Literature Study Guides1776Part 2 Chapter 5 Summary

1776 | Study Guide

David McCullough

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1776 | Part 2, Chapter 5 : Fateful Summer (Field of Battle) | Summary

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Summary

A violent storm breaks over New York on August 21, 1776, "and for those who saw omens in such unleashed fury from the elements ... a night so violent seemed filled with portent." The storm renders one soldier "deaf, blind, and mute," and just one bolt of lightning kills 10 soldiers "in a single flash." A strange cloud hangs ominously, appearing "to stand still ... 'and swing round and round' over the city."

The next morning the British invasion gets underway; 4,000 troops land on the beach at Gravesend Bay, eight miles from New York, in what is now Brooklyn. Loyalists emerge to welcome them and bring them supplies. The British soldiers are shocked to see how finely the Americans live, holding it as "proof that America had indeed grown rich at the expense of Great Britain." Word reaches New York about the arrival of the British, but Washington is misinformed about the size of the army that has come ashore. This results in Washington not sending enough troops across the East River to Brooklyn and leaving only 6,000 of his men on Long Island. Washington, Joseph Reed, and General William Heath all express concerns over preventing any "surprises" from the British, and Washington is plagued by second thoughts over his military strategy. The worry is that the British army will create a diversion and then attack New York.

Washington also reshuffles his command at Brooklyn, replacing General John Sullivan with General Israel Putnam, a move that unsettles the troops who had only just seen Sullivan replace Nathanael Greene, who is sick in bed. While Putnam is well liked, he doesn't have the experience or temperament to direct the troops, which Washington seems to realize quickly. The soldiers are disorganized, and their behavior contrasts strongly with that of Admiral Lord Richard Howe's perfectly orchestrated arrival.

The tactic for defending New York seems doomed from the start—fewer than 3,000 soldiers, most with no experience in battle, rugged terrain, and no American cavalry to serve as eyes and ears. Washington also leaves one pass entirely undefended except for five young militia officers. To an extent, Washington knows how ill prepared his army is for what is to come. Many are sick, and only a few of his officers have ever faced an enemy on a battlefield. Washington himself has never commanded an army in battle. Meanwhile, the British General Henry Clinton faces setbacks of his own after a long chain of disappointments. Yet after suffering an embarrassing defeat in South Carolina, Clinton returns to New York determined to take a new tactic—one that includes using the unguarded road into New York that Washington has all but ignored. Howe draws up a plan to have his army and the hired Hessians distract the American troops at two other points of entry, while the majority of the British army will position themselves to enter through the unguarded road. The British troops appear more orderly and seasoned than their American counterparts, the truth is that the majority of them have just as little experience in actual battle—it has been more than 10 years since Britain has last waged a war.

At nightfall, Howe readies his troops to move in absolute silence in order to seize the unguarded road. It's a risky move—10,000 men who don't know the terrain led by three local Loyalist farmers. No one except the commanders knows the details of the plan—none of the soldiers marching even knows where they are headed. The five Americans patrolling the road are swiftly captured, which confirms that the pass is indeed unguarded. General Putnam is awakened in Brooklyn and alerted that the enemy has begun their attack—and that his army has fled. He commands the American general Lord Stirling's forces to hold their ground. The troops face off, and the Americans hold their ground. However, they don't yet understand that the British are holding back according to their plan to distract the American troops while the rest of the British army sneaks past. Elsewhere, General Sullivan's troops find themselves trapped between the Hessians and the troops General Howe has snuck in through the unguarded pass. The Americans are vastly outnumbered, and while they are able to hold their ground, Sullivan struggles to keep them from panicking. Retreat is the only alternative, and he leads them in the direction of the Brooklyn lines. The American troops left on the ridge are soon overtaken by the Hessians, who ruthlessly cut them down. Hundreds are captured, but most succeed in reaching the Brooklyn lines. General Sullivan, however, is captured. Meanwhile, Washington watches with anxiety as five of the enemy warships head closer. He is relieved when crosswinds derail them, and he immediately orders more troops to Brooklyn. By 10:00 a.m. his army is hopelessly outflanked, and all he can do is "sit astride his horse and watch."

At the same time, unbeknownst to Washington, Stirling's troops fight on with the belief that they are still holding the line. Eventually they are overwhelmed, and Stirling orders his soldiers to beat a hasty retreat through the rising tides of a marsh. By noon General Howe orders a halt now that that Americans are losing and retreating. This is the first great battle of the Revolution, and the largest battle ever fought in North America until then, with 40,000 men taking part. For Washington's army, it is a crushing defeat—more than 1,000 soldiers are taken prisoner according to General Howe's count. The situation facing Washington and his army is dire: they are now boxed in at Brooklyn with only one possible escape route by river, an option that will disappear should the winds change.

Washington decides to order more of his army over from New York. The sight of the new troops arriving in Brooklyn invigorates the weary soldiers. However, a storm descends on the troops, dampening spirits and energy once more. The storm, however, is to Washington's advantage—it is keeping General Howe's ships from attacking them. Washington remains cool and calm, refusing to let anyone see the possible despair or worry he might be feeling. He makes the decision to send a secret and "deliberately deceiving urgent message" to General Heath instructing him to round up every boat because battalions from New Jersey are coming to relieve the current soldiers. At a meeting with his generals, it is proposed that the army retreat. Orders go out, and Washington gets ready to surprise Howe yet again.

The troops are told to prepare for a night attack on the enemy, and every movement is conducted with utmost secrecy. No one in the Continental Army seems to know that they are, in fact, crossing back to New York. Yet they are nearly thwarted in crossing the choppy river until the strong winds die down. The skill with which the soldiers are finally able to cross the river in droves in complete silence is impressive, and the dread of anticipation runs high. Yet a mistake is finally made in the form of misinterpreted orders, when a major misunderstands Washington and instructs the outer defense troops to begin retreating. Washington returns just in time to fix the error, and the outer troops return to their post. Dawn is coming, and a large part of the army is still waiting to embark back across the river to New York. Once more, circumstances fall into Washington's favor when a heavy early morning fog settles over Brooklyn, concealing their movements.

An hour after the last troop makes it across, the fog lifts; 9,000 soldiers have made it undetected across the river. The British are astonished when they discover what has transpired and relieved that they now have command of Brooklyn and the rebels appear to be retreating. They seem confident the war is nearly over. Some British generals, however, seem to understand the Americans have "made a daring and superbly executed move." Withdrawals don't win wars, however, and Washington has made a number of mistakes in dividing his army and underestimating the power of the sea. Almost nothing goes according to his plan. Despite many fingers pointing blame at one another, the truth is that a British victory had always been certain because of their numbers and control of the sea. Yet their victory is not a decisive one—the war is not yet over.

Analysis

McCullough's pointed reference to the "terrifying storm" that descends on New York highlights the at times supernatural or providential elements Washington and his men give reference to in aiding them. McCullough notes, "for those who saw omens in such unleashed fury from the elements ... a night so violent seemed filled with portent," and Major Benedict writes in a letter that "there seems hidden meaning, some secret purpose, when the bolt is launched by an invisible arm, and from the mysterious depth of space." This sense of something much larger at play in an event so strategic and brutal as war runs counter to much of the pragmatism and reasoned thinking that was the hallmark of this era. Yet Washington and his fellow officers seem to put much stock in the belief that "Providence" is playing a guiding hand in their efforts, which calls into question the nature and interpretation of their own responsibility for the parts they play in the war for independence.

McCullough also illuminates the preconceived notions each side seems to have about each other in the fact that "the Hessians and British troops alike were astonished to find Americans blessed with such abundance." It's clear that the British believed the Americans were struggling rebels, and evidence countering this notion shocks them. Yet rather than admire what the Americans have achieved, they instead see it as "proof that America had indeed grown rich at the expense of Great Britain," furthering their anger and determination to bring them down. The Americans, for their part, often seem to give the British too much credit for their military prowess, not realizing the fundamental differences in how the highest-ranking officers in the British military gain their power through aristocracy rather than experience. Here, McCullough takes care to highlight the growing divide and differences in identity between the two nations as one breaks away from the other.

An increasingly divided and complex portrait of Washington's abilities as a leader is demonstrated through both his calm, cool demeanor and the significant blunders and mistakes he makes. There is a constant tension between the consequences of the smallest of military strategies and also the unknown influence of natural events, such as storms, winds, fogs, and tides. McCullough seems to hint that no matter how excruciatingly either side weighs their decisions, they simply cannot know the outcome based on wildly unpredictable factors—and in this way coincidence and fate play a larger role than either side would comfortably admit. Even when Washington makes a tactical mistake—such as dividing his army—he is still able motivate and inspire his men to keep fighting through his belief and determination.

McCullough makes it clear that had someone who lacked these qualities led the army, it's unlikely they would have made it this far. McCullough also make it clear to the reader just how daunting the prospect of leading this battle is for Washington and his men—who have zero experience in a fight of this size and scope. He reminds the reader "the same uncertainties that had vexed [Washington] in his first days of command at New York vexed him still." Yet Washington knows he must play the part of the assured, confident commander. It's only hindsight that enables historians and readers to see how many of the decisions Washington made about the battle—such as changing up his closest in command—seem to reveal his uncertainty and inexperience.

Once Washington sees that the battle has tipped fully in favor of the British and the Americans are sorely outnumbered and outflanked, he is "facing disaster and [can] do nothing but sit astride his horse and watch." In these moments, McCullough pulls the reader out of the technical, strategic side of the war in order to balance the thoughts, emotions, and feelings those leading the war must have felt while watching what was transpiring. Washington is confronted early on by the fact that the British army with its sheer might is far larger than his own, but also by the knowledge that there is no going back, only forward, even if it means defeat. McCullough also shows that the British side, despite their experience and power, is not as organized as Washington is led to believe. They make mistakes of their own, and it's only the strength of their size and artillery keeping them from danger. In flashing back and forth between these comparisons, McCullough brings up the question of whether it's better to have a strong leader, such as Washington, or a strong Army, such as the British. And while the British army is larger and better organized, its leaders often seem slow and cautious in taking any risks that would give them a clearer advantage, something Howe is criticized for in retrospect.

Washington's ultimate decision to pull his army back even if it signals defeat also shows how much his responsibility to his men weighs on him. He can't risk losing more men—he brought them this far, and, in many ways, he is the one responsible for their ultimate survival. If they have any chance of victory, they must swallow their pride and retreat in order to survive and regroup. Again, there's a distinction here between Washington's and Howe's leadership—Washington is ultimately convinced of his decision by listening to the opinions of his generals, while General Howe rarely asks anyone else for advice, and is therefore criticized by some of his commanders in retrospect. And even though the British are elated by the victory of being able to take Long Island, they are roundly impressed by the tactical move Washington pulls off in moving his entire army out without being detected. Yet again, McCullough hints at the tension between how smart Washington's decisions are versus how much "luck" intervenes when their escape is masked by a thick fog: "Incredibly, yet again, circumstances—fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often—intervened." Had the fog not disguised them, McCullough points out, would they have been able to pull off such a feat? It's likely not.

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