One of the hardest, and I think the most important, realities of history to convey to students or readers of books or viewers of television documentaries is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Any great past event could have gone off in any number of different directions for any number of different reasons. We should understand that history was never on a track. It was never preordained that it would turn out as it did.
Very often we are taught history as if it were predetermined, and if that way of teaching begins early enough and is sustained through our education, we begin to think that it had to have happened as it did. We think that there had to have been a Revolutionary War, that there had to have been a Declaration of Independence, that there had to have been a Constitution, but never was that so. In history, chance plays a part again and again. Character counts over and over. Personality is often the determining factor in why things turn out the way they do.
Furthermore, nobody ever lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, George Washington—they didn’t walk around saying, “Isn’t this fascinating living in the past? Aren’t we picturesque in our funny clothes?” They were living in the present, just as we do. The great difference is that it was their present, not ours. And just as we don’t know how things are going to turn out, they didn’t either.
We can know about the years that preceded us and about the people who preceded us. And if we love our country—if we love the blessings of a society that welcomes free speech, freedom of religion, and, most important of all, freedom to think for ourselves—then surely we ought to know how it came to be. Who was responsible? What did they do? How much did they contribute? How much did they suffer?
Abigail Adams, writing one of her many letters to her husband, John, who was off in Philadelphia working to put the Declaration of Independence through Congress, wrote, “Posterity who are to reap the blessings, will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and sufferings of their ancestors.”<1 Alas, she was right. We do not conceive what they went through.
We tend to see them—Adams, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Rush, George Washington—as figures in a costume pageant; that is often the way they’re portrayed. And we tend to see them as much older than they were because we’re seeing them in the portraits by Gilbert Stuart and others when they were truly the Founding Fathers—when they were president or chief justice of the Supreme Court and their hair, if it hadn’t turned white, was powdered white. We see the awkward teeth. We see the elder statesmen.
At the time of the Revolution, they were all young. It was a young man’s–young woman’s cause. George Washington took command of the Continental Army in the summer of 1775 at the age of 43. He was the oldest of them. Adams was 40. Jefferson was all of 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Rush—who was the leader of the antislavery movement at the time, who introduced the elective system into higher education in this country, who was the first to urge the humane treatment of patients in mental hospitals—was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, none of them had any prior experience in revolutions; they weren’t experienced revolutionaries who’d come in to take part in this biggest of all events. They were winging it. They were improvising.
George Washington had never commanded an army in battle before. He’d served with some distinction in the French and Indian War with the colonial troops who were fighting with the British Army, but he’d never commanded an army in battle before. And he’d never commanded a siege, which is what he took charge of at Boston, where the rebel troops—the “rabble in arms”2 as the British called them—had the British penned in inside Boston.
Washington wasn’t chosen by his fellow members of the Continental Congress because he was a great military leader. He was chosen because they knew him; they knew the kind of man he was; they knew his character, his integrity.
George Washington is the first of our political generals—a very important point about Washington. And we’ve been very lucky in our political generals. By political generals, I don’t mean to suggest that is a derogatory or dismissive term. They are political in the sense that they understand how the system works, that they, as commander in chief, are not the boss. Washington reported to Congress. And no matter how difficult it was, how frustrating it was, how maddening it could be for Washington to get Congress to do what so obviously needed to be done to sustain his part in the fight, he never lost patience with them. He always played by the rule.
Washington was not, as were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton, a learned man. He was not an intellectual. Nor was he a powerful speaker like his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry. What Washington was, above all, was a leader. He was a man people would follow. And as events would prove, he was a man whom some—a few—would follow through hell.
Don’t get the idea that all of those who marched off to serve under Washington were heroes. They deserted the army by the hundreds, by the thousands as time went on. When their enlistments came up, they would up and go home just as readily as can be, feeling they had served sufficiently and they needed to be back home to support their families, who in many cases were suffering tremendously for lack of income or even food. But those who stayed with him stayed because they would not abandon this good man, as some of them said.
What Washington had, it seems to me, is phenomenal courage—physical courage and moral courage. He had high intelligence; if he was not an intellectual or an educated man, he was very intelligent. He was a quick learner—and a quick learner from his mistakes. He made dreadful mistakes, particularly in the year 1776. They were almost inexcusable, inexplicable mistakes, but he always learned from them. And he never forgot what the fight was about—“the glorious cause of America,” as they called it. Washington would not give up; he would not quit.
