Faint Echoes
How Americans once waged an asymmetrical war against an imperial power.

Reviewed by Jon Meacham
Sunday, August 12, 2007


The American Victory in the War of Independence

By John Ferling

Oxford Univ. 679 pp. $29.95

In late 1779, John Adams, then America's "minister plenipotentiary for peace," set out across the Atlantic for France. It was a difficult moment. The Revolution was turning into a long war. It had been more than four years since Lexington and Concord and three since the Declaration of Independence; the American forces and their French allies had just lost an important engagement in Savannah. Adams had much to do, and his journey marked the beginning of yet another lengthy separation from Abigail. Sacrifices, however, were necessary, Adams said, adding: "We shall be happy, whenever our Country is so."

But as John Ferling makes clear in Almost a Miracle, his comprehensive and engaging new history of the Revolution, that day of national happiness was nowhere near. Ferling's book is a sprawling account of the military side of the war, an oft-told story that still rarely fails to engage. The American victory, as Wellington said of Waterloo, was a close-run thing, and the details of the clash of the world's mightiest empire with a guerrilla force of rebels remain compelling. Ferling's own attitude, recounted in his preface, is a common one: "I find the lure of the War of Independence to be ever more irresistible. It was war on a grand scale. Near its end, John Adams remarked that the American Revolution had set the world ablaze, and indeed the War of Independence grew to be a world war, with men fighting from Florida to Canada, from the Caribbean to Africa to India, and across broad reaches of high seas."

Grand stuff and sweeping themes. But reading the book now, in the fifth summer of another American war in a very different century, one is also struck by the echo, however faint, of how asymmetrical warfare waged by native peoples can bedevil even the finest professional soldiers.

The rebels had honed their unconventional tactics long before the Revolution, mostly in combat against Native Americans. "The colonists learned how to minimize the chances of an enemy ambush, sometimes employed a hit-and-run style of fighting, often utilized a mobile strategy, and not infrequently adopted terror tactics that included torture; killing women, children, and the elderly; the destruction of Indian villages and food supplies. . . . In time, warfare in the colonies came to be associated with a manner of fighting that England's career soldiers variously called 'irregular war,' 'bush war,' or simply the 'American way of war.' " There was also a clash of cultures between the independent-minded Americans and the haughtier British officers in the years leading up to the Revolution; there were scourges and beatings and hangings.

The combustible intersection of brute tactics, the Brits' resentment of their rebellious colonialists, and the fury many Americans felt at their London masters turned the Revolution into a grim and bloody conflict even by the standards of warfare. In South Carolina, for example, there was what Ferling calls "a saturnalia of bloodshed" at the Waxhaws crossroads (home of the young Andrew Jackson), a massacre of "severed hands and limbs, crushed skulls, and breached arteries. Some men were decapitated by the slashing cavalrymen. Others were trampled by maddened horses. The bellies of many were laid open by bayonets." The victims were Americans, and for years the rebels could only scrape by; George Washington spent a lot of time, Ferling notes, putting "a rosy face on . . . defeat, a skill that he had perfected."

The decisive moment came not where the Revolution was born (in the North) but in the hot, distant fields of the South. Ferling is particularly strong in recreating the relentless misery of the war in Georgia and the Carolinas, an essential theater that is overlooked in many popular recountings. The gradual colonial successes in the Carolinas were crucial to the ultimate victory; it was Nathaniel Greene's satisfaction with a battle at Eutaw Springs, S.C., that led him, in September 1781, to think that perhaps, just perhaps, "this cruel war" might "end gloriously" for the rebels.

He was right. The British failure to subdue the region (they were driven to Savannah and Charleston, coastal outposts) was almost immediately followed by what turned out to be the final showdown at Yorktown, Va., in October 1781. George Washington was surprised to receive a note from Cornwallis requesting a ceasefire so that the British might sue for peace; as Ferling points out, no one in the whole choppy history of the war had ever surrendered to Washington before.

The guns silent, word of Cornwallis's capitulation spread rapidly. As a dispatch rider galloped north with the news, a 15-year-old Virginia militiaman guarding prisoners near the Appomattox River recalled that "every American present" threw "his cocked hat up in the air," shouting, "America is ours." In London, Lord North, the prime minister, paced and muttered, "Oh God, it is all over!" And in Philadelphia, Congress processed to a Lutheran Church to give thanks to God and pray for a sound peace. The people, as John Adams had hoped, were as happy as their country. ยท

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, is the author of "Franklin and Winston" and "American Gospel."

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