Dirty, Foul-Mouthed, Cold: Washington’s Boston Army

In these days of intense partisanship, when disgust at our fellow citizens runs high, it’s been a good counteractive to listen to David McCullough read his account of 1776, when a rag-tail army, dirty, foul-mouthed, and cold, eventually forced the British to withdraw from Boston. The American commander of course was George Washington, but McCullough, with his perennial wit, clarity and vivid personification of men, climate, and geography, also brings to life the British commander Lord Howe, many of Washington’s supporting officers, notably Boston bookseller Henry Knox, and the shifting regulars who had no uniforms but their farmer clothes, little book-learning thought lots of physical know-how, and an acute shortage of gunpowder.

After the Battle of Bunker Hill in July 1775 showed the British how feisty and wily their opponents could be, the Americans spent the next seven months digging fortifications, trying to figure out how to “smoke” the British out of Boston, and getting used to each other. Washington did not like New Englanders. McCullough paints a vivid portrait of the American commander, contrasting his Virginia elegance and hardihood in the saddle–Washington enjoyed day-long fox hunts–with the rough men from New England who made up his army. This is one of the most important underlying contrasts in the period: Virginia planters were served by slaves who did almost every kind of physical labor on plantations. New Englanders worked their own land, made their own wagons and built their own houses. They were jacks-of-all-trades, used to physical hardship, and not particularly polished by education or social niceties.

As Henry Knox also proved, they could be rallied in the hinterlands to support the cause of independence. Knox himself, a large, hearty, sociable Boston bookseller-turned-soldier, had the idea of traveling to Fort Ticonderoga in December of 1775 and bringing back the fort’s usable cannon and mortars, floating them down Lake Champlain, then sledding them over the Berkshire Mountains. This enormously difficult feat was accomplished against all but constant odds, forced ahead by Knox’s refusal to give up, and the aid of local citizens along the way, who built sledges, helped recover cannon which sank, luckly close to shore, and provided oxen, then horses to drag the sledges over the mountains.

The British, McCullough makes clear, had little of this “get up and go.” Lord Howe, the commander, though a brave and well-trained soldier–he led the last charge up Bunker Hill and was the only British soldier left standing–was slothful, over-confident, and given to constant socializing. One of my favorite scenes takes place that Boston winter during a Boston theatrical, in which booms of cannon resounded. The audience of British soldiers and Loyalists took the cannonade to be part of the farce, but in reality it was American guns. A telling mistake.

McCullough sums up the difference between the British and American command with several succinct comparisons: The American generals and other officers had, with a few exceptions, little military experience except for years before, fighting as did Washington in the French and Indian Wars. The British soldiers were not only highly trained, but their leaders had all served in many engagements. Yet the loose regulations governing American hierarchy let virtual unknown civilians like Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox rise to the top, which proved immensely important, as they added wit and intelligence and determination to the cause. Meanwhile the British rigid division between aristocracy and commoners kept brilliant military strategists and engineers at lower levels.

By the time Washington’s army, using decoying techniques, had dug the Ticonderoga guns into the Heights of Dorchester, both sets of assumptions were proven wrong. The British were not superior as they withdrew, deciding to save their men, rather than engage. They had been outsmarted. And Washington had tested the mettle of his officers and men. Whether he changed his mind about New Englanders, at least in his voluminous correspondence, I have yet to find out. I’m only half-way through the book.

It’s good to be reminded that from the very beginning of this nation’s formation, there was a divide between northern and southern ways of life. Washington had the fortitude, humility, power of command and intelligence to use what he was given to its best advantage. Perhaps this is what we lack today. Though I admire President Barack Obama for many of his initiatives and his obvious desire to compromise, I see him lacking qualities that made Washington a compelling leader, not just a good one or an experienced one, but compelling. With his imposing figure always in the field, encouraging, directing, taking charge when necessary, Washington provided an outstanding leader whose skill, determination, and power to unite could not be ignored. One example comes back to me: in a melee that fall of 1775, when the American soldiers fell upon each other to beat and curse, and damage each other, Washington (one of the tallest of his contemporaries) strode into the fight, grabbed two combatants and held them at arms’ length as he alternately cursed them and knocked their heads together.

We are not now on a battlefield except figuratively. But it gives me great satisfaction to image President Obama pulling apart two of the most snarly Dems and Republicans and giving them a talking to, then knocking some sense into them.

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