Literature Study Guides1776Part 1 Chapter 2 Summary

1776 | Study Guide

David McCullough

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1776 | Part 1, Chapter 2 : The Siege (Rabble in Arms) | Summary



Chapter 2 begins in late October 1775 and covers approximately two months, ending with the arrival of the New Year. It opens with a lengthy description of General Nathanael Greene, a young, self-educated "fighting Quaker" from Rhode Island with a limp and no military experience, but whose natural aptitude, zealous patriotism, and careful study of the art of war recommended him to General George Washington as "an object of confidence." When Greene's ability was recognized, he was promoted to overall command of the Rhode Island troops. He and his Rhode Island Army of Observation have been encamped outside Boston since May 1775.

Following the introduction of Greene, the focus shifts to the character of the armed forces Washington had come to command in July 1775. Six months after the beginning of hostilities, the American army has neither flag nor uniform nor commonly accepted name. Nearly two-thirds of Washington's 16,000 troops are from Massachusetts, while the rest hail from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

Washington, newly appointed commander in chief of the American forces, arrives in Massachusetts in early July 1775. At that time Washington is not yet the figure history would present to the world. He is a wealthy Virginia planter who had been retired from his military service for 15 years. "Reduced circumstances" had prevented Washington from receiving the full education common to youths of his class—seven or eight years of private tutoring, without the conventional education in Greek and Latin. He taught himself to write and even cultivated his own habits of decorum. His early experience as a surveyor acquainted him with western lands and formed the basis for later land speculation. In these respects, Washington comes across as a certain recognizable early American type.

In other respects, however, Washington embodies English notions of wealth and class. A vastly wealthy landowner, he loves dancing, fox hunting, and the theater, all favored pastimes among the Virginia planter class. Above all, he has a passion for architecture and landscape design, and his estate at Mount Vernon is a constant preoccupation. For a man of his background, the democratic and egalitarian aspects of the New Englanders he commands are a bit distasteful and seem to be of a piece with the overall lack of discipline. Nevertheless, he is confident in his men's fundamental commitment to the cause; they only need capable leadership in order to make an impact.

Washington had been retired from his service in the Virginia colonial militia—technically with the British army—for 15 years when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. He had never commanded an army in the field, nor had he ever served as a commander in chief, as he does now. Nevertheless, while attending the Continental Congress, Washington had been in the habit of wearing his old uniform from his time in the Virginia militia, and when the time came to appoint the commander in chief for the American forces, Washington was the unanimous choice of his fellow delegates. McCullough claims this was the right choice because of Washington's political, rather than his military, background. His experience in Congress and in Virginia politics left him better equipped than most to mediate between the civil and military spheres while respecting the authority of the civilian government. Washington possessed other virtues as well: his sober demeanor and self-possession provided a model of martial discipline that the troops sorely needed. This sobriety extended to an ability to acknowledge his own limits and shortcomings; furthermore, he understood the importance of "seeing things as they were, and not as he would wish them to be."

What Washington finds on his first inspection of the troops gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, distresses him. It is unclear just how many men are at his command, and he is unfamiliar with the lay of the land; a count has to be taken and maps drawn up. This "army of everyone" hardly looks the part of an army: they have neither uniforms nor flag nor even a name by which to identify themselves. What arms they possess have been brought from home, and, as Washington learns in August, they are desperately short on gunpowder.

Especially galling to the well-mannered, self-possessed general is the absence of order and discipline among the ranks, which contributes to serious problems of disease and desertion. Contagious diseases known generally as "camp fever" are rampant amid conditions in which men and their clothes, food, and water are not reliably clean. But camp fever doesn't just plague the troops; soldiers returning home infect many civilians. Few of the men have any experience with military life, and having volunteered to serve, they feel at liberty to take their leave as they see fit—sometimes through a surreptitious furlough to help with a harvest, sometimes through outright desertion. Officers, for their part, are elected by the troops and are largely incapable or unwilling to discipline and punish their troops.

