Field of Science

Book review: The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

When the British army of regulars captured American troops during the Battle of New York, they contemptuously noted how they were surprised to see so many ordinary people among them – tanners, brewers, farmers, metal workers, carpenters and the like. That observation in one sense summed up the difference between the British and American causes: a ragtag group of ordinary citizens with little battle experience pitted against a professional, experienced and disciplined army belonging to a nation that then possessed the biggest empire since the Roman Empire. The latter were fighting for imperial power, the former for conducting an experiment in individual rights and freedom. The former improbably won.

Rick Atkinson shows us how in this densely-packed, rousing military history of the first two years of the Revolutionary War. The Americans kept on foiling the British through a combination of brilliant tactical retreats, dogged determination, improvisation and faith in providence. His is primarily a military history that covers the opening salvo in Lexington and Concord to the engagements in Princeton and Trenton and Washington's legendary crossing of the frozen Delaware. However, there is enough observational detail on the social and political aspects of the conflict and the sometimes larger than life personalities involved to make it a broader history. The account could be supplemented with other political histories such as ones by Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn and Joseph Ellis to provide a fuller view of the politics and the personalities.

Atkinson’s greatest strength is to bring an incredible wealth of detail to the narrative and pepper it with primary quotes from not just generals and soldiers but from ordinary men and women. His other big strength is logistical information. No detail seems to escape his eye; the number and tonnage of food and clothing provisions and shipping, sundry details of types of weapons, ships, beasts of burden and ammunition, the kinds of diseases riddling the camps and the medieval medicine used to treat them (some of them positively so - "oil of whelps" was a grotesque substance concocted from white wine, earthworms and the flesh of dogs boiled alive), ditties and plays that were being performed by the soldiers ("Clinton, Burgoyne, Howe, Bow, wow, wow"), the constantly-changing weather, the political machinations in Whitehall and the Continental Congress…the list goes on and on. Sometimes the overwhelming detail can be distracting – for instance do we need to know the exact number of blankets and weight of salt pork supplied during the eve of a particular battle? – but overall the dense statistics and detail have the effect of immersing the reader in the narrative.

The major battles – Lexington and Bunker Hill, Long Island and Manhattan, Quebec and Ticonderoga, Charleston and Norfolk, Princeton and Trenton – are dissected with fine detail and rousing descriptions of men, material, the thrust and parry at the front and the desperation, disappointments, retreats and triumphs that often marked the field of battle. The writing can occasionally be almost hallucinatory: "Revere swung into the saddle and took off at a canter across Charlestown Neck, hooves striking sparks, rider and steed merged into a single elegant creature, bound for glory". The accounts of the almost unbelievably desperate and excruciating winter fighting and retreat in Canada are probably the highlights of the military narratives. Lesser-known conflicts in Virginia and South Carolina in which the British were squarely routed also get ample space. Particularly interesting is the improbable and self-serving slave uprising drummed up by Lord Dunmore, Virginia's governor, and the far-reaching fears that it inspired in the Southern Colonies. Epic quotes that have become part of American history are seen in a more circumspect light; for instance, it’s not clear who said “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” during Bunker Hill, and instead of the famous “The British are coming” cry that is attributed to Paul Revere, it’s more likely that he said “The regulars are coming.” Also, the British army might have been experienced, but they too were constantly impacted by shortage of food and material, and this shortage was a major factor in many of their decisions, including the retreat from Boston. Brittania might have ruled the waves, but she wasn’t always properly nourished.

The one lesson that is constantly driven home is how events that seem providential and epic now were so uncertain and riddled with improvisation and desperation when they happened; in that sense hindsight is always convenient. Atkinson makes us aware of the sheer miserable conditions the soldiers and generals lived in; the threadbare clothing which provided scant protection against the cold, the horrific smallpox, dysentery and other diseases which swept entire battle companies off the face of the planet without warning and the problems constantly posed by loyalists and deserters to American patriots. There were many opportunities for men to turn on one another, and yet we also see both friends and enemies being surprisingly humane toward each other. In many ways, it is Atkinson’s ability to provide insights across a wide cross-section of society, to make the reader feel the pain and uncertainty faced by ordinary men and women, that contribute to the uniqueness of his writing.

Atkinson paints a sympathetic and sometimes heroic portrait of both British politicians and military leaders, but he also makes it clear how clueless, bumbling and misguided they were when it came to understanding the fundamental DNA of the colonies, their frontier spirit, their Enlightenment thinking and their very different perception of their relationship with Britain. A excellent complement to Atkinson’s book for understanding British political miscalculations leading up to the war would be Nick Bunker’s “An Empire on the Edge”. While primarily not a study of personality, Atkinson’s portraits of American commanders George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, Israel Putnam and British commanders William and Richard Howe, George Clinton, Guy Carleton and others are crisp and vivid. Many of these commanders led their men and accomplished remarkable feats through cold and disease, in the wilderness and on the high seas; others like American John Sullivan in Canada and Briton George Clinton in Charleston could be remarkably naive and clueless in judging enemy strength and resolve. Atkinson also dispels some common beliefs; for instance, while the rank and file were indeed generally inexperienced, there were plenty of more senior officers including Washington who had gained good fighting experience in the ten-year-old French and Indian War. As a general, Washington’s genius was to know when to retreat, to make the enemy fight a battle of attrition, to inspire and scold when necessary, and somehow to keep this ragtag group fighting men and their logistical support together, emerging as a great leader in the process. He was also adept at carefully maneuvering the levers of Congress and to keep driving home the great need for ammunition, weapons and ordinary provision through a mixture of cajoling and appeals to men’s better angels.

For anyone wanting a detailed and definitive military history of the Revolutionary War, Atkinson’s book is highly recommended. It gives an excellent account of the military details of the “glorious cause” and it paints a convincing account of the sheer improbability and capriciousness of its success.

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