Sunday, November 11, 2007

John Ferling: Almost A Miracle

I’ve just finished Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.

Back in 2003 I read A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic by the same author. A Leap in the Dark was a look at the amazing challenges faced and overcome in creating a republic in an age of monarchy. It covers the politics from colonial resistance, through establishment of a government, to the orderly transfer of power represented by the election of 1800. I was impressed enough that I had to read Ferling’s new book when it came out.

Almost a Miracle retells the military history of the American Revolution. But it is more than a new narrative of battles and dates. Instead it focuses on the strategic and tactical decisions made by both British and American leaders. Why did the British not fortify Dorchester Heights outside Boston? Why did Washington wait so long before doing so? Each year of the war is introduced with a chapter on strategic choices being made that determine the nature of the year’s campaign. Major battles are described from the perspective of why the generals made their particular forms of attack or defense.

George Washington loses some of his luster in this history. He is seen as most effective when he listens to good advice. He shows frequent bouts of indecisiveness and poor judgment. He appears highly conscious of his reputation, and jealous of any generals who may overshadow him. But he did learn from his mistakes. And his character comes across as vital to American history. It took a man of Washington’s character to stay the course, remain respectful of civilian authority, and step aside at the end of the war.

Horatio Gates and Charles Lee both receive better treatment in this book than usual. As former British officers who settled in the colonies, they brought professional expertise that Washington needed.

Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and others in Washington’s military “family” fare badly in this book. They are used as examples of Washington surrounding himself with “Yes Men”.

Nathanial Greene, Henry Knox, Daniel Morgan, John Glover, and Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee retain their strong reputations. Benedict Arnold gets the positive treatment as a great general that I first encountered in the writings of Kenneth Roberts. – although he does have that one serious issue near the end of the war.

Ferling gives the Colonial Militias more credit than most historians. Generally Washington and other American commanders had bad things to say about the militia. But in fact it was militia that bottled the British in Boston. And the New Jersey militia harassed the British through the winter of 1777 while Washington’s Continentals were in winter quarters. The militia protected the home fronts, keeping loyalists in check throughout the war. After the loss of one major army, and the defeat of another in the South, it was militia and partisan bands that kept the British tied down protecting their supply lines. Morgan and Greene are both credited with making effective use of militia in major battles. So although the generals would prefer regular troops, the militia was indispensable to the war.

In the battle for Charlestown in 1780, Cornwallis captured Benjamin Lincoln’s army intact. This was the first time that a major American army had not slipped away to fight another day. This loss led to the only widespread territorial gain by British forces. It led also to significant recruiting of loyalist units, and bitter guerilla fighting as the British tried to pacify their gains.

Ferling leaves the impression that the Americans needed to win the war in 1781. The capture of Cornwallis at Yorktown saved the Revolution. Without a major victory during that campaign season, the French would have pulled out of the war, and neutral European countries would have dictated a peace that would have left the United States with fewer states and no western territory.

I’ve read a lot of American Revolution history. I enjoyed getting Ferling’s spin on a story I love.

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