David McCullough, hometown historian
David McCullough’s latest work, “1776,” is flying off the shelves.
Simon & Schuster printed 1.25 million copies in anticipation of a McCullough Pulitzer three-peat. A million-plus first printing of a history book dealing with the America Revolution is, well, historic !
But what is the secret to McCullough’s successâ¢ It boils down to good storytelling. McCullough is America’s top historian because he is America’s best storyteller.
Remember Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series on PBSâ¢ That was David McCullough’s narration that kept us glued to the TV week after week as the story of the Civil War unfolded. And McCullough writes the way he speaks — you can almost hear his rich yet quirky Pittsburgh baritone and measured cadence as you turn the pages.
At a recent lecture — actually the beginning of a grueling six-week “1776” promotion tour – at the Carnegie Library here in Pittsburgh,
McCullough recounted boyhood memories of his family’s nightly dinner table conversation. Every evening at 6:30 the McCulloughs — mom, dad, brothers and extended family — talked of current events, politics and, most especially, history.
He was steeped in the legends and lore of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Stories better then fiction were served in heaping helpings at the McCulloughs’ table, and young David listened wide-eyed. When he was old enough, he asked questions and even ventured opinions. He learned the rhetoric of history and how to make his case clearly and with conviction.
It is no surprise that he began his career as an historian by writing “The Johnstown Flood,” a story rich in mystery, tragedy and, most of all, people. The movers and shakers who built the ill-fated dam and the victims and heroes who were swept downstream by the merciless torrent all came alive in McCullough’s telling.
Every one of McCullough’s subsequent books focuses on human drama and, if you look closely, there is always a Pittsburgh connection. Pittsburgh is a name with power, he would say, a most American city and a place with history second to none.
Once you know his roots, McCullough’s tales of George Washington’s desperate Brooklyn escape from the British across the East River and his bold crossing of the Delaware to attack the Hessians at Trenton in 1776 take on even more meaning. These two daring river crossings during America’s darkest hour – when all seemed so hopeless – saved the young republic and established Washington as the heroic figure we know today.
In 1776, British General William Howe, leading one of the best trained armies in the world — augmented with elite German mercenaries — and backed by an armada of warships, never expected Washington to extricate his nearly-routed little army of rag-tag militia and Continentals from Brooklyn. But, late that summer, Washington ferried his men across the East River to New York and out of harm’s way. The move showed remarkable boldness and poise on Washington’s part.
Howe and the British, dumbfounded by the move, resigned themselves to the fact that the American rebellion would be a longer and costlier struggle than they had thought. No matter, by December Washington’s army had dwindled to a mere 3,000 freezing, miserable soldiers. The British and Hessian troops quartered themselves snugly in captured American towns in New York and New Jersey, waiting for spring and an opportunity to finish off the insurgents.
But Washington was not ready to be counted out, and on the day after Christmas he set out across the half-frozen Delaware River to attack the Hessians at Trenton. He ordered his men to shove through the ice floes and just as day broke he led them to a stunning victory that changed the course of the revolution.
Just 20 years earlier, a younger Washington (21-year-old-red-haired-ambitous-callow George) began his military career with river crossings here in Western Pennsylvania. Just a few days after Christmas in 1753, he nearly drowned in a raft crossing of the frigid, ice choked Allegheny River after delivering a warning to French forces determined to fight for the contested “Ohio Country.”
Washington’s published account of his harrowing journey catapulted him on to the world stage and positioned him to fire the first shots of what turned into the French & Indian War — the 18th century’s bloodiest conflict and the first world war. On July 9, 1755, Washington crossed the Monongahela with General Braddock’s formidable force bound for French Fort Duquesne at the “forks of the Ohio.” Disaster ensued in the trackless forest as the French and their Indian allies slaughtered the redcoats. And it was Washington who rallied Braddock’s shattered army and directed the retreat across the river to safety.
Yes, history does have a way of repeating itself. It is altogether fitting that David McCullough should write the story of Washington’s history-making crossings of the American Revolution. After all, both Washington and McCullough learned their craft here … in Pittsburgh.
Andrew Masich is president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.