The Deciding Battle of the American Revolution
By Marcia Allen, Technical Services and Collections Manager
I first encountered the wonderful writing of Nathaniel Philbrick when I read In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex some years ago. That nonfiction tale recounted the disabling of the whaleship Essex in 1820 as the result of an impact with a maddened sperm whale. Philbrick’s lively history gave us a detailed description of the suffering of the crew as they drifted for months at sea. The book received great honors when it was selected as the winner of a National Book Award later in the year 2000.
Next, I read Mayflower which Philbrick published in 2007. In the course of another engrossing true story, Philbrick explained the truths behind the violent beginnings of our country. This book tells of the rigors of Plymouth Colony, as well as compelling biographical information about the Pilgrims. Like In the Heart of the Sea, this book is riveting.
New this fall is Philbrick’s story of the final year of the Revolutionary War. In particular, the book focuses on the efforts of the French navy to aid the American cause. In the Hurricane’s Eye is a masterful account of George Washington’s frustrated attempts to end the conflict. Benedict Arnold, once a valuable supporter of the American cause, was now a traitor and a capable leader for the British.
The once-enthusiastic American forces were discouraged by poor equipment and lack of payment, so many were reluctant to continue war efforts. Food supplies were short, weather and poor roadways inhibited movement, and Congress had done little to maintain the war effort.
Why the necessity for the French navy? At that time, the world knew about the British superiority as sea. American ships of war lacked both numbers and strength when compared to the British vessels. The French naval leaders were willing to aid the Americans, but they knew they would also need additional help. Thus, the French helped the Spanish regain territory lost to the British in the Caribbean, in return for backing from the Spanish in the American cause.
French intervention led to a crucial turning point in the war: the Battle of the Chesapeake. Highly talented French Admiral de Grasse lured British forces away from the bay, thus preventing them from aiding Lord Cornwallis in Battle at Yorktown. In the meantime, the American troops had made use of extensive redoubts for fortification. Losing troops, losing control of battlements, and lacking reinforcements, Lord Cornwallis, the much-feared leader of British forces, decided to capitulate. Thus the determining battle of the Revolutionary War was declared an American victory when American ships were not even involved in the crucial battle of the bay.
That’s the background, but Philbrick’s story does so much more. He brings to historical events lots of little ironies and bits of both humor and tragedy that are fascinating. For example, he includes written testimonials of events, like those of American Captain John Ewald who described the night of the Battle of Yorktown as “dark as a sack.” The author includes accounts of the snubs that the British troops exhibited as they refused to cast eyes on the shabbily clad Americans. He tells of Washington’s refusal to accept the demands of the defeated Cornwallis, instead insisting that British soldiers walk a gauntlet between French and American troops and cast their weapons to the ground in a large pile. He tells of the bravery of American leaders, like Nathanael Greene, who never clearly won a battle but who managed to be a significant force in slowing British advancement.
For those interested in the events following the war, Philbrick’s section entitled “Aftermath” is a real treasure. Here we discover quick summations of the rest of the lives of the major players of the book. Here is a frustrated Benedict Arnold carping about money he felt the British still owed him. Here is Nathanael Greene, dead at forty-three of sunstroke, praised as a genius by Alexander Hamilton. And here is George Washington who died at the age of sixty-seven, probably felled by pneumonia.
There’s so much to like and enjoy about a book of this caliber. Nathaniel Philbrick remains one of our better writers of American history.