How did it happen? Even more important, how did it turn out the way it did?
Thirteen colonies with a few other colonial settlements banded together to take on the world’s most powerful military, naval, and economic power. Even within the colonies, there were enough Loyalists to prevent a victory from occuring. Sometimes, deep reading into the history of an event reveals so many flaws, faulty assumptions, and bursting of myths as to damage the story overall. But in this case, with the brush strokes revealing the darker and uglier hues, the overall story is still one that astounds and amazes.
The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson is the first of a projected three volume Revolution Trilogy. This first volume has raised a high bar, but based on Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (based on the American experience in World War II in Europe), this series should be definitive.
The big challenge for the Patriots was creating a military adequate to take on the British. There were many untried men who rose through the ranks. Some achieved success, some failed, and some perished before they could fulfill their potential. Even George Washington was a newcomer to the kind of leadership that was expected of him. It is difficult for us to grasp that the position that George Washington holds in our nation’s memory could have been held by Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, or even Benedict Arnold. However, it is hard to imagine how any of those three could have risen to the level that Washington did.
As time and circumstances caused Washington to develop the cat and mouse strategy, he had to learn while on the job. The Americans were often dealing with short enlistments, lack of equipment, poor organization, and no money. The military career of Washington is one of many defeats and near disasters punctuated by one set of major victories in the middle of the war before his climactic win at Yorktown.
Another aspect of the war that is often overlooked is that there were far more than a mere thirteen colonies in the New World. Some of the colonial outposts joined alongside the 13, such as Vermont and Franklin (eastern Tennessee). Other colonial settlements, such as Canada resisted. Had Canada joined the lower coastal colonies or had those colonies conquered Canada, the outcome would have looked drastically different.
The campaign to capture Canada is one of the great ventures in the war. It turned out to be a disaster, but such a fate was in the balance for much of that campaign. Richard Montgomery is among the names of the forgotten from that campaign. Had he won, he would be heralded as one of our great founders. His death cost the Patriots a key leader. But another strong fighter, Benedict Arnold, proved himself a scrappy field commander in that campaign. It is astounding how close he came through his exploits for the Patriots to being one of our most revered heroes.
As a history teacher, I know how the story that this book tells progresses. Admittedly, I learned lots of names that I had either never noticed or had overlooked. Certainly, I found many pages of material that refreshed my understanding of what happened in the battles for New York and New Jersey. Surprisingly, I learned quite a bit about our adversary–King George III. But something happens when I am reading a book like this. It becomes like a mystery novel, and I find myself wondering how it will end. Surely, I thought many times while reading this book, the Americans are going to lose this whole war. Knowing the end didn’t keep me from suspending disbelief in the events as they were unfolding in the narrative.
Another aspect of the book that was very enjoyable and typical of Atkinson’s writing was the inclusion of many eye-witness accounts. Many heart-rending excerpts were included from letters of those who died in the battles. Attitudes and perspectives of the soldiers bring the war the war home in a way that the broad overview cannot. This was a war that pitted men of honor and principle on both sides against each other. That does not negate the fact that being war, some ugly things happened that go beyond the already awful nature of warfare.
Of course, all my fellow history teachers and serious students will want to read this book. But I think that those who simply like a good story that is non-fictional would like it as well. Let’s just get to the point: This is a book for Americans. With all of my attraction to books on the Civil War Between the States and the World Wars, this is the war that made America. The heritage is a not pure and faultless, but it is still amazing. More important than the evening news is the story of our founding. Here it is, or at least, here is the first third of it.
Congratulations to Rick Atkinson on completing this first volume and on (I am predicting) winning yet another well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.