When he took command of the Continental Army at Cambridge in the summer of 1775, Washington had probably 14,000 troops. And from those troops and from the officers who were there at the time when he arrived, he selected two men as the best he had. Here is another aspect of his leadership that must not be overlooked or underestimated: Washington was a great judge of other people’s ability and capacity to stay where the fighting was the toughest and to never give up. He picked out Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox.
Nathanael Greene was a Quaker with a limp from a childhood injury. He knew no more of the military than what he had read in books, and he was made a major general at 33 years of age. Henry Knox was 25. He was a Boston bookseller. He was a big, fat, garrulous, keenly intelligent man who, like Greene, had only about the equivalent of a fifth-grade education but had never stopped reading. He, too, knew of the military only what he had read in books. But keep in mind that this was occurring in the 18th century, their present. It was the Age of Enlightenment, an era when it was widely understood that if you wanted to know something, a good way to learn was to read books—a very radical idea to many in our day and age.
Those two men were quintessential New Englanders. Greene was from Rhode Island and Knox had grown up in Boston. Washington had discovered very soon after arriving in New England that he ardently disliked New Englanders, so to single out these two, he also overcame a personal bias.
To skip far ahead, let me point out that Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, along with Washington, were to be the only general officers in the Revolutionary War who stayed until the very end. So Washington’s judgment could not have been better. Nathanael Greene turned out to be the best general we had, and I’m including Washington in that lineup—Greene, the Quaker with a limp, the man who knew nothing but what he had read in books, who, like Washington, learned from his mistakes.
Let’s not forget what a war it was—eight and a half years, the longest war in our history, except for Vietnam. Twenty-five thousand Americans were killed. That doesn’t sound like very much to those of us who have been bludgeoned, who have been numbed by the horrible statistics of war in the 20th or 21st centuries. This was 1 percent of the American population of 2.5 million. It was a lot. If we were to fight for our independence today and the war were equally costly, there would be more than 3 million of us killed. It was a long, bloody, costly war.
And as it wore on in the year 1776, we suffered one defeat after another. At Brooklyn—a huge battle over an area of six miles with 40,000 soldiers involved—we were soundly defeated. We were made to look foolish. We were outsmarted, outflanked, outgeneraled, outnumbered. Some of us were immensely heroic, but we never had a chance.
But then, in a miraculous escape from Brooklyn Heights on the night of Oct. 29, we got back across the East River and were saved. It was the Dunkirk of the Revolution. If the wind had been in the other direction that night or the two or three nights preceding it, there’s not much question that the war would have been over then because Washington and 9,000 American troops would have been captured. If the British had been able to bring their warships up into the East River, between Brooklyn and Manhattan, they would have had us right in the trap. But because there was a howling storm out of the northeast, they weren’t able to do that.
Washington ordered that every possible small craft be rounded up and be made ready to bring the army back to New York. It was to be done at night. An organized retreat for an experienced army is the most difficult maneuver of all when faced by a superior force. But for this amateur pick-up team, this rude, crude, un-uniformed, undisciplined, untrained American army of farm boys—some of whom had been given a musket and told to march off only a few weeks before—for that kind of an army to make a successful retreat across water at night, right in the face of the enemy without the enemy knowing, was a virtual impossibility. And yet they did it.
When they went down to the shores of the East River, right where the Brooklyn Bridge now stands, to start the crossing, the same wind that was keeping the British from bringing their fleet up was keeping the river too rough for them to make the crossing. It looked as though they weren’t going to be able to pull it off. Then, all of a sudden, almost like the parting of the waters, the wind stopped. The makeshift armada started going back and forth, back and forth, all night long, ferrying men, horses, cannon—everything—back across the river to New York. And they succeeded. Nineteen thousand men and all their equipment—horses, cannon, and the rest—were taken across the river that night without the loss of a single man and without the British ever knowing it.
I wanted to write about that event, the reality of what happened there, as much as anything else in my book 1776. It shows so much that we need to understand. First of all, it was said right away that the hand of God had intervened in behalf of the American cause. Others trying to interpret what had happened used the words Providence or chance. But it couldn’t have happened only because of chance or the hand of God. It also required people of skill and experience with the nerve to try it.
That escape was organized and led by a man named John Glover from Marblehead, Mass., and his Marblehead Mariners—fishermen, sailors who knew how to handle small boats. During the crossing—and the East River can be a treacherous place to cross, even in the best of conditions—boats were loaded down so that the gunwales were only a few inches above the water. No running lights, no motors, no cell phones to talk back and forth. And they did it. It was character and circumstance in combination that succeeded.
The men were totally demoralized. They had been defeated; they were soaking wet; they were cold; they were hungry. They lost again pathetically at Kip’s Bay. They lost again in the great battle of Fort Washington, when nearly 3,000 of our troops and all of their equipment were taken captive.
By the time Washington started his long retreat across New Jersey, they were down to only a few thousand men. Probably a quarter of the army were too sick to fight, victims of smallpox, typhoid, typhus, and, worst of all, camp fever, or epidemic dysentery. Men deserted, men defected—went over to the enemy by the hundreds. Or they just disappeared, they just went away, never heard from again. By the time Washington was halfway across New Jersey, he had all of 3,000 men.
We are taught to honor and celebrate those great men who wrote and voted for the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. But none of what they committed themselves to—their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor—none of those noble words about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, about all men being created equal, none of that would have been worth any more than the paper it was written on had it not been for those who were fighting to make it happen. We must remember them, too, and especially those who seem nameless: Jabez Fitch and Joseph Hodgkins; little John Greenwood, who was all of 16 years old; and Israel Trask, who was 10 years old. There were boys marching with the troops as fifers or drummers or messenger boys, not just Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox and John Glover and George Washington. And they were in rags—they were in worse than rags. The troops had no winter clothing. The stories of men leaving bloody footprints in the snow are true—that’s not mythology.
Washington was trying to get his army across the Delaware River, to put the river between his army and the oncoming British army, which was very well equipped, very well fed, very well trained—the best troops in the world led by an extremely able officer, Cornwallis. On they were coming, and they were going to end the war. But Washington felt that if he could just get across the river, get what men he had left over on the Pennsylvania shore on the western side, destroy any boats the British might use to come chasing across the river, that they’d have time to collect themselves and maybe get some extra support. Again they went across at night. Again it was John Glover and his men who made it happen. They lit huge bonfires on the Pennsylvania side of the river to light the crossing.
The next morning a unit from Pennsylvania rode in—militiamen, among whom was a young officer named Charles Willson Peale, the famous painter. He walked among these ragged troops of Washington’s who had made the escape across from New Jersey and wrote about it in his diary. He said he’d never seen such miserable human beings in all his life—starving, exhausted, filthy. One man in particular he thought was just the most wretched human being he had ever laid eyes on. He described how the man’s hair was all matted and how it hung down over his shoulders. The man was naked except for what they called a blanket coat. His feet were wrapped in rags, his face all covered with sores from sickness. Peale was studying him when, all of a sudden, he realized that the man was his own brother.
I think we should feel that they were all our brothers, those brave 3,000, and remember what they went through, just as Abigail Adams stressed in her letter. And that they didn’t quit!
Washington took stock, just as the British army was taking stock, of the situation, as were most every officer and all of the politicians, many of whom had fled from Philadelphia by this time. It seemed clear that the British were heading for Philadelphia and there was nothing to stop them. Most everybody concluded that the war was over and we had lost. It was the only rational conclusion one could come to. There wasn’t a chance. So Washington did what you sometimes have to do when everything is lost and all hope is gone. He attacked.
They went up the river nine miles to McKonkey’s Ferry on Christmas night. They crossed the Delaware, famously portrayed in the great painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, which as everyone knows is inaccurate in many ways. But it does portray with drama and force what was one of the most important turning points, not just in the history of the war, but in the history of our country and, consequently, of the world. He had the nerve, the courage, the faith in the cause to carry the war once more to the enemy. After the crossing, they marched nine miles back down the river on the eastern side and struck at Trenton the next morning.
