Monday, June 15, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 6

Ferling, John. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xiii + 679 ppg.

     I think the selection of this book for this week's book review is appropriate. We are studying the American Revolution in my American History to 1865 class this week. Sunday was the 240th birthday of the United States Army and today marks the 240th anniversary of John Adams' nomination of George Washington as commander of the new Continental Army. He was subsequently unanimously elected to the position by the Second Continental Congress the same day. He made these remarks.

"Mr. President,

"Tho' I am truly sensible of the high Honour done me, in this Appointment, yet I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important Trust: However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service, and for support of the glorious cause. I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks for this distinguished testimony of their approbation.

"But, lest some unlucky event should happen, unfavourable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered, by every Gentleman in the room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with.

"As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress, that, as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this arduous employment, at the expence of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any proffit from it. I will keep an exact Account of my expences. Those, I doubt not, they will discharge, and that is all I desire."

It is always worth remembering the George Washington served his new country at his own expense, receiving no pay for his service other than to reimburse his own expenditures incurred. 

I found John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence to be an excellent companion monograph to his A Leap in the Dark. I have taken a few classes dealing with the American Revolution and most of them left out the military part of the Revolution in favor of its causes and aftermath. While I agree that those are very important in understanding the Revolution, there were many things that went on within the actual war that helped shape how the United States turned out after the war. While reading Miracle I ran across many things that I felt I was reading for the first time. I also found it to be a great source for writing my paper on the Franco-American alliance of 1778 which I initially did not expect it to be. 

            This was the third Ferling book I’ve read. All three were well researched and written in a way that made them easy to read. Maybe I have been reading history books too long and have now adapted my thinking to the way academics write, but I think Ferling is just a better writer than some academics. It is either that or he has good editors. Maybe it is a combination of both. In any event the writing was such that it flowed. I understand that he was writing about events on two continents over a little more than a decade of time so he had to jump around quite a bit in order to cover a lot of ground. To do that he used the chapter labeled as “Choices” to set up each year so that the reader could see how the Revolution progressed over time. 
            I really liked those chapters. It reflected how nothing is inevitable in history and that the events of history are really the results of the choices made by men and women. In the case of the Revolution the choices made had huge impacts on what would transpire in the following year. It also allowed for a bit of speculation on Ferling’s part which I felt was wonderful. I often have run across fellow students that say historians should not speculate upon the past, but I feel that we do have to speculate to some degree. Not every choice made in history has been good. Part of a historian’s job is to explain why a decision was made and what transpired as a result of that choice. 

            There were choices made that almost lost the Revolution for the Americans in 1776, specifically the Battle of New York. George Washington made some stupendous blunders in that campaign and the only reason the Continental Army survived to fight another day was due to the choices made by General William Howe of the British army. It was a case of both commanders making bad choices repeatedly throughout that campaign. I believe Ferling wanted to make it clear to us that the campaigns in the Revolution could have gone either way in most cases. It is said that wars are won by the side that makes the least number of mistakes. That might be why this Revolutionary War took so long. Both sides made a tremendous amount of mistakes.

            I also liked the parts where Ferling described the people that fought in the war and in the case of the American soldier, how he was dressed. The idea that the war was fought by brave patriots slugging it out with the British over the ideas that inspired the Revolution was disproved by Ferling. In reality the American soldier was at the bottom of the social order. In many cases he was conscripted or forced into serving in the ranks almost like a common criminal. Yet many of them chose the military because they saw an opportunity to rise above their social standing and this was at a time when doing that was difficult. Colonial life was extremely hierarchical and the Revolution changed that in this country for good. Social mobility was almost nonexistent but it did happen.

            Ferling also showed how after the great victory of the Americans in the Saratoga campaign and the entry of France into the war things went so very wrong for the Allied cause. In theory the addition of France to the war should have given the Americans more advantages in fighting the British, especially after the British pulled troops out of North America and sent them to the West Indies. Instead, what really happened was that the war expanded into an international conflict and that almost resulted in the United States not achieving the results that did occur. The United States failed to follow up Saratoga with any substantial military successes. Most of that was due to the way Congress operated and managed the war. That had a direct effect of making most of the Continental Army officers desire a stronger centralized government which came into being at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. I believe that also played a role in the ratification process in 1788.

            Ferling did not stint when it came to explaining the war in the south either. By the end of 1780 the British had a firm hand in the South and had defeated two Continental armies. If at the end of 1780 you would have told both British and American commanders the US would win the war in October 1781 you probably would not have convinced anyone. Yet, that is exactly what happened. The British had the chance to secure the southern colonies. International pressure was building in the neutral nations to end the war. The Americans were relying on the French in order to remain in the fight. The choices made in the early part of 1781 set the stage for what followed.

            Two American victories made Lord Cornwallis change his plans and move northward instead of holding onto South Carolina and Georgia. Right there the British made a serious blunder. By not having enough manpower in North America they gave away the chance to win the Revolution. They just did not place as much value on the North American colonies as they did other colonies that the French threatened in the West Indies. When Cornwallis went into Virginia and ended up at Yorktown, the French persuaded Washington to move the army to Virginia to possibly capture another British army and win the war. 

            I think Ferling put the proper amount of stress on how the Yorktown campaign unfolded and just how much of a role the French played in it. Without the French aid throughout the war the US would not have won. At Yorktown, without the French fleet under De Grasse and the French troops under Rochambeau Washington would not have been able to capture Cornwallis’s army. Ferling made sure to note that it was Rochambeau’s decision to send a message to De Grasse to take the fleet to Virginia, not New York that played a pivotal role in the campaign. Washington maintained a fatalistic obsession with fighting for New York that blinded him to the dangers of the British Southern Strategy and almost prevented him from going to Yorktown.

            When Washington received a message that De Grasse was in Virginian waters and ready to fight there is when the biggest decision of the war came for him. By deciding to go to Virginia he would win the war with a knockout punch and that was all because of Rochambeau’s decision to tell De Grasse to go to Virginia. The resulting victory changed everything for the British and Americans regarding the war. The British had the chance to win the war many times throughout the Revolution and Ferling explained that each time the chances were there. He also explained why those chances slipped away from the British. Interestingly, at no point in the Revolution did the Americans have the chance to win the war decisively until Yorktown. They had to fight the war until the British finally gave up the struggle. Ferling did not come out and say that outright, but that was the ultimate essence of the book. It was a struggle of two foes to see which one could outlast the other. 
            Ferling made the clear throughout the book as well with his explanations of how much the Americans relied on the French, the war weariness, the economic collapse of the states, the inability of Congress to persuade the states to work as one, the inability of the country to build and maintain an effective army, and incredible suffering people endured in the war. In that respect the title of the book, Almost a Miracle was a rather apt choice for the title. 

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