Literature Study Guides1776Part 3 Chapter 7 Summary

1776 | Study Guide

David McCullough

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1776 | Part 3, Chapter 7 : The Long Retreat (Darkest Hour) | Summary



Washington's battered army retreats to New Jersey. Washington maintains his calm and composure in order to keep his troops moving, but privately sends a letter to General Charles Lee expressing his worries—they have no tents, no baggage, and no tools. He also urges Lee to cross the Hudson and join forces with him, but it's given as a request, not an order. Joseph Reed also sends a letter to Lee, unbeknownst to Washington, in which he indicts his commander for his indecision and lack of leadership. Reed's confidence in Washington has been shattered, and he tells all of this to Lee rather than confront Washington—hinting he believes Lee should be leading the army at this point. Washington has other things to worry about: the failing health of his army and the fact that the enlistments of 2,000 troops will expire in two weeks, leaving them free to go. The problem is not that there aren't enough American soldiers in the colonies but that the colonies are reluctant to send their troops given the war is not going well. Washington has lost four battles, and his army has dropped from 20,000 to 3,500.

Meanwhile, the British shift their plans in the aftermath of seizing Fort Washington. General Henry Clinton is reassigned to an expedition to take Rhode Island in order to secure passageway for British ships. Clinton is once again at odds with General William Howe about how to manage the war and is unhappy with his assignment. Howe assigns General Charles Cornwallis, a man considered to be "the most popular British General serving in America," to Clinton's previous post. He then sends Cornwallis and his troops on a mission to New Jersey to pursue Washington's army. When Cornwallis arrives in Newark, they find the town empty—Washington has pressed on to New Brunswick (known as just Brunswick at this time), where Lord Stirling and 1,000 reinforcements join him. Although it is a glimmer of hope, Washington is well aware the enlistment expiration date is only two days away, when 2,000 men would be free to leave. The next day Washington opens a sealed letter from Lee to Reed, thinking it will contain news that Lee is on his way. Instead, Lee commiserates with Reed over Washington's constant indecision and ineffectiveness as a leader. Washington reseals the letter and sends it to Reed acknowledging he accidentally read its contents. Later, he tells Reed he was hurt that Reed never communicated those sentiments to him.

The next day, December 1st—with British troops advancing on Brunswick—2,000 of Washington's troops leave because their enlistments are up. They are no longer beholden to stay in the army. Washington fires off another letter to Lee urging him to come as soon as possible. He knows his present force is "totally inadequate" to stop the enemy and decides to head for Trenton. Admiral Howe realizes now might be a good time to attempt another conciliation. The proclamation he issues offers anyone who comes forth to take an oath of allegiance to the King in the next 60 days will receive a "free and general pardon." Hundreds, then thousands in New Jersey flock to the British camps to declare their loyalty. Many realize the war is not going well for the Americans, and so this seems the best course of action. On orders from General Howe, General Cornwallis halts his troops in their pursuit of Washington—the troops are tired and he sees no need to rush. Many see this is a mistake, since it seems they could have finished off Washington's army for good had they continued on. However, the British and Hessian armies are developing a reputation for plundering and looting towns as well as for raping women. General Howe doubles down on his advancement and securing of New Jersey, and Washington begins to carry out his plans of retreat. By nightfall he and his troops have crossed the Delaware River to Pennsylvania, destroying every remaining boat for 60 miles to keep the enemy at bay. Washington warns Congress that Philadelphia will be where the British set their sights next. Although the generals try to keep spirits high, in truth, the soldiers are weary, and hundreds have deserted. In better news 1,000 Philadelphia volunteer militia arrive, and there is news that Lee and 4,000 troops are on their way.

What Washington cannot know at this time is that a scouting British cavalry has ambushed Lee alone at a tavern where he spent the night. Lee surrenders, and the British celebrate that they have captured "the only rebel general whom we had cause to fear." As the news ripples out, word reaches Washington and Nathanael Greene, who are furious. Lee, for his part, worries he will be considered a traitor by the British (being British himself), and begins to advise General Howe on ways he can win the war. Howe surprises everyone by suspending further military operations until spring, and returns to New York. Washington is unaware of this plan as it unfolds, and he still believes he and Philadelphia are under immediate threat. He finds it impossible to consider otherwise, even with reliable intelligence informing him of Howe's departure.

