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1776 | Study Guide

David McCullough

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1776 | Part 2, Chapter 4 : Fateful Summer (The Lines Are Drawn) | Summary

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Summary

As Washington's army marches to New York, people emerge to watch them pass, curious because "[n]o army of such size as this had ever been seen before anywhere in the colonies." There is little dawdling, however, because of the sense of urgency to make haste. Rather than exhaustion, the troops feel a sense of invigoration and determination. But amidst the good feelings is also a sense of apprehension at the likely battle awaiting them in New York. For Washington, New York poses logistical military problems not encountered Boston—there is more waterfront for the British to approach from in any direction. General Charles Lee confirms this, stating, "whoever commands the sea must command the town." Washington's decision to make a stand is based more so on his political judgment rather than a military strategy—anything less than the complete defense of New York "would have devastating political effect on the people ... and thus on the American cause." There are also far more Loyalists in New York than were in Boston, which makes the atmosphere "divided and tense" and the stakes for conspiracy and sabotage high. Washington is also nervous at the arrival of new battalions from other states because it might heighten "regional animosity and discord" in his army. Some new recruits are much older men, and the more seasoned soldiers eye them with disdain. In return, "the look and manner of Washington's New England troops" was not appealing to the new troops flowing in.

While the soldiers wait for action, they begin to grow unruly, visiting prostitutes and succumbing to venereal diseases. Things get so out of hand that Washington imposes a curfew and bans drinking. Other soldiers become sick as smallpox crops up again, and Washington is forced to send 3,000 men for reinforcements needed in Canada. He tells Congress he'll need at least 10,000 more men himself. Meanwhile, General Lee, an expert on defense, concludes that without command of the sea New York cannot be held by the Americans. He advises Washington to use Long Island as the central zone of defense—Brooklyn Heights, specifically. Washington commands his men to continue building strategic forts—Fort Stirling, Fort Putnam, Fort Greene, Fort Box, Fort Washington, Fort Constitution, and Fort Defiance.

Colonel Henry Knox and General Nathanael Greene grow even closer as colleagues as they oversee the building of the forts, and they are in agreement over every decision as well as highly loyal to their commander. In a letter to John Adams, Knox writes strongly of his belief that it is time to declare American independence, a sentiment echoed by Greene and Washington. As troops work to secure their encampments, everyone is on high alert that the British might appear at any time. Washington sets up a signal system for news of the first sighting. He counts his present army to be at a little less than 7,000 men, and he receives reliable information that 17,000 German troops have joined the British command, putting their numbers at as many as 30,000 men. Washington returns to Philadelphia briefly and convinces his close friend and confidant, Joseph Reed, to rejoin the army and serve as its administrative head.

News breaks of a Loyalist plot to assassinate Washington, resulting in the arrest of a dozen men, including the mayor of New York and two soldiers from Washington's own Life Guard. The news spurs patriotic mobs to hunt down and torture Loyalists. Only one of the men arrested is convicted and hanged. Washington soon learns that the British have set sail from Halifax, bound for New York, and the next morning officers with telescopes spy the first of the British fleet. Forty-five ships soon drop their anchors in the Lower Bay in Sandy Hook. By sunset there are more than 100 ships, and Washington, Greene, and Knox ensure the imminent departure of their wives and children. Inspection of the enemy ships finds that five of them alone have the combined firepower that exceeds all the American guns on shore. Meanwhile, the British ships keep arriving.

Back in Philadelphia, on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress votes "to 'dissolve the connection' with Great Britain," and the news takes a few days to travel to New York, where it is met with celebration. John Hancock sends Washington a letter containing the text of Declaration as well as instructions to deliver a proclamation. Many are aware that the British are close at hand, and that by declaring independence the war is entering a new stage. Leaders such as Knox are aware that "[t]he eyes of all America are upon us"—and there is no turning back. Washington's army is now aware that they are fighting for an independent and new America. After the Declaration is read aloud, a mob of soldiers and townspeople pull down the gilded statue of George III and mount what remains of his leaden head on a spike; they melt the rest to be used for bullets.

