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1776 | Summary

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Summary

1776 tells the story of an early and crucial year in the American Revolution, whose outcome made possible the ultimate victory of the American side seven years later. The book focuses principally on the Continental Army, specifically those men under the direct command of General George Washington during the first 15 months of the American Revolutionary War, with a particular emphasis on the titular year. By telling the story of the soldiers rather than the signers of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, 1776 makes clear how precarious and uncertain the situation was even as the momentous words of the Declaration of Independence were being composed. Against the longest odds imaginable, Washington managed to expel the British from Boston and then, despite a series of misjudgments and setbacks, was able to preserve his ragtag army in the face of superior opposition until the end of the campaigning season in early January 1777.

Part 1: The Siege

Part 1 relates the story of the American siege of British-occupied Boston from the summer of 1775 through March 1776. However, in Chapter 1 the narrative begins in England in October 1775, where King George III gives an address to Parliament in which he asserts that the North American colonies are in rebellion and he intends to respond with military force. Although some members strongly oppose war against the American colonies, Parliament is unanimous about its sovereignty over the colonies and ultimately supports the king's argument for war.

The narrative moves across the Atlantic to the American forces besieging Boston, starting with General Nathanael Greene, an intelligent and well-read Rhode Island Quaker with little military experience. The army with which he fights, and which General George Washington commands, composed of farmers and artisans, is a work in progress. From the considerable chaos of the summer months, after Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, Washington's arrival in Massachusetts as commander in chief, by order of the Continental Congress, marks a shift in the character and discipline of the army. Washington, a wealthy Virginia planter, has the self-possession, demeanor, and discipline his troops desperately need. He oversees the development of habits of orderliness and cleanliness, the lack of which the men under his command would cause his troops to be unavailable, either because they were absent without leave or ill from the army camps' poor conditions. As 1775 proceeds, conclusive action fails to materialize, and there is no word about two strategic missions Washington has launched: the retrieval of guns by Colonel Henry Knox from the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga in New York and an attack on British-held Quebec led by Benedict Arnold. The hope on both sides that the conflict will be brief begins to look illusory. The military challenges of training an army on the fly are compounded by the political challenges of preserving the very existence of the army.

The story of the siege of Boston concludes with the American occupation of the Dorchester Heights, south of Boston. Ordered to withdraw his forces from the city, the British commander, General William Howe, is helpless to do so; Boston is gripped by winter weather and he must wait for spring. Meanwhile, Washington learns that the expedition to Quebec has been defeated but that the mission to secure the guns of Fort Ticonderoga has been successful. In February, impatient for action, Washington calls for an attack on Boston, but his war council dissuades him. Instead, the Americans seize Dorchester Heights, forcing the British either to attack or to withdraw from Boston.

On the night of March 4, 1776, the Americans furtively occupy and fortify Dorchester Heights. The British prepare to attack, but a storm prevents the troops from moving and General Howe decides to withdraw from Boston. Evacuating the city involves accommodating the American Loyalists who seek refuge with the British army. Finally, on March 17, the British depart Boston, and the Americans enter the next day. Washington is celebrated as a hero as the news spreads through the colonies.

Part 2: Fateful Summer

Part 2 describes the next stage of the conflict as it plays out in and around New York City. In April Washington moves the bulk of his forces from Boston to New York, a strategically crucial location: if the British could secure control of the city and of the Hudson River valley, they might split the colonies in half and subdue them. New York proves difficult to hold defensively, however, and the arrival of the Royal Navy in late June produces panic in the city. The British bide their time, and the Americans' unease shifts to enthusiasm a week later when news arrives of the Continental Congress's decision to "dissolve the connection" with Great Britain. Spirits are as high as they've ever been among the Americans, until two British warships sail successfully up the Hudson River, unhindered by the American defenses, confirming the vulnerability of New York in the face of a powerful naval force. British ships continue arriving in the waters off New York, bringing with them ever more troops and Admiral Richard Howe, the brother of General William Howe. By August the British have assembled what will later be known as the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century, while the ranks of the outnumbered and outgunned American defenders rise and fall with new arrivals and departures and desertions. Ignorant of his opponent's plans, Washington makes what plans he can and waits.

