Most Americans think of 1776 as a glorious year in revolutionary history, capped off when the Founders declared independence to the peals of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell. Indeed, as the summer of 1776 approached, the country did have much to celebrate. The war that began at Lexington Green on April 19, 1775 had gone suprisingly well. For almost a year, citizen militia had inflicted heavy damage to British Regulars and Loyalist forces in a succession of engagements: Lexington and Concord in April, Ticonderoga in May, Bunker Hill in June, and Virginia’s Great Bridge in December, culminating in the withdrawal of British forces from Boston in March 1776. Unfortunately, 1776 was also the year in which the nation—and its revolution—was very nearly stillborn.

Notwithstanding the brave words of July 4, during the five months that followed the Declaration of Independence, American forces lost every battle they fought. They...


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