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The book that… first shaped my understanding of the American story …

The book that… first shaped my understanding of the American story …

Nathanael Greene, the general who George Washington increasingly relied upon as the Revolutionary War dragged on, described in correspondence his experience commanding in the near-run campaign that turned the war’s tide, using words that one could apply to the larger American fight for independence: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” The American Revolution is an incredible story, a historical thriller, if you will.

Today I own several dozen books on events and participants of the Revolution and the early Republic. The shelves also hold tour guides to the sites of the Revolution. I’ve been to Boston, Concord, Washington’s Crossing, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Cowpens, and the eroding siege works of Yorktown, but sadly have not made it to Ticonderoga, Valley Forge and so much else.

My first book on the Revolution is the one in my library I’ve owned the second longest, following that ROTC Manual my dad gave to me. It was under the Christmas tree: my first profusely illustrated history book, The Golden Book of the American Revolution, adapted by Fred Cook from the American Heritage Book of the Revolution, with an Introduction by Pulitzer Prize historian Bruce Catton. The book is about 200 pages long. It’s packed for shipping right now, but I would put the number of images at 250-300, nearly all of them contemporary and in full color. That’s American Romantic Neoclassical artist John Trumbull’s 1844 painting of the “Death of General Mercer at Princeton” on the cover. The book has many of Trumbull’s paintings and other epic, romantic tableaux of land and sea battles and political and diplomatic high points (the signings of the Declaration and the Treaty of Paris). Here too are contemporary drawings and paintings and museum displays of uniforms, weaponry, ships, and military and naval equipment and supplies. Life and brutal warfare along the frontiers among settlers, militia, redcoats, and Native Americans are part of the illustrated story. Among the most interesting images are those which reproduce the revolutionary political broadsides and artwork whipped up by Sam Adams, Revere and others to foment rebellion even when the British went through their periodic pre-war attempts to calm tensions. For a west coast boy, which I was at the time, it was my first good look at the colonial cities and towns and the remarkable Eastern seaboard terrain featured in the paintings, as well as the man-killing winter camps, so foreign to my own experiences in southern California suburbia. The many contemporary military maps, which I had learned to read in that ROTC manual, gave me a pretty good understanding of some of the challenges faced by opposing commanders and their often badly dressed, equipped, and fed men. Formal portraits of statesmen and soldiers and other images further flesh out the story.

A beautiful book, although my copy is a little worse for wear. You’ll note that the top of the spine is missing, the result of a poodle’s irritation at being restricted to my bedroom during the day for some reason.

Though adapted for young readers (grades 7-9), it was not a childen’s text but an edited for length version of an adult level American Heritage publication. I do think this is the way to go for young readers with any sign of historical curiosity. Because of the upper grade/adult text and imagery, age 9 readers (like I was) can revisit the book at 11 and 13 and beyond, comfortable and challenged at each new examination.

If you’re looking for good modern histories, you might start with 1776 by David McCullough, David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, or the more comprehensive A Leap in the Dark and Almost a Miracle by John Ferling.  After I moved to Maryland, I had it in my head to write about the most reliable regiments in Washington’s Continental Army, the Maryland Line. Her regiments were seemingly everywhere, from covering the disastrous retreat from Long Island to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Busy with other projects, I never got the time to research it. I hope someone else is working to tell their story.

Beyond the “what happened and who did it” (or at least one version), the book introduced me to a world of ideas that inspired our nation’s independence and the founding of our constitutional republic. My understanding of our founding has evolved over the last half century, but no book has been important to me than this gift under the Christmas tree.