A violent late-night thunderstorm presages the launch of the long-awaited British operation against Long Island—key to New York's defense—on the morning of August 22. After a lightly contested landing, the British begin massing troops on the island as they prepare to dislodge the American defenders from the fortifications of Brooklyn Heights. In the Battle of Long Island, on August 27, the British effectively divert and outmaneuver the Americans and eventually drive them all the way back to Brooklyn Heights. The battle—the Continental Army's first real experience of combat—is a resounding victory for the British. Several nights later, however, Washington is able to get his entire army back to safety on Manhattan Island, called York Island at the time.

Part 3: The Long Retreat

Part 3 opens with the American forces in New York City, despairing after the defeat on Long Island and suffering once again from disease and desertion. Washington grows anxious about the ability of his troops and the wisdom of holding New York City. Meanwhile, representatives from the Continental Congress meet with Admiral Richard Howe, the British Naval commander, to hear his offer of peace terms, which they rebuff. Washington and his war council decide to abandon the city and withdraw north to the Harlem River and beyond. Soon after the British begin crossing from Long Island to Manhattan Island under a naval bombardment that drives the Americans fleeing from their defenses.

Washington berates his own troops and is so enraged he has to be led from the field by his aides for his own safety. The British are able to take New York City without much of a fight. After an inconclusive skirmish, a lull follows for several weeks until mid-October, when the British again send warships up the Hudson, demonstrating the indefensibility of the Americans' position. Shortly afterward British troops land to the east of the American position, leaving Washington's army stuck between two enemy forces. Once again Washington withdraws north, this time to White Plains, where at the end of October the British win a costly but meaningless victory.

The Americans again retreat further north and await the British. Instead, early in November, the British withdraw toward the Hudson. Washington, again uncertain of his opponent's intentions, once more divides his forces to account for various possible British actions; while Washington and a small part of his army crosses the Hudson into New Jersey, a garrison is left at Fort Washington in upper Manhattan. The British learn of Washington's plans and decide to attack the garrison at Fort Washington, resulting in another British victory, this one virtually total, as several thousand American troops are taken prisoner. Washington orders Fort Lee, across the Hudson from Fort Washington, to be abandoned, and he and his army march south through New Jersey as November comes to a close.

Several key subordinates begin to lose confidence in Washington, and thousands of troops look ahead to the end of their enlistments at the beginning of December. The men continue to suffer in the rainy fall conditions. General William Howe's British army pursues them, even as a separate force is sent to Rhode Island to intercept American privateers and prevent their movement. Washington and his men press south through Newark and then, after a brief skirmish, New Brunswick (known as Brunswick at the time). Washington's plan is to reach Trenton and then take up a defensive position on the west side of the Delaware River, which the desultory pursuit of the British makes possible. As the British move on Trenton, the Americans withdraw across the Delaware. The British again follow the Americans and take their place in Trenton until mid-December, when General Howe decides to conclude his campaign for the season. He begins removing the bulk of his forces to winter quarters in northern New Jersey and New York, leaving in Trenton a small garrison of Hessian mercenaries.

The Americans do not know of the British withdrawal, and with the army again dwindling, Washington feels the need for some kind of significant action to improve morale in the troops and the colonies. On Christmas night, Washington and his troops cross the Delaware again and at dawn attack and rout the Hessians at Trenton. The Battle of Trenton is the Americans' first significant victory in the field, an occasion at last for Washington to praise his troops and for the young nation to praise its commander in chief. A week later the Americans cross into New Jersey a second time and, after evading the British army sent in response to the events at Trenton, score another success against the British troops at Princeton. With these two victories providing hope at long last for the American cause, Washington moves his army to its winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.

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