How can I better understand McCullough's book "1776"?
Perhaps the best way to understand David McCullough's book 1776 is to understand its division into three parts and to do some background reading on each of the battles that make up these parts. The book is told as a very compelling narrative, but it can be hard to understand the chronology of the historical events McCullough writes about.
The first part covers the first battles of the Revolutionary War in New England--Lexington and Concord and the battle around Dorchester Heights--and introduces the reader to the leadership style of George Washington and his officers, such as the Quaker Nathanael Greene. Though the British thought they would quickly be victorious, the citizen-soldiers, as the author calls them, in the Continental Army forced the British to lose a surprising number of troops in the battle of Dorchester Heights.
The second section of the book shifts to the battle over New York and the fateful Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island, in which Washington's troops were forced to evacuate over the East River and eventually to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The book's third section deals with the victory of Washington's troops at Trenton and Princeton, which rallied the Continental Army. If you read some brief background information on these major battles before reading the book, you will understand it better.
History books often portray the American Revolution as a simple fight between right and wrong. Colonists were "right," and the British were "wrong." Setting up the war in this way makes it easy to glorify the colonists and vilify the British. George Washington becomes a hero, almost god-like, and the colonial army a group of dedicated and honorable young men.
McCullough's book presents an image of the war and the war's principal players in a more open view. In reading this book, understand that he wants to show the most accurate picture of the first year of the war that he can—flaws and all. He sets out to show that war and independence was not a universal goal of all colonists. He paints George Washington as a snob and a dilettante who, although talented, often missteps in his military planning.
McCullough does not paint over the truths of the time period and writes about the slovenly and often drunken nature of the soldiers. He casts a shadow on the belief that all men were diligently fighting for their right to freedom—many deserted not believing in the cause or not eager to be soldiers.
This book should be read as one version of "truth" surrounding the start of the American Revolution and look for areas in each chapter where McCullough challenges the pretty picture painted by history books.