The worst part of the whole night was not the crossing, as bad as it was. The worst part was the march through the night. Again a northeaster was blowing, and again that northeaster was beneficial to our cause because it muffled the noise of the crossing and the noise of the march south. But it also increased by geometric proportions the misery of the troops. It was very cold. What the wind chill factor must have been can only be imagined. It was so cold that two men froze to death on the march because they had no winter clothing.
They struck at Trenton the next morning. It was a fierce, house-to-house, savage battle. It was small in scale but very severe. It was all over in about 45 minutes, and we won. For the first time, we defeated the enemy at their own profession.
Now it wasn’t a great battle like Brooklyn. But its consequences were enormous, beyond reckoning. Because of the psychological effect, it transformed the attitude of the army and of much of the country toward the war. It was a turning point. They struck again at Princeton a few days later and won there too—again by surprise, again after marching through the night, again taking the most daring possible route, risking all and winning.
In conclusion I want to share a scene that took place on the last day of the year of 1776, Dec. 31. All the enlistments for the entire army were up. Every soldier, because of the system at the time, was free to go home as of the first day of January 1777. Washington called a large part of the troops out into formation. He appeared in front of these ragged men on his horse, and he urged them to reenlist. He said that if they would sign up for another six months, he’d give them a bonus of 10 dollars. It was an enormous amount then because that’s about what they were being paid for a month—if and when they could get paid. These were men who were desperate for pay of any kind. Their families were starving.
The drums rolled, and he asked those who would stay on to step forward. The drums kept rolling, and nobody stepped forward. Washington turned and rode away from them. Then he stopped, and he turned back and rode up to them again. This is what we know he said:
My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.3
Again the drums rolled. This time the men began stepping forward. “God Almighty,” wrote Nathanael Greene, “inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.”4
Now that is an amazing scene, to say the least, and it’s real. This wasn’t some contrivance of a screenwriter. However, I believe there is something very familiar about what Washington said to those troops. It was as if he was saying, “You are fortunate. You have a chance to serve your country in a way that nobody else is going to be able to, and everybody else is going to be jealous of you, and you will count this the most important decision and the most valuable service of your lives.” Now doesn’t that have a familiar ring? Isn’t it very like the speech of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . . And gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here”?5 Washington loved the theater; Washington loved Shakespeare. I can’t help but feel that he was greatly influenced.
He was also greatly influenced, as they all were, by the classical ideals of the Romans and the Greeks. The history they read was the history of Greece and Rome. And while Washington and Knox and Greene, not being educated men, didn’t read Greek and Latin as Adams and Jefferson did, they knew the play Cato, and they knew about Cincinnatus. They knew that Cincinnatus had stepped forward to save his country in its hour of peril and then, after the war was over, returned to the farm. Washington, the political general, had never forgotten that Congress was boss. When the war was at last over, Washington, in one of the most important events in our entire history, turned back his command to Congress—a scene portrayed in a magnificent painting by John Trumbull that hangs in the rotunda of our national Capitol. When George III heard that George Washington might do this, he said that “if he does, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
So what does this tell us? That the original decision of the Continental Congress was the wise one. They knew the man, they knew his character, and he lived up to his reputation.
I hope very much that those of you who are studying history here will pursue it avidly, with diligence, with attention. I hope you do this not just because it will make you a better citizen, and it will; not just because you will learn a great deal about human nature and about cause and effect in your own lives, as well as the life of the nation, which you will; but as a source of strength, as an example of how to conduct yourself in difficult times—and we live in very difficult times, very uncertain times. But I hope you also find history to be a source of pleasure. Read history for pleasure as you would read a great novel or poetry or go to see a great play.
And I hope when you read about the American Revolution and the reality of those people that you will never think of them again as just figures in a costume pageant or as gods. They were not perfect; they were imperfect—that’s what’s so miraculous. They rose to the occasion as very few generations ever have.
David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of 1776 and John Adams, gave this forum assembly address at BYU on 27 September 2005.
1. Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 8, 1777, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; spelling modernized.
2. John Burgoyne, in Sir George Otto Trevelyan, The American Revolution (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1926), vol. 1, p. 298.
3. Sergeant R——, “Battle of Princeton,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 20 (1896), pp. 515–16.
4. Nathanael Greene to Nicholas Cooke, Jan. 10, 1777, in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K. Showman and Dennis Conrad (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), vol. 2, p. 4.
5. Henry V 4.3.63–68.
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