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Tom Chaney: These Are the Times That Try Men's Souls

Of Writers And Their Books: "These Are the Times That Try Men's Souls." Tom reviews David McCullough's book 1776 which tells the story of the year of our nation's birth when the fate of the emerging nation rested on the backs of George Washington and of troops whose enlistments seem to expire at inopportune times. This column first appeared 10 July 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Money, Sex, and Murder

By Tom Chaney

"These Are the Times That Try Men's Souls"

The Fourth of July is the day we celebrate the approval of the Declaration of Independence. The haze of 200 plus years creates an aura around that event which obscures its context.

We forget the depth of the trouble in which the emerging alliance of thirteen colonies found itself in that year of 1776.

David McCullough has written a fine new book on just that year of our nation's birth: 1776. The entire fate of the emerging nation rested on the backs of George Washington who had never led troops in battle and troops whose enlistments seem to expire at the most inopportune times.

1776 opens in London with King George III proclaiming the colonies in rebellion in October 1775 and affirming his resolve to crush that rebellion.

The story moves to Boston where Washington and his two unlikely aides -- Nathaniel Green, Quaker and general at 33; and Henry Knox a 25-year-old Boston bookseller -- successfully defeat the British under Howe at Dorchester Heights in late March. This they did in the face of inexperience, insufficient arms and ammunition; desertion; and lack of discipline, clothing and money.

From Boston to New York which Washington attempts to defend more for political than for military reasons. Tories owned two-thirds of the property there.

Long Island was largely Dutch and Loyalist, yet Washington attempted a defense of first Long Island then Manhattan from his arrival in April until he is forced to move south after fighting at White Plains crossing the Hudson River after the surrender of Fort Washington into New Jersey in mid November.

As Washington retreated across New Jersey, first Princeton then Trenton was evacuated. Residents of Philadelphia, only 60 miles away, were fleeing the city.

Admiral Lord Richard Howell offered pardon on November 30th to all Americans who would take an allegiance to the king -- hundreds of New Jersey's residents signed their names.

Less than a month later on December 23rd Thomas Paine issued "The American Crisis" lambasting the "summer soldier and the sunshine patriot" who, "in this crisis [shrunk] from the service of his country."

But, on December 14th General Howe had made one of the most fateful decisions of the war. He called off British operations until spring, established a string of outposts in New Jersey to secure the ground gained, and retired to New York in the company of General Cornwallis who was returning to England to visit his ailing wife.

Reinforced by fewer than half of the 4,000 troops expected from the south and confronted by the expiration of many enlistments on January first, Washington decided to risk everything on the daring attack on the Hessian barracks at Trenton.

Three crossings were made Christmas night in the white blur of a major snowstorm and the Hessians were captured by surprise in the early daylight hours of December 26th.

Thus, the year of 1776 ended. There were years of unbelievably painful struggle and the death of an estimated 25,000 Americans ahead.

It was to be the longest war of the nation until Viet Nam.

But 1776 is justly celebrated as the "birth year of the nation, for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget."

McCullough weaves a tale that sweeps away the rosy myths of the birth of the republic in favor of a clear look at events. As usual he relies on the documents of the time -- not just the official records, but also the letters of the common soldier and citizen.

The book is an exciting, fresh look at this crucial year in the story of the nation's birth by a first-rate research historian and storyteller.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2016-02-14 04:43:10
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