Wayne E. Lee is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Waging War: Conflict, Culture and Innovation in World History” and “Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500-1865.”
High drama, soaring hopes, crushing failures, hubris, miscalculation, impossible circumstances and nausea-inducing human misery defined the first two years of fighting — for both sides — in the American war for independence. Generations of historians have tackled the problem of telling, and explaining, this tale and its outcome. Many, perhaps most, have focused on why the fighting started at all. Others have explored the meaning and consequences of its successful redefining of political sovereignty. Yet others have probed ever deeper into the course and nature of the fighting itself. These different historical objectives reflect the interests of individual historians, but also the distinction that must be acknowledged between the “war of independence” and the “American Revolution.” In this first volume of a revolution trilogy, Rick Atkinson turns his attention to the former — to the war.
Atkinson, a former Washington Post reporter and editor and the author of a remarkably successful trilogy on the Anglo-American campaigns in Western Europe during World War II, wastes no time reminding us of his considerable narrative talents. The opening pages of the prologue drip with detail, from the timing of the sunrise, to rumors retailed by contemporaneous newspapers and finally to extensive personal description of the characters, in this case George III and his inimitable chin and nose. Atkinson is not unique in this attention to detail, but to it he adds his well-developed sense of geography and how it shapes every story, not least the story of a military campaign. His experience with other military histories helps him in conveying the immensity of the challenges, the complexity of campaign space and the remarkable perseverance of many of his characters. Like many historians before him, as he immersed himself in the papers of these men (something he clearly did, and yes, they were mostly men), he found pages and pages of accounts, of lists, of requests, and the tally of supplies received was always shorter than what was requested.
Any historian working in these records can be overwhelmed by the material realities and requirements of a campaign. Unlike many, however, Atkinson regularly returns to these challenges and makes them a part of his drama. It is no small feat to track, and then to convey, how many knee buckles (among so many other things) the French smuggled into American ports to help equip the struggling cause. Atkinson is also keenly alive to the British side of the story, and he adeptly shifts the reader from an American to a British perspective, without being overly focused on a single representative figure like George Washington or Lord George Germain (the British secretary of state for America). Finally, his knowledge of military affairs shines in his reading of the sources; at one point he observes critically of British preparations for operations off the North Carolina coast that “Germain’s orders to the expedition leaders on December 7 included five paragraphs beginning with ‘If.’ ”
If I have spent most of my space here on describing Atkinson’s style of narration, and less on the content of the book, that is because the narrative is the point. “The British Are Coming” tells the story of the war, and does so at great and glorious leisure, over 564 pages of text. This pace allows Atkinson to devote pages and pages to the retrieval of the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga, including no fewer than seven direct quotes about the difficulties of the route over just two pages. Even the most military-focused of narratives has often glossed this story in a sentence or two. It also allows him to relate episodes often not mentioned at all — episodes that perhaps have deserved more attention. The British burning of Falmouth and Norfolk early in the war (each gets a full chapter) arguably convinced many wavering Americans of the evils of British rule. Atkinson also cleverly blends in the international aspect of the war, complete with a digression into the privateering side of things, in a unique and captivating chapter on Benjamin Franklin’s mission to Paris.
What “The British Are Coming” lacks is an argument and a revolution. In one sense this is intentional and acceptable. Atkinson has chosen to tell the story of the war, not the political, ideological and ultimately constitutional shifts that preceded and followed it. Indeed, the 31-page prologue devotes only two pages to all the developments between the 1765 Stamp Act and the 1773 Tea Act. He could perhaps be forgiven, since those years still occupy a large chunk of the average textbook’s coverage of the American Revolution. But even “just” telling the story of the war demands more on why people kept fighting it. At one point Atkinson characterizes Washington’s defeated army retreating from New York: “Stubborn, resolved, perhaps even undaunted, they somehow kept faith with their cause, with one another, and with those generations yet unborn.” The evidence for this still-burning “flame” (as he calls it) is not at all clear.
Ultimately, choosing what to narrate is itself an argument. Despite the leisure of his narrative, and despite pages on the cannon of Ticonderoga, and even despite three pages on the still-mythic story of the execution and last words of Nathan Hale, we here find only one paragraph on the campaign against the Cherokees in 1776. This matters. And lest one is tempted to cry out against political correctness, this matters in ways beