An August David McCullough Carries Audience Back in Time
By James Kinsella
Gazette Senior Writer
Millions of American minds carry the image: George Washington, resplendent in uniform, resolute in countenance, gazing steadfastly ahead, the Stars and Stripes partly unfurled behind him, the boatmen pushing ice cakes away from the rowboat in which he is standing.
Save the ice cakes, it is an image that is almost totally inaccurate, historian David McCullough said.
Yet Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's 1851 painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, commemorates what Mr. McCullough calls possibly one of the most important moments in the history of the world.
General Washington's surprise attack on the Hessian outpost at Trenton on the early morning of Christmas Day, 1776, was among the pivotal events in that year brought vividly to life Saturday night by Mr. McCullough in a talk at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.
The acclaimed historian and author who lives year-round in West Tisbury is the author of 1776, a history of that key year in American history, that has topped the national bestseller lists throughout the summer. Mr. McCullough's presentation Saturday, his only talk this summer on the Vineyard about the book, was held to benefit the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society.
Piped into the Tabernacle to colonial tunes performed by Prescott's Bain Field Musick, Mr. McCullough, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Truman and again for John Adams, doffed his jacket in response to the summer night's warm, humid air.
His white shirt and white hair gleaming under the Tabernacle lights, Mr. McCullough spoke earnestly to a rapt audience, sometimes gesturing to emphasize a point.
What he stressed again and again is that the patriots of 1776, far from being stiff characters dressed in quaint clothes, were real people engaged in a desperate, painful rebellion, the nation's longest war apart from Viet Nam.
Twenty-five thousand died in the war, a seemingly small figure until you realize that the number represented one per cent of the colonies' population. Today, the loss would translate into three million deaths.
Or take the Leutze painting, which makes an American victory look like a sure thing. Surely the British or their Hessian mercenaries would stand no chance of withstanding such a general or his army.
What the painting does not show is the bleak prelude to the crossing, with the bedraggled American army, chased across New Jersey by the victorious British, taking refuge on the western shore of the Delaware.
The painting also does not show the nine-mile march through brutal wintry conditions on the other side of the river down to Trenton, with American soldiers wearing rags on their feet, leaving bloody footprints in the snow. Two men froze to death.
Nor does the painting convey that the battle in Trenton - fought through a blinding snowstorm, from street to street and door to door, a fierce contest over in about 40 minutes - was a small battle, far smaller than the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn suffered by the American army that summer.
"It was a small battle, but it was very important, because we won for the first time," Mr. McCullough told the Tabernacle audience. "It had a huge psychological effect. . . . That was its importance. They sensed it was possible, possible - not guaranteed, nothing was guaranteed - that we might prevail."
The success of the American revolution, Mr. McCullough said, was anything but preordained. The British troops were brave and led by superb officers. If certain of them had commanded the British army, Mr. McCullough said, the Americans would have lost.
For that matter, he said, if the weather conditions had been different on certain days, if the wind had been blowing in a different direction on a late August night around New York, the Americans also would have lost.
Washington and the other American generals, in fact, made a host of serious mistakes in 1776 and subsequent years. Time and again, lucky breaks bailed them out. But Washington and his generals also learned from their mistakes.
Two of his generals - Henry Knox, a big, tubby bookseller from Boston, and Nathaniel Green, a Rhode Island Quaker who walked with a limp - had no military knowledge aside from books when they entered the Continental Army.
Yet Knox engineered the incredible feat of taking cannon from Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York and hauling them to Dorchester Heights, where they were placed overlooking Boston.
The British commander in Boston, General Howe, looked up at the cannon and remarked, "Those fellows have done in one night what my army couldn't do in three months." The British army evacuated Boston as soon as it could.
Green, meanwhile, developed into a skilled tactician, becoming in Mr. McCullough's estimation the best of any of the American generals, including Washington.
Washington, in Mr. McCullough's eyes and that of the Continental Congress, was the essential man to lead the American army. He was not an intellectual like Thomas Jefferson, nor a skilled orator like Patrick Henry.
No, Mr. McCullough said, he was a leader. Men would follow him through hellish conditions. He had physical and moral courage. He had superb health, crucial in that day when most of the deaths in the American army came from disease rather than shot and shell.
"I have to tell you, of all of Washington's strengths, his greatest strength was that he would not quit," Mr. McCullough said. "No matter how bad things looked, no matter how bleak the prospects looked, he would not quit.
"If something didn't work, he'd try something else. If something else didn't work, he'd try something else again. Over and over, and always learning from his mistakes. Learning the job on the job, at a terrible cost, to be sure."
Consider the situation in December 1776, with the American army fleeing across the Delaware, destroying the boats on the other shore to slow the British pursuit.
"They took stock of the situation, and they realized the war was over and we had lost," Mr. McCullough said. "And the British had concluded the same thing and most of the people of New Jersey had concluded the same thing. The war was over and we had lost.
"Fortunately, Washington chose not to see it that way, and he did what you sometimes do when all hope is gone. He decided to attack."
If Washington has become something of a cardboard figure to present-day Americans, many of those same Americans rarely think of those soldiers who fought for Washington, who left their wives and mothers and families to fight the strongest nation in the world, or of those wives and mothers and families left behind, struggling to stay alive in a war-torn country.
"They might not look like soldiers, they might not know much about drill, and soldier's life . . . and etiquette, and restrictions of rank . . . ." Mr. McCullough said, "but they knew how to get things done."
The American soldiers stuck it out defeat after defeat, retreat after retreat, their camps filled with disease and misery. Then, in late December, they won at Trenton and a few days later at Princeton.
Still, their enlistments would be over at the end of the year. Washington worried they would leave the army, effectively dissolving it.
On Dec. 31, 1776, he called the army into formation. Seated on his horse, he offered the men each a bonus of $10 if they would stay six more months. (When a bean-counter later quibbled with the offer, Washington replied, "I thought it no time to stand on trifles.")
He called all who accepted to step forward. The drums rolled. No one moved.
Washington then turned his horse, rode a short distance away, paused, and turned again to address his men.
"My brave fellows," Washington said, "you have done all I asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected. But this country is at stake, your wives, your homes and everything you hold dear. You have borne yourself up with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and this country which you probably could never do under any other circumstances."
The drums rolled again, Mr. McCullough said, and the men began to step forward. The army would continue to exist, and with it the promise of the United States of America.
Writing in these years, Abigail Adams, the wife of future president John Adams, anticipated that future generations would scarcely realize the sufferings that the Americans had endured. "And she was right," Mr. McCullough said.
"I hope, I hope none of us will ever think of these brave people, these strong, brave people, never think of them again as just figures in a costume pageant," he concluded.
David McCullough's book 1776 is for sale at Island bookstores. The book has been number one on The New York Times Best Seller List in the nonfiction category for hardback books for 10 straight weeks.