In two weeks, on New Year's Day, all enlistments will expire. Washington realizes the fate of the army depends on new enlistments. Meanwhile, Congress has fled Philadelphia for Baltimore, and two former members have gone over to the British. All signs indicate the war is over and the Americans have lost. Yet Washington remains confident and determined, and "out of adversity he seemed to draw greater energy and determination." Reed proposes to Washington that they do something aggressive now that their troops are together, since "delay with us is now equal to total defeat." Washington is of the same mind about committing a "lucky blow" against the enemy, and he strategizes a plan cloaked in secrecy.

Washington's plans to sneak all his troops across the Delaware River to attack the British is slowed down and nearly thwarted by an intense snow and hail storm of almost hurricane strength, and even though the element of a surprise attack is taken away from them, Washington proceeds. He has no way of knowing that downriver his two other commanders leading troops have called off their attacks due to the dangerous river crossing. Washington, for the first time, must play the part of field commander, having never been so close to the action before. The army reaches Trenton a little before daylight breaks, with the occupying Hessians unaware. The Hessian commander, Colonel Rall, has in fact been already informed of an impending attack, but after an American patrol opens fire on his guards and withdraws earlier in the evening, he assumes it is over. Rall receives yet another warning message later that evening, which he seems to ignore. As the American Army approaches, Rall and the Hessians are all asleep.

The Americans attack the next morning, and Washington moves to high ground nearby to observe and command. The fight continues in the streets of Trenton while the storm swirls around them, and the Americans have the advantage, forcing the Hessians to retreat and mortally wounding Colonel Rall. The Hessians are forced to surrender. Only four Americans are wounded, and none are killed. The rebels cross back over the Delaware River to the Pennsylvania side, in proud spirits. In New York, General Howe decides on immediate action and orders General Cornwallis to return at once to New Jersey with an army of 8,000.

Washington weighs his next move, and decides to go after the enemy once again. It is December 30th, and knowing he only has one more day before enlistments expire, he implores his troops to stay with him, offering a bounty (despite not having the authority to do so) to anyone who stays in service another six months. The men hesitate, but begin to step forward after Washington gives a rousing speech.

Two days later General Cornwallis's troops advance on Trenton. The rebels keep them at bay with a cannon, and Cornwallis decides to hold off again until morning. By morning, however, the Americans are gone, making a sweep to attack Cornwallis's rear guard at Princeton. The British troops are shocked to see them, and a battle ensues. The Americans soon have the upper hand, and the British begin fleeing towards Trenton. It's another stunning, unexpected victory for the Continental Army. Washington wants to take his troops to Brunswick in order to destroy enemy supplies and capture a British pay chest, which he believes could end the war. But his troops are exhausted, and General Nathanael Greene and Colonel Henry Knox talk him out of it by warning him they could lose all they have gained. Instead, they decamp to the village of Morristown for the duration of the winter. In the aftermath of the two victories, some on the British side grudgingly admit the rebels have "shown themselves capable of great cunning, great industry, and spirit of enterprise." Back in Great Britain King George III announces that another military campaign will be undertaken in American until the rebels are stamped out.

It will be another six and a half years before the Treaty of Paris ends the war in 1783, and it will claim the lives of 25,000 Americans—one percent of its population. In hindsight, it is not control of the Hudson River or the possession of New York that wins the war, it is the Continental Army—and Washington's determination to keep them going.


McCullough titles this chapter "Darkest Hour," after a quote from General Nathanael Greene that reads, "I hope this is the dark part of the night, which is generally just before day." This line sums up the countenance and spirit Washington and his men strived to maintain throughout their weariness, doubts, and defeats, and it is indeed what carried them through to their eventual victories. First, however, Washington's infamous indecisiveness plagues him yet again when he is reluctant to give direct orders to General Lee to bring his troops. This oversight also suggests Washington's relationships with his top generals and officers may not be as confident as they once were. This is further evidenced by Joseph Reed's secret missive to General Lee expressing his doubts about Washington's leadership capabilities—a hurtful betrayal Washington eventually discovers.

Lee, for his part, reveals in a letter that he has his own frustration with Washington, writing "he has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties." With trusts and confidences fraying, it seems as though the stability upon which Washington's command was once built is in threat of toppling, and the fact that the voice of doubt comes from someone so close to him must have upset him deeply. Through the betrayals of Washington's closest confidants, however, McCullough takes care to investigate his possible emotional state, guessing, "he must have felt profoundly alone." McCullough highlights that at various points many in the Continental army seemed to secretly prefer General Lee as commander; his tactics are much more confident and assured than Washington's. However, Lee gets captured by the British in an embarrassing mistake. Although Lee has the bluster and confidence Washington lacks, it's unlikely Washington would ever have ended up in such a vulnerable situation as Lee's, given his thoughtful and deliberative nature. Washington also appears unflappable, which aids his strength. One lieutenant writes of him that, "a deportment so firm, so dignified, but yet so modest and composed, I have never seen in any other person."

As always, however, Washington privately worries about the risk of his army falling apart at any moment. McCullough writes that "with the misery of the men greater now than ever, and morale suffering, there seemed every chance that his army would evaporate before his very eyes." Washington is highly aware that the enlistment deadline is nearly up and many of his soldiers will likely leave the first minute they can. McCullough points out that contrary to popular belief, and the straggling band of rebels following Washington, there are actually plenty of soldiers to be found, but the states are reluctant to send them, preferring to keep them close to home, since the war isn't going well. Yet Washington bears the burden of that knowledge well. McCullough highlights Washington's response during the Siege of Boston, showing that he understands deeply the need to "bear up against [troubles], and make the best of mankind as they are, since we cannot have them as we wish." Washington never seems to give in to the possibility of despair, and it is this resolve and acceptance of circumstances as they are that has carried him and his army this far.

The British worries, however, are almost nearly opposite. Admiral Howe lobbies for one more appeal at reconciliation, believing the end of the war is near and not desiring to lose any more British lives or inflict unnecessary destruction on the Americans. The British seem keenly aware they are fighting in a country that still contains a large number of "their people," and so are wary of any all-out assaults that could push Loyalists into the rebel camp. Yet some divisive tensions about how to end the war for good exist, and General Howe demonstrates yet again his polarity in leadership to Washington by not seeking the advice of his generals.

Despite Washington's worries, and the general consensus that the Americans are losing the war, the drawbacks only serve to strengthen his resolve. McCullough observes that "out of adversity he seemed to draw greater energy and determination," which may very well be his saving grace as a commander. This determination causes him to redouble his efforts and harness what little power he has left without delay, and he seems to be in agreement with Reed who writes, "delay with us is now equal to total defeat." Washington knows they need a "lucky blow" to "rouse the spirits of the people" once more. He remains confident that if they focus on the future rather than dwell on "the authors of our present misfortunes," success will come. The strike he orders comes at an opportune moment, and he runs into even better luck when General Howe pulls his troops back, a decision that puzzles many of the British officers. Howe seems to still be practicing the cautious restraint he is known for in not wanting to risk his men unnecessarily. This decision also speaks to his low expectations of Washington and his army; Howe doesn't seem to realize that Washington's success at Trenton breathes new life into the morale of the country. It also gives Washington the confidence to realize that if he's able to best the British and Hessians once, he can do it again.

McCullough closes the book with speculation of how the confluence of tactical errors on both sides, as well as drastically different leadership style, is able to affect the outcome of the Revolutionary War. Both sides are at times extremely lucky and unlucky, and McCullough marvels over how the smallest advantage or disadvantage can open up a world of possibilities and alternate outcomes. He also shows how Washington has become a much stronger and effective leader in the span of one year and four battles, letting his decision-making flourish in a way that culminates in attacks for which the British were entirely unprepared. Washington's wins in New Jersey are symbolic for the country as well, who now feel reassured about his abilities as a commander. McCullough argues that "the Continental Army—not the Hudson River or the possession of New York or Philadelphia—was the key to victory. And it is Washington who holds the army together and gives it 'spirit' through the most desperate of times." Had the army been led by a different kind of commander, it's impossible to know just how differently things might have turned out for the colonies.

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