The celebration comes to an abrupt halt on July 12, when the British sail two ships and three tenders into the mouth of New York harbor and up the Hudson River, firing cannonballs at the towns on the banks. The ships finally come to a stop 30 miles north of the city, in a strategic move to cut off rebel supplies. Despite the American gun crews firing nearly 200 shots from the different forts, the British ships seem to feel little effect from it. The only men who are killed are from Washington's army due to mishandling their cannon. The incident rattles Washington, who realizes that if two warships can make it so far without suffering then a larger fleet will surely make it past with ease. General William Howe sends a lieutenant under a flag of truce to carry a letter to "George Washington, Esq." that Joseph Reed turns away because it is not properly addressed to "General Washington." General Howe sends the letter back once again with "etc., etc.," added after Washington's last name, only to have it declined once more. Washington eventually agrees to meet with General Howe's adjutant general, Colonel James Paterson. Paterson also fails to get Washington to take the letter. Washington tells Patterson that he can't make decisions about the war on his own. Neither is Washington interested in any "pardons" from General Howe since he doesn't believe he or his men have committed any faults.

After Paterson departs, Washington admits he only agreed to take part in the conversation to send the British a message about America's commitment to its independence. Reed and Knox privately begin to admit their misgivings about the direction things are taking, but Washington remains resolute. The British fleet is now what will be later known as "the largest expeditionary force of the eighteenth century." Reed is shocked that the British would spend so much money and might "to rob, plunder, and destroy" the Americans "because they will not lay their lives and fortunes at [England's] feet."

While the British appear to bide their time, Washington agonizes over where they might attack first. He makes the decision to divide his army in equal parts so he can move them one way or another over the East River according to how events unfold. At a crucial moment, Nathanael Green takes ill, and Washington puts the headstrong General John Sullivan in his place—a stranger to Long Island. A few days later, General William Livingston writes to Washington from New Jersey to say a spy has reported the British are about to attack. Washington and Reed respond that they haven't discovered any movement from their position indicating an attack.

Analysis

Although the Americans are in high spirits after their surprise defeat of the British in Boston, it does not take long before anxieties about what it is to transpire in New York reach a fever pitch. Both sides begin to escalate the coming clash in ways that hint there will be no turning back from this point. McCullough highlights that while the win at Boston is a victory for Washington and his men, they run the risk of false confidence when really confronted with the true might and power of the British army. Although their confidence needs a boost, too much optimism might blind them against the reality they are up against. Washington, for his part, seems aware that a battle in New York will be fought on an entirely different scale than what he was able to maneuver in Boston. McCullough takes great care to portray Washington as someone who doesn't let his success and accolades go to his head—contrary to the superiority many of the British generals like Howe seem to feel. Washington is aware than ever that he must navigate his next steps with a clear, rational mind and with as much input from those close to him as possible, rather than let his victories cloud his judgment.

McCullough also dedicates time to describing just how different New York is from Boston when it comes to both its complicated terrain and its large population of Loyalists. He notes, "at Boston, Washington had known exactly where the enemy was, and who they were, and what was needed to contain them." While seizing Dorchester Heights allowed Washington and his troops a singular upper hand that forced the British to leave, there are far too many entry points into New York by sea that the British can attack them from, and therefore "the time and place of battle would be entirely their choice." Yet New York is the key to winning the war, according to both sides. The large Loyalist population means there are that many more people with eyes and ears who can blend in and spy on the army's plans and report back to the British—a difficult issue to get a handle on because of the vast number of soldiers arriving each day and overtaking the city.

