Monday, July 4, 2011

"These are the times that try men's souls..."

As we celebrate Independence Day this year, I hope to spend a few minutes telling my kids (boring them, is probably more like it) about the year 1776. We remember that year for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but as you read more you learn that independence was still just a dream for the colonists and the war wouldn't be over for years.

1776David McCullough has written an excellent history of the year 1776 where he tells of the battles that were fought and the men who fought them. In spite of some successes in New England early in the year, things had not gone well for General Washington and the Continental Army. A string of bitter losses and defeats when defending New York left the army demoralized and in constant retreat. Washington had made some strategic blunders as well, which not only cost ground and men, but caused some of his closest advisors to doubt his abilities and gave added ammunition to the Loyalists and his enemies. The army was poorly trained and equipped and was plagued by desertions and defections, and most of their enlistments would expire at the end of the year. The situation rarely looked more bleak than at this time and it's no wonder that Thomas Paine wrote "these are the times that try men's souls..." But a couple of small and daring victories after Christmas gave the nation and its leaders cause for hope, and gave Washington and his generals the confidence to continue in the cause for liberty.

Maybe I've just become a fan of McCullough but I love this book. It's short in comparison with his other books and I like that he not only tells the account of what happened during 1776 but that he fills it out with deeper information on all the important players. He tells you about King George, influential members of the Parliament, and the British generals. He also highlights those on the American side, such as Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, etc., men who were essential to the cause of freedom but who are poorly remembered today. He even quotes liberally from the soldiers on both sides. Suddenly they become more than just names to cheer or sneer at - they become real people - and you better understand their motivations and better appreciate the sacrifices. You won't find much about the signing of the Declaration of Independence or what was happening in Philadelphia - you'll barely find those names mentioned here - but you'll gain a much greater appreciation for the "rabble in arms" who trusted in "Divine Providence" and were willing to lay down their lives in defense of freedom. You'll understand the great odds they really faced in daring to separate themselves from Great Britain and the courage necessary to take that step. It's a message that gets lost all too often today when we celebrate with fireworks and picnics and a day off, but hopefully my kids will have just a little better appreciation for it.

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