I’ve made a personal “tradition” of reading David McCullough’s 1776 on the 4th of July
for the last couple of years. The book is a marvelous retelling of this pivotal year in the story of America. A repeated theme that impressed me in this last reading was the number of “miracles” — or what theologians might call works of “The Providence of God” — which contributed to the birth of The United States, which, had “circumstances” gone the other way in one or more of these cases, might never have taken place. Following are a few examples:
In November, 1775, things looked bleak for General Washington, as barely a tenth of his 10,000 man Continental army had agreed to re-enlist. Supplies were non-existent. Washington wrote that “Our situation is truly alarming … could I have foreseen what I have and am like to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.” McCullough writes: “For six long months there had hardly been a shred of good news … no sign to suggest better days ahead.
The next day, amazingly, came ‘glad tidings.’ A privateer, the schooner Lee, under the command of Captain John Manley, had captured an enemy supply ship, the brig Nancy, off Cape Ann, north of Boston. The ship was loaded with military treasure — a supply of war material such as Congress could not be expected to supply for months to come, including 2,500 stands of arms, cannon, mortars, flints, some forty tons of shot, and 2,000 bayonets …. The Lee was one of the first armed schooners Washington had sent out to prey on enemy shipping. It was first triumph for his new ‘navy,’ and John Manley, a first hero. It was an ‘instance of divine favor, for nothing surely ever came more apropos,’ Washington wrote immediately to Joseph Reed.” (p. 64)
Then early in 1776, the American troops had hemmed the British in to the port of Boston, but unbeknownst to the redcoats, the colonists who encircled them were actually in a crisis: “On January 14, two weeks into the new year George Washington wrote one of the most forlorn, despairing letters of his life. … ‘Few people know the predicament we are in.’ … So many of the troops (had) given up and gone home … the supply of arms was depleted to the point that there were not enough for the new recruits. … That the British were so ‘blind’ to what was going on and the true state of his situation he considered nearly miraculous.
Had he known what he was getting into, he told Reed, he would never have accepted the command. ‘If I shall be able to rise superior to these, and many other difficulties which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the eyes of our enemies …’” (pp. 78-79)
Later, on the night of Washington’s bold move up Dorchester Heights with canon, which surprised the British and forced them out of Boston:
“The night was unseasonably mild — indeed, perfectly beautiful with a full moon — ideal conditions for the work, as if the hand of the Almighty were directing things, which the Reverend William Gordon, like many others, felt certain that it was. ‘A finer night for working could not have been taken out fo the whole 365,’ he wrote.” (p. 92)
And when British General Howe decided to attack Washington’s men on Dorchester, “By nightfall, a storm raged … ‘the worst storm I was ever exposed to.’ Clearly there would be no British assault that night.
The morning after, the winds continued to blow with a fury. The snow and sleet had changed to driving rain. General Heath concluded that ‘kind Heaven’ had stepped in to intervene. And so it seemed to many on both sides, when, that morning, Howe called off the attack and gave orders to prepare to evacuate Boston.” (p. 96)
Following the American defeat in Brooklyn later that year, Washington’s army had their backs to the East River, with a superior British force hemming them in. The English had a huge fleet which should have kept the Americans from evacuating, but again, providentially, the winds were contrary and kept the ships away. Then suddenly:
“It was about eleven o’clock when, as if by design, the northeast wind died down. Then the wind shifted to the southwest and a small armada of boats manned by more of John Glover’s Massachusetts sailors and fishermen started over the River from New York (to evacuate Washington’s army). …
But the exodus was not moving fast enough. … Time was running out. Though nearly morning, a large part of the (Continental) army still waited to embark, and without the curtain of night to conceal them, their escape was doomed.
Incredibly, yet again, circumstances — fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often — intervened.
Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled in over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night. It was a fog so thick, remembered one soldier, that one ‘could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.’ Even with the sun up, the fog remained as dense as ever, while over on the New York side of the river there was no fog at all. … ‘It may be supposed we did not linger,’ wrote Alexander Graydon. … In a single night, 9,000 troops had escaped across the river. Not a life was lost.” (pp. 188-191)
During Christmas of 1776, with his army in tatters and the British — and many colonists — believing the war was about over, Washington made a bold move across the frozen Delaware River to attack Trenton: “Incredibly, in a battle of such extreme savagery (street to street fighting with bayonets), only four Americans had been wounded … and not one American had been killed.” (p. 281)
Summarizing the second half of the year, McCullough writes:
“From the last week of August to the last week of December, the year 1776 had been as dark a time as those devoted to the American cause had ever known — indeed, as dark a time as any in the history of the country. And suddenly, miraculously it seemed, that had changed …” (p. 291)
Then the book concludes with this paragraph:
“Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning — how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference — the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.”
One might note that the author of 1776, David McCullough, is by no means a “religious apologist,” but rather one of the premier writers of history in our generation. But any responsible historian must take note of the unusual providences which took place in 1776 and beyond, and which directed the fortunes of the nation.
The birth of the United States was indeed “little short of a miracle.” It came into being through countless decisive individual acts of Providences, as well as the overarching plan of the Providence of God.