PROVO — Real men, not figures in a painting, men shivering without proper winter coats or boots, men few believed had any chance to win a ridiculously ambitious independence, crossed the Delaware River with Gen. George Washington in 1776.
Two of those men froze to death on the nine-mile march to Trenton, even before the beginning of a battle that saved an infant nation nobody knew would become the most powerful the world has known.
"The stories of our troops leaving bloody footprints in the snow because they were in bare feet are true. They aren't mythology," celebrated historian David McCullough told thousands of students Tuesday at Brigham Young University.
McCullough has a talent for bringing the past to life, a talent that earned him a standing ovation at the end of his lecture in the Marriott Center just as it previously brought him two Pulitzer Prizes for biography and acclaim for his narration in the hit 2003 movie "Sea- biscuit."
He shared engaging anecdotes and scenes from his new book "1776," then fretted after the lecture that a growing perception of history as a dead subject is a pressing problem for the future of the United States.
"I don't think (the 'Spirit of 1776') is lost, but I think it's eroding because we've been doing a less-than-adequate job of educating our students," he said during a post-lecture question-and-answer session with hundreds of BYU faculty, staff and students. "We've raised several generations of students who are historically illiterate."
The fallout was evident on Sept. 11, 2001.
"There is an overemphasis on how dangerous and dark and bleak our time is," McCullough said. "On 9/11, I heard commentators say it was the darkest time in our history. Anyone who says that has no sense of our history. The worst times were in 1776, during the Civil War, the Depression. And the first few months of 1942 were some of the worst in history."
One simple measuring stick is casualties. During the Revolutionary War, which McCullough characterized as "a long, bloody, costly war," 25,000 Americans died. That was equal to 1 percent of the population. If the same percentage of Americans were killed in a conflict today, more than 3 million would lose their lives.
BYU worked for three years to bring McCullough to campus for a forum assembly, ever since the biography "John Adams" won McCullough his second Pulitzer in 2002; he won his first Pulitzer in 1993 for "Truman."
Finally, a year ago, McCullough scheduled this trip to BYU.
"Fortuitously, the book '1776' came out this summer," said Scott Duvall, chair of the committee that selects forum speakers.
The new release and the continued popularity of "John Adams" spawned a crowd of more than 5,000, the largest for a forum assembly since Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's campus visit in 2002, university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said.
"I am thrilled," McCullough said, "to be at a university where an American heritage course is part of the required curriculum and where the Constitution is being taught as a matter of serious consequence for all of us who are citizens of this country."
The "American Experiment" nearly died in the petri dish, in 1776.
"We were soundly defeated," McCullough said of the state of the nation after a particular battle. "We were made to look foolish. We were outsmarted, we were outflanked, we were outgeneraled, outnumbered. We really were, we were pathetic."
The army Washington commanded was an "amateur pickup team, this rude, crude, un-uniformed, undisciplined, untrained American army of farmboys, some of whom had only been given a musket and been told to march off a few weeks before."
The British, in contrast, were presumed headed for Philadelphia with the best troops in the world, well-fed and well-equipped.
"And there was nothing to stop them," McCullough said. "Most everybody concluded the war was over and we had lost. It was the only rational conclusion one could come to. There wasn't a chance. So Washington did what you sometimes have do when everything's lost and all hope's gone. He attacked."
The Americans crossed the Delaware, marched to Trenton and defeated the Hessians — and sparked new hope.
"It was one of the most important turning points not just in the history of the war but the history of our country and consequently of the world," McCullough said.
For the historian, Washington is not only the star of both 1776 and much of the next two decades. "George Washington was the greatest American leader," he said.
Understanding that, and the difficulties Americans encountered 229 years ago, is not trivial.
"If we love our country, or to be broader about that, let's say if we love the freedoms we enjoy, the blessings of freedom, the blessings of a society that welcomes free speech, freedom of religion and, most important of all, freedom to think for ourselves — if we like that blessing, then surely we ought to know how it came to be, who was responsible, what did they do, how much did they contribute, how much did they suffer."
Learning about those people can be interesting, as McCullough has shown with his popular books, and he said the benefit of knowing our history is revealed in the war on terrorism.
"We are up against a foe who believes in forced ignorance, not just for women but for everyone. We don't. We have to hold to our beliefs."
Another lesson, he added, is that today's Americans have the steel to persevere.
"We're all descendants of people who went through tough times — for us."
McCullough doesn't have plans for another book. He wants to explore some time off to devote to painting, he said while signing dozens of books after the robust question-and-answer session ended.
That was bad news for many who got their first taste of McCullough on Tuesday, including David Nance, a Spanish-teaching major from Little Rock, Ark. Nance purchased one of McCullough's books on Monday and got it signed Tuesday. He called the forum assembly the best he's attended in his three years at BYU.
"I'm going to go home and call my dad and tell him he better read McCullough, too."
But don't send McCullough an e-mail if you hope to talk him out of "retirement": He doesn't have a computer or an e-mail account.
"I'm happily, woefully — some of you will think pathetically — behind the times," he said.
KBYU-TV will rebroadcast McCullough's speech Oct. 9 at 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. and Oct. 15 at 5 p.m.