'1776' Takes Readers to the Battlefront David McCullough tells Steve Inskeep about his new book 1776. The book chronicles the battles George Washington's army fought to win independence for America from Britain.

'1776' Takes Readers to the Battlefront

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep.

Two hundred twenty-nine years ago, independence for America was not certain. A new book explains how the young revolutionary campaign took hold. Steve Inskeep talks to the author of "1776."


David McCullough chronicles a little more than a year of fighting up and down the Eastern seaboard, a year full of defeats and disasters for the Americans and a painful learning experience for their commander, George Washington.

And, David McCullough, what was it that George Washington had to learn over the course of that year?

Mr. DAVID McCULLOUGH (Author, "1776"): He had to learn that he couldn't fight the British head-on. They were better soldiers. They were better equipped. Everything about them was what you would expect from the most formidable military force on earth, which is what the British were then. And he had to learn that holding territory, holding Boston, holding New York--it wasn't the point. The point was to keep the Army alive and fighting.

INSKEEP: Why was it that in battle after battle, in Boston and New York and elsewhere, George Washington seemed determined, if he could, to attack the British head-on, even though people around him saw that would be a disaster?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, that was his nature. He was a very aggressive man in many ways. As a fox hunter, for example, he was always at the very front riding as close to the hounds as possible, and he would chase that fox until he got him, if it took seven hours. To fox hunt for seven hours is not only a sign of phenomenal physical stamina but of a very determined mind. And he was held back from attacking more than once, to the benefit of him and his Army, by his war council, his other generals.

INSKEEP: You chronicle the way that this man had to learn when to trust his own judgment and when to trust the judgment of others. You write of a moment of particular indecisiveness in the fighting in and around New York City involving a fort that was named after him, Ft. Washington. What happened?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, we had created Ft. Washington--Excuse me--on the highest ground in New York City, at the very northernmost end of Manhattan Island, to keep the British from keeping their warships up the Hudson River. And the British had demonstrated quite dramatically twice that they could bring their warships up the Hudson River, whether we were fortified at Ft. Washington or not. So there really was no longer any reason to maintain Ft. Washington. But his subordinate general, General Nathaniel Greene, one of the best generals we had, as it would turn out, had said that he could hold Ft. Washington, and George Washington said, `Well, you're there, you're on the spot. I'll rely on your judgment.' But then Washington arrived on the spot, and he made no decision. It was one of the few cases where he is totally indecisive. And Ft. Washington fell. Three thousand people were taken prisoner. It was a catastrophe for the American side, and it was Washington's fault.

INSKEEP: How did that failure of George Washington affect his thinking?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Washington always learned from his mistakes. I think that's what's crucial. It isn't that he made mistakes, but he learned from them. For example, we, the American Army and George Washington, were almost caught in a trap at Brooklyn on Long Island, and the only thing that prevented the British from bringing their gun boats up the East River, which would have sealed the trap, was the fact that the wind was in the wrong direction. It kept the British from bringing their ships up. At the end of the war or very near the end of the war, the last great battle of the war at Yorktown, the American Army under Washington and the French army under Rochambeau, had pushed Cornwallis and the British down to the end of the York peninsula. And they were prevented from escaping by the appearance, right on time, by the French fleet, the very same situation that Washington had found himself in back at Brooklyn in 1776.

INSKEEP: How, in the months after Ft. Washington, did Washington regain confidence in his own judgment?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Oh, I think he regained confidence in himself quite quickly. I personally think that he was suffering, among other things, from what we would call sleep deprivation. He was not himself. His great time, really, comes after Ft. Washington, in the long retreat across New Jersey, which Thomas Paine, who was then with the troops, described as the time that tried men's souls, when his troops are sick, hungry; they'd been undefeated again and again, they're in rags, winter's coming on, they have no winter clothing, and he keeps going. He will not give up. Washington wasn't a great intellectual. He wasn't like Adams or Thomas Jefferson. He wasn't an eloquent, spellbinding speaker like Patrick Henry. What he was was a leader, and some men would follow him through hell, and they did.

INSKEEP: What was it that finally caused George Washington, after this long retreat, finally to choose the moment to turn around at the end of 1776 and try to attack, for real this time?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes. He finally gets his chance to attack, and all hope's gone. He, himself, privately says the game's pretty near up. And it was a bold, brilliant stroke. It was simply a night march through a driving snow, hail and sleet storm to strike at Trenton on the Delaware with all of his might, some 2,000 men. Heaven knows what the windchill factor was. Two men froze to death on the march, nine-mile march, after crossing the Delaware, and they hit at Trenton, and they won. They beat them. And this had an immediate effect on the morale of the country. That was its importance, its psychological importance. And then he struck again within days afterward and hit at Princeton and won there, too. So at the end of this campaign, the campaign of '76, were two dramatic American victories, small scale notwithstanding, of immense importance. They really changed history.

INSKEEP: David McCullough is the author of "1776." Thanks very much.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Thank you, sir.

MONTAGNE: You can find David McCullough's summer reading picks at npr.org.

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