Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Over the past several weeks, I've thoroughly enjoyed reading David McCullough's 1776. I probably knew the basic details of the Revolutionary War battles many years ago when high school history class was still fresh in mind, but I don't think I've ever understood them as vividly as they are painted by David McCullough. The book, while being scholarly, well-sourced, and footnoted, is also highly readable and engaging. McCullough does a great job balancing historical integrity with narrative interest and character development to make the historical events come to life. He takes care to clearly distinguish fact from inference and conjecture, while collecting and connecting sufficient sources and facts to paint a vivid and memorable picture of the events, giving us details like the temperature, rain, and wind, the road conditions, what people were eating, what their accommodations were like. He skillfully uses letters and journals from the participants in the historic events to give insight into not just what happened, but what the participants were thinking and feeling at the time. The variations of confidence and doubt, pride and fear, patriotism and self-interest among the different men at different times makes the story more human and that much more compelling, especially as the morale of the men was often a significant factor in the battles. The portrait of George Washington is particularly complex and compelling, as he unfailingly projected confidence and inspiration outwardly, even while hiding his own despair and lack of confidence at times. (It also reveals Washington's "inner Martha Stewart", as even in the midst of the war - or perhaps as an essential sanity-keeping distraction - he sent very particular instructions back to Mount Vernon concerning the remodeling of the house.) The narrative is also rich in dimension, as McCullough recounts the viewpoint of both British and Americans, lieutenants and foot soldiers as well as the generals. He brings to light some less popularly known figures who made important contributions, such as Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene, as well as the many unnamed farmers, merchants, and other volunteers who made up the Continental Army. In the end, he leaves an amazing impression of the "brilliant strokes" combined with extraordinary luck that made events unfold as they did, and a proper sense of awe for how, had slightly different decisions been made at certain points, certain advice ignored or followed, certain unknown things discovered, or even the wind blown differently on a certain day, our fate could have been entirely different.