293)
I’m convinced it was his utter determination that keep men devoted to the cause. Luck and, often, Nature seemed to be against them. Starving, ill-clad, sick, and pounded by the elements, these weren’t professional soldiers and the mass desertion that happened throughout the year should come as no surprise. I enjoyed see how deplorable the conditions were because all too often war is glorified. I also enjoyed reading about landmarks that I walk passed every day. I work down the street from Bunker Hill. I live in Arlington. Both places abound in historical landmarks and to see the place in which these battles happen sends a chill down my spine. The war was a precarious one. For want a little good luck to balance the bad, our forefathers fight may very well have been futile. It’s great to read a history that shies away from glorifying our ancestors, that puts the disgraceful acts side-by-side with the glorious. Because on a topic that has been romanticized as much as the American Revolution has been, it’s good to see a picture of how things really were. They were great men and women, to be sure, but they weren’t perfect. And I think that makes them that much more admirable.