Washington's new recruits also seem to vary dramatically in regards to how fit they are to fight—some, like the troops from Delaware, seem more caught up in the shiny appearance of their uniforms than the fundamentals of battle. Washington is also sensitive to the fact that new soldiers bring a certain amount of friction because they come from different regions and backgrounds and have yet to share a common bond. The colonies are much more separated by culture, so finding common ground in a new national identity is an unfamiliar task. McCullough points out other tensions as well, such as the fact that black soldiers aren't given the same equality as white soldiers, and that Washington and his closest officers live in much nicer headquarters than the men below them—a hint that the similarities between the Americans and the British may be more close than Washington would be comfortable admitting. For all his talk of equality, Washington is aghast at the behavior of his soldiers as they grow bored and rowdy waiting for the action to begin.

Henry Knox's letter to Congress asking them to consider declaring independence shows that the army is growing confident they will succeed in this showdown, and he sends the letter knowing it will likely provoke and instigate the British into action. For Knox, Nathanael Greene, and Washington, there is the sense that there is no turning back now—there will be American independence or nothing, no compromises. McCullough notes, "the lines were drawn now as never before, the stakes far higher." What the delegates at Philadelphia have done in signing the Declaration is tantamount to committing treason. The army's endeavor to build a multitude of forts shows the seriousness with which they are taking every step of securing New York, and McCullough greatly details the thinking and strategy behind the placement of each fort. Yet it's not long before the reader witnesses just as helplessly as the army how futile the forts are in fending off the armada of British fleets approaching. Before the ships approach, however, Washington also fends off an attempt to assassinate him by two of his own men and a group of Loyalists, one of whom is hanged. This only serves to deepen the division and hatred between the rebels and the Loyalists. On the same day that the American troops first spot the British ships arriving in the distance, the Declaration of Independence is signed. McCullough doesn't give great significance to this deeply significant historical moment other than to indicate how much it irked the British. It also comes at a moment when the American troops need a morale boost, and Washington's reading of the Declaration invigorates their sense of purpose. McCullough writes, "it was now a proudly proclaimed, all-out war for an independent America, a new America, and thus a new day of freedom and equality." This renewed sense of purpose forges a common bond for those who are fighting, and strengthens their commitment.

Not only does the Declaration of Independence infuriate and invigorate the British, for different reasons than it does the Americans, so does the realization they can sail right past the American forts without a scratch. Two ships are able to get past without any harm, and both sides seem to realize that if two can get past, the hundreds right behind them will have no problem. General William Howe's worry, however, is that Washington will make the British go on the offensive in order to exhaust their energy and resources—an expensive endeavor. Howe attempts to make somewhat of a peace offering by sending Washington a letter delivered under a truce flag, but Washington's unwavering rejection of the letter—largely based on the fact that it doesn't address him properly as General—shows that he will not back down or be treated as someone with lesser command. Even though Washington agrees to meet with one of Howe's captains, it's largely a showy demonstration that he plans on standing his ground, even with the offer of a pardon and peace on the table. Washington's behavior also earns him the admiration and respect of his troops, a necessary bolster in the face of what's to come.

McCullough highlights that despite Washington's level-headedness and careful consideration of every decision, he is still capable of making strategic errors, such as the decision to divide his army in half in an attempt to secure New York from different points. He is dealt another blow when Nathanael Greene falls ill, and he makes the decision to appoint John Sullivan to his place, despite Sullivan's headstrong nature and lack of knowledge about the lay of the land. Privately, in a letter to his wife, Joseph Reed can't help but marvel over the fact that the British have "come 3,000 miles at such risk, trouble, and expense to rob, plunder, and destroy another people because they will not lay their lives and fortunes at their feet." In pondering the magnitude of what is transpiring, Reed highlights what is at stake for both sides. Reed's astonishment also serves as revealing commentary on the ills of Imperialism and draws the reader to sympathize with the rebellion. McCullough works to show the reader that there are two sides to every story. By doing this he supports his main idea that larger than life events take place on a human scale. Visual details like cannonballs plummeting through all the floors of a house or rolling down the city streets, and the opportunism, cowardice, and brutality of the soldiers on both sides all strongly support his main point.

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