Here comes another Independence Day. As we collectively set to glorify ourselves and bask in our romanticized "Spirit of '76", we might want to take a moment to reflect. The "spirit" in '76 was incompetence, panic, folly, failure and pessimism encased in disease, defeat and retreat. For the most part, 1776 was a lousy year.
George Washington forced the British to evacuate Boston March 17. The British commander, William Howe, sailed his army to Halifax to await reinforcements. Washington marched his troops to New York.
Both sides knew New York was the lynch pin of colonial unity. It was the hub of colonial communications, commerce, finance, industry and wealth.
Nonetheless, Washington's decision to engage at New York was militarily unsound. "Britannica rules the waves" and New York was an island. Its only connection to mainland America was a narrow bridge more than 10 miles north of the city.
Once deciding upon New York, Washington and his advisors concluded Long Island would be crucial. It was the gateway to the city. The "brain trust" did not seemed to appreciate both Long Island and Manhattan Island would be death traps if the British came in force under sail.
Throughout April, May and June, Washington's army fortified. On July 2, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted to "dissolve the connection" with Britain, and the British began landing in force at Staten Island.
Congress adopted The Declaration of Independence two days later. At Staten Island, huge British ships, some with nearly a 100-mounted gun, landed — and they just kept coming. On August 12 alone, 100 ships arrived.
On August 22, Howe attacked. Five days later, Long Island fell. The Continental Army — outnumbered more than two to one — barely escaped annihilation at night through horrendous rains and wind.
Washington proved himself an ineffective, indecisive and undisciplined leader. Even after 50 days of British buildup, he could not bring himself to abandon an unwise plan. In the fight, the Redcoats outsmarted and outfought him. He lost personal composure at the Battle of Brooklyn as his army disintegrated in panic.
The British occupied Manhattan. The continentals retreated northward. At the Battle of White Plains (Oct. 28), the continentals were handily defeated again. They retreated into New Jersey. Gen. Howe, knowing he had destroyed the Continental Army, turned command over to Lord Charles Cornwallis and went on holiday.
Cornwallis chased Washington across New Jersey. Illness plagued the continentals. At any given moment, perhaps 40 percent was incapacitated. Troops deserted en mass taking their weapons. Cornwallis continued pressing. By November's end, the king's forces had driven the Continental Army to the banks of the Delaware.
Between Dec. 2 and 11, Washington retreated across the river into Pennsylvania near McKonkey Ferry. Although it would get better in the following 10 days, a Christmas Eve assessment was bleak by any measure.
The Continental Army was ill clothed, demoralized, sick and near collapse. In a week, all enlistments would be up and the army would simply dissolve. Washington's leadership was in question. His seconds in command thought him inept.
Fearing the hangman, the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia Dec. 12.
Civilians lost faith. They lined up to pledge loyalty to the crown in exchange for amnesty.
Knowing the war was all but won, Gen. Cornwallis ceased military operations for the winter and set his army about consolidating its gains. He retired to New York on personal leave.
Camped with Washington and the Continental Army, the poet of political prose, Thomas Paine, wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls."