This book starts with a speech by King George made around September 1775 (once again, I listened to it, so it’s tough to flip back and check facts, but I will give you the gist) . Effectively, King George questioned the sanity of a bunch rebels campaigning for freedom when they had it so good. I mean, how could you not like being under the thumb of one of wealthiest and most powerful nations on the face of the earth? The rebels, he figured, would soon understand how good they had it and basically surrender. He did not go as far as to say that his troops would be “greeted as liberators,” but he definitely called out the resolve of the rebels.
The first part of the book centers on the effective blockade of Boston by George Washington’s army. The blockade started in the middle of 1775 and as it dragged into winter, commander-in-chief George Washington started to get impatient. He continually pushed for a frontal attack on Boston but the war council decided it was not the best idea. After all, the city would probably burn and the loss of human life would be huge. Then, in early 1776, copies of King George’s speech circulated among the rebels and ended up being great bulletin board material, which started to fire up the rebels to kick some redcoat ass.
Also at this point (early January), General Knox arrived with guns from Fort Ticonderoga. This set into motion the incredible occupation of Dorchester Heights (overlooking Boston) by the rebels. With the rebels on Dorchester Heights, the British had little chance of surviving a frontal attack, so they piled into their boats and left town.
As expected, the British headed for New York City, but Washington and his men were there first. It was different from Boston though because the advantage was on the side of the British. Mostly because the British brought in reinforcements, including the Hessians. Also, the British commanded the sea, with most of their fleet set up in the waters around New York.
A strategic stalemate lasted well into the summer of 1776, until August, when the British began coming ashore on Long Island. Washington and his men crossed the river and occupied Brooklyn in effort to keep the British out of New York. This did not last long and Washington and his crew slipped back to New York and eventually retreated back to Philadelphia. Now, with the British in control of New York City and numbers on the British side, things were looking pretty bleak for the rebels. They were holed up in Philly, with a pack of Hessian soldiers on the other side of the river, and on the brink of losing thousands of soldiers when their commissions were up in the fall.
But, the rebels had a few things going for them. First, the British made some poor battleground decisions. They should have been more aggressive on Long Island and crushed the rebels before they had a chance to retreat. And effectively calling a unilateral halt to fighting on the onset of winter in December 1776 was just downright stupid. But most importantly, one George Washington led the rebels, and he was a pretty gutsy guy. Washington made a rousing speech to convince many soldiers to extend their commission and planned one of the most audacious offensives in the history of the fightin’ man.
On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington marched his men to the Delaware River during a nasty rain/sleet/snowstorm. They hopped into flat bottom boats and negotiated the river despite the brutal cold, the dark of night, the wicked wind, and the jagged chunks of ice floating in the river. Once over the river, they walked through the night, and by the next morning they were queued up about a half-mile outside of Trenton, New Jersey, which was occupied by a few thousand Hessians. In the driving storm, they attacked with overwhelming force and took Trenton in less than an hour. The victory was so lopsided that the rebels did not even have a casualty of war. The only rebel deaths were two men that died from the cold during the walk over.
Trenton and the night crossing of the Delaware was the turning point of the war. This ended the year of 1776 but the war went on. Around 25,000 Americans would end up dying before the fighting ended and I think it would be like the early 1780’s before the British actually called it quits. I don’t want to blow it out of proportion, but one could make a case that our freedom today would not be if Washington did not choose to pursue that offensive during the holiday season of 1776. How appropriate as a lead-in to this holiday season. I may just have to reflect a little on this and I will definitely consume more David McCullough books.