by David McCullough
published: 2006

It's not a new book - just new to me. And while I'm sure Rev War aficionados would be familiar with much of the more esoteric information in this masterpiece, for me, particularly as a listener (I listened to the book-on-tape version), it was like a news-cast - thrilling, sad, enlightening, and surprising.

As Americans, we all probably think we have a pretty good understanding of the Revolutionary War. We think we understand the causes, the sides, what the Brits did, how the Americans persevered and tracked bloody footprints in the snow in Pennsylvania.

But there is so much more to this fight - who fought it, and why - that most of us ever learned in school.

Among other things, MCullough's book reminds us that the rebels - the revolutionary soldiers - were really, for the most part, just farmers whose wives and children were at home waiting for them to come back and bring in the crops, and who were in danger of being dispossessed if they lost, and even hung as traitors if they were caught. They were up against professional soldiers, even mercenaries in the form of Hessian soldiers who took over the worst of the fighting in the winter while the British officers rested and stayed warm on Long Island, well fed and clothed. I never knew that these men signed up only for brief periods of time, and were being paid for their service; I didn't realize that many of them simply went home when their term was up so that they could care for their farms and families. I was unaware that General George Washington - originally Captain Washington - fretted over money to pay these men, who were within their rights to leave him, outnumbered 5 or 10 to 1, when the paymaster had nothing to give them.

We think we know George Washington, but how many of us understood that here was a man who was actually less educated than his rank would have normally ensured, but who was an auto-didactic of the highest order? He was a man of cultivated tastes, very tall and imposing - well over six feet in an era when people were generally much smaller than they are today - and who enjoyed finely tailored clothing and good food and wine. He was also a bit of a snob, and was busy, even as he was conducting the war, directing the improvements on his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon? He was micro-managing it, even, and demanding windows and walls and coffered ceilings and the like done "just so" and on a dizzying schedule. We picture the white-wigged Martha Washington, but don't realize that she was a young and fashionable woman at the start of the war, used to the best of everything, and considered a beauty and a catch.

George Washington almost lost the war several times by making bad decisions, but had the undying respect of his men because he was honorable, and it showed repeatedly, in small and grand gestures that he made. But he was driven out of New York and up the Hudson, an almost fatal loss for the revolutionaries, not only strategically, but because it occurred as winter was coming on, and the soldiers needed the provisions that New York and Long Island could ensure.

We meet a different version of "the other George," King George III of England, most often portrayed as a stubborn and petulant monarch. In these pages he is more thoughtful, a decent man who suffered from porphyria, a terribly debilitating illness that brings with it a form of intermittent dementia. Still, he was not a bad king nor an autocratic ruler as our forefathers might have portrayed him - just a man who could not see that the days of monarchy were waning and "freedom" meant more than a catchphrase.

The causes of the war are, predictably, more complicated than "no taxation without representation," and McCullough plays fair to both sides in documenting the quarrels, big and small, that pushed the Continentals into what one side called revolution, and the other treason and rebellion.

There is much current fiction about Washington's spies, and indeed, they are documented here, as is espionage agent Nathan Hale's brave self-sacrifice, and Benedict Arnold's angry betrayal of his fellow Continental soldiers after being passed over - following enormous efforts and splendid victories - for advancement.

Most of all, there is the kind of original research - McCullough read the personal and public papers of all these luminaries, and more - that provides a story too amazing to seem true. A book like this should be required reading for high school students studying American History. If nothing else, it will make their own nation's past come alive, and let them see it as something more real than is ever portrayed in the pages of history books.  


Bill Yancey, MD said…
May I send you a digital copy of my novel, Reluctant Intern to read and possibly review on your web site?


Addison Wolfe never wanted to be a physician. He wants to be an astronaut. NASA turned down his application, forcing him to seek employment as a doctor. The problem with obtaining a physician's license is the need to complete an internship to acquire one. Wolfe finds himself in an undesirable rotating internship in a very busy public hospital. Inexplicably, the Director of Medical Education seems to have developed an instantaneous dislike of him and the remainder of the internship class. Another mystery is why an attractive female physician expresses a romantic interest in him on the first day of internship.

“The absolute worst time to go to a teaching hospital as a patient is the month of July. Recent medical school graduates, known as doctors, start their real training on July first. They don’t know anything. They don’t get any sleep. They are underpaid and overworked. Their stress is at catastrophic levels. Is it any wonder they make mistakes?” – Anonymous

“In local news today,” the reporter said, “state and federal authorities are in the process of taking into custody the entire intern class at University Hospital in Jacksonville. Officials cited the number of deaths attributed to this class as the reason. It seems that wrong doses of medications, inappropriate surgeries, failure to diagnose lethal conditions, and other mistakes have led to hundreds of deaths….”

“The overdose?” Wolfe asked.
“Yes,” Dr. Rubel replied, “that will be her legal cause of death, of course. The real cause of death was the autopsy. Barbiturate overdose, followed by refrigeration outside and then here in pathology, slowed her metabolism down. She was actually alive when they started the autopsy. The flexing of her limbs when the saw touched her brain happened because of nerve conduction, brain to extremities. But it was too late; we cannot put her back together. A hard lesson for those poor boys to learn. You, too, gentlemen. It is also true for those who are clinically dead from exposure or drowning. Remember this: a patient is never dead until he is warm and dead. Don’t forget that!”

The senior resident started his description, “EMS responded to a report of a cardiac arrest at 1:07 a.m. in Junior’s Topless Bar, on East Bay Street….”
Figueroa again jumped to his feet. “What is this, a bad joke?” he asked. “Two EMTs walk into a bar…. Let’s be reasonable, guys. The most likely reason for needing a paramedic in a bar at 1 a.m. is a knifing or a gun shot wound, not a heart attack.”
The autopsy and x-rays were condemning. The thirty-nine year old, black male had no history of heart disease. No medical history of any kind. He did have a bullet entrance wound to the back of his head with no exit, bullet still in his brain.

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