Robert Sullivan gets up close and casual with the American Revolution
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Underneath the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, around the noise of thousands pushing past each other on tattered sidewalks, off in the humble Watchung Mountains surrounding the metropolis, lies a deep and rich history about the experiences of George Washington and his army during the Revolutionary War from 1776 to 1783.
In "My American Revolution," Robert Sullivan takes us along his journey through the areas around New York -- where much of the American Revolution was fought, but oftentimes ill-remembered -- in an effort to plant himself inside the shoes of those who sacrificed their lives for the words we pledged daily in elementary school: for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26).
Mr. Sullivan begs us to start a conversation about New York with questions about what it must have felt like to experience the December cold of 1779 -- arguably the most extreme winter New Yorkers have ever faced -- when there was no wood left to burn in Morristown, N.J., in the Watchung Mountains and so, wood had to be transported from Long Island to keep soldiers from freezing to death, often without the aid of shoes. Why did soldiers continue to fight despite the weather, Mr. Sullivan ponders, when ships became locked in ice up to 18 feet thick, when it was so cold that the ink froze in the pens of soldiers as they attempted to write home to their mothers and loved ones that they were still alive?
In opening, Mr. Sullivan asks: "Do the hills around us remember all that they have seen?" Do they recall the stench of The Jersey and the other prison ships which remained docked in New York Harbor for years, feeding men vermin? Do they recall how the army relied upon mirrors to reflect the sun and signal each other from hundreds of miles away?
Yet, other questions ask us to consider how much chance played into these epic moments of America's past. The Delaware River froze in 1871, 1875 and 1893, but for some reason, it remained traversable on that fateful night when Washington and his men crossed it in 1776.
As Mr. Sullivan traverses the forests, mountains and rivers in and around New York City, he provides a glimpse into the historical minutia of the Revolution as a history buff, a 21st-century patron, a father, a son. This is a work about digging up lost facts and understanding their purpose in the larger framework of what the American Revolution was and how it is remembered.
To that end, he documents the history of the re-enactments of the Delaware Crossing, beginning with a painting by artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851, "Washington Crossing the Delaware." He explores those who became wedded to the Revolution by their literary contributions, like poet Philip Freneau who died penniless and frozen in a field, his work largely dismissed by the masses at the time.
In recounting the Revolution, Mr. Sullivan shows us the difficult task facing the baby nation's leader and soon-to-be first president, as George Washington grappled with fighting a war which at many times seemed to be a lost cause.
Most interestingly, we become exposed to the many faces of Washington, from his wooden teeth, to his kind treatment of war prisoners, to his intolerance for abandoning the war effort. There are numerous works written about Washington and yet, few emphasize his utter disdain for wasteful spending on luxurious foods despite his commanding position. When offered shad for breakfast one spring morning, one of the first caught that season, and being informed by his chef that it cost $2, Washington refused to eat it.
Writing in a conversational tone, Mr. Sullivan leaves the arguments to the historians, the details of Revolutionary paintings and writings to art and literary scholars, placing his own experiences of crossing the Delaware and Interstate 78 at the heart of this work.
"My American Revolution" is a perfect read for someone looking to learn a few neat details of the American Revolution without becoming overwhelmed by the effects of this profound moment in our history. It also sheds light on several great places to buy snacks around the battlefields where so many men lost their lives for the sake of freedom.
First Published September 30, 2012 12:00 am