Washington seeks to rectify all this as much as possible. He lays down new rules, emphasizes discipline, and regularly reviews the army. He sets the men to constructing defenses and fortifications for the siege and dispatches spies to gather intelligence on the British, who are mostly sequestered in Boston or waiting on their ships anchored in the harbor. Aside from occasional potshots and raids, the siege proceeds without any major engagements. Nevertheless, Washington is concerned about the prospect of a British attack and, as the summer draws to a close, about the prospect of short-term enlistments expiring and his army disappearing. His realism coexists with a degree of restlessness that makes him impatient for action, especially after long quiet months of siege.

As the fall of 1775 turns to winter, men begin to desert, and the prospect of many soldiers departing when their enlistments end in January is cause for dismay. Meanwhile, no word has yet arrived from a special mission Washington has dispatched under the command of Colonel Henry Knox to retrieve the guns and artillery at the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga in New York. Nor is there any news of a separate mission commanded by Benedict Arnold to attack British-controlled Quebec. As the new year of 1776 arrives, Washington attempts to rally his diminishing army in part by christening it the "Continental Army."


"Rabble in Arms," the title of the chapter, is a phrase used by British Major General John Burgoyne to describe the colonial troops. The absence of even an agreed-upon name for the American forces shows the improvisational nature of Washington's command. One of his recurring concerns throughout the book is the disorderly and unreliable quality of his army. On a more concerning note, the Continental Army has little in the way of money, supplies, and ammunition—a daunting prospect in the face the powerful and wealthy British army. While most British soldiers are "career" men, the Continental army is made of up eager volunteers who believe greatly in the causes they are fighting for. McCullough makes the point that the troops, if asked, would have said they were fighting for "their rightful liberties as freeborn Englishmen." However, talk of independence, absent at first, is now beginning to bubble up.

McCullough focuses on Nathanael Greene, one of the young recruits—in fact, he is the youngest general officer in the army, which makes him an improbable choice for the position, having only been a soldier for six months. McCullough highlights his role because by its very nature it is symbolic of how "green" many in this army are, a fact that is at times their downfall and is also the hallmark of what allows them to keep going in the face of defeat. Additionally, in contrast to the British, who promote their soldiers based on family connections and money, those in the Continental Army are promoted based on their efforts and successes—they've rightfully earned their place. Greene will go on to figure prominently as a close advisor and trusted general of Washington's.

The chapter also introduces the Continental Congress, which works closely with Washington throughout the war. Washington takes their decisions and input very seriously, refusing to make any decisions without its explicit consent. This attitude contrasts starkly with the British system, in which one ruler has the final say above all in all decisions. Washington believes greatly in the democratic practice of having a Congress to consult and make decisions with—they are also the ones who provide him with money and resources. Throughout the book, the members of the Continental Congress never lose faith in Washington's abilities as a commander and leader, and at times they seem flabbergasted when he waits for their input or decisions rather than make them on his own. At this early point, however, they aren't advocating for independence from Britain just yet, but rather are seeking to protect the new colonies and their politics.

That Washington's perseverance and forceful personality played a major role in the American victory is a key point in the text, and McCullough begins building his picture of the complex, brilliant leader in this chapter. There is something quintessentially American about Washington, at least as McCullough sketches him here—he is both a self-made man and the closest thing in America to an English country gentleman. Washington is also depicted believing heavily in plans and fortifications, the latter being a skill that will impress the British when they seize some of those very forts. However, McCullough also begins to show that despite his "excessive self-command," Washington reveals his vulnerabilities and doubts to his best friend Joseph Reed, telling him "how very low and bitter he felt, if the truth were known." This contrast between Washington's outward demeanor of confidence and his internal turmoil is one McCullough highlights throughout the book.

McCullough sees in Colonel Henry Knox's plan for the guns at Ticonderoga evidence of the difference between the more democratic civilian army of the Americans and the stratified military hierarchy of the British. Among the Americans, anyone with a good idea can get a hearing, regardless of rank or standing. Moreover, Washington, Greene, and Knox are all self-educated, if not self-made, men. Morale is another ongoing issue in the army that Washington hopes the plans for Ticonderoga will help—if they have adequate artillery, his men will feel confident going into battle against the British.

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