I was surprised to learn how many times the Contintental Army was on the verge of defeat - and yet somehow Washington and his generals were able to either draw back in retreat, or survive a defeat only because the British forces didn't know how badly beaten were the Americans. It was also revealing to learn more details about Washington's life. I only know that he had a beautiful home on Mt. Vernon (thanks to the movie National Treasure 2), and that he confessed to cutting down his father's cherry tree (as legend has it). Oh, and I think I knew that he later went on to own many parcels of land. But I really knew nothing about him as a general - except for the famous picture of him praying in Valley Forge.
Here's one of the closing quotes on him that summarizes his legacy as a general:
He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never fort what was at stake and he never gave up.
Again and again, in letters to Congress and to his officers, and in his general orders, he had called for perserverance - for "perseverance and spirit," for "patience and perseverance," for "unremitting courage and perseverance." Soon after the victories of Trenton and Princeton, he had written: "A people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove."
Here's the final quote that sums up the story of the book, of the war, and specifically the year 1776:
The war was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate. By the time it ended, it had taken the lives of an estimated 25,000 Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population. In percentage of lives lost, it was the most costly war in American history, except for the Civil War.
The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and 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.
I finished the book with an emotional thud - what? this is the end of the year? already? After a year of loss after loss, retreat after retreat, they finally get two victories in Trenton and Princeton that turn the tide. I suppose it's a story worth remembering about perseverance, about how long it takes to get that first victory, about believing in the rightness of your cause, about leadership and it's loneliness, about being in the fray, about loyalty to those who follow.