In My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78, Robert Sullivan offers a viewpoint of that time in history as viewed from his perch atop the Empire State Building—New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

You’ve written about the Meadowlands, whales, rats, and Thoreau. What brought you to scouting the landscape of the American Revolution?

There’s a spot right on the Hudson River where I used to stop every day by the train station. I kept thinking about the weather, the landscape, and being attacked... how the emotional geography lines up with the military strategic landscape. I would look up the river and I kept thinking: these are the same sights as what people saw then. Sounds trite and simplistic, but true.

Why has New York and New Jersey neglected its Revolutionary War history, as you write, unlike Massachusetts, for example?

A lot of the stuff that happened in New England during the war is today counted in the win category—the Battle of Lexington and Concord, for example, or even the siege of Boston, wherein the British are always said to have run, even if scholars now say they were about to leave anyway. In New York and New Jersey, it’s more of a landscape of loss—the retreats from Brooklyn, evacuation of Manhattan and then New Jersey. Everywhere you look in the Meadowlands, you can imagine Washington and his troops were running scared, trying to get south of the Delaware. In the American army’s first formal battle, in 1776, Washington lost New York and spent a lot of the war wishing he had it back. Non-wins are celebrated more quietly, and yet I find something liberating about contemplating retreat and loss.

How did this book evolve?

What was guiding me was the almanac: the list of days and lists of numbers. There’s nothing to it but the way we mark time. We’re just trying to find a stake to put down and have a way to examine time’s passing. You get to see where people over and over have thought of the same dates, like Washington’s inauguration. And while writing the book about Thoreau [The Thoreau You Don’t Know], I learned that he seemed to have been assembling an almanac, to examine when things bloomed in town, how high rivers were, when birds came through. It was like Virgil’s Georgics. I was obsessed with these lines from Thoreau: “The wind that blows/Is all that anybody knows.” I kept thinking of George Washington and his farm advisers, all concerned about the weather. From a strategic standpoint it’s the most important thing and also the most boring thing.

The amorphous, footnote-heavy way you structure the book: does this reflect how we receive history, how we learn?

People talk about the footnotes of history, but that’s the stuff from which I made the book itself. The footnotes are about the larger themes of history, so I kind of reversed the process. I get into themes. It’s impossible for me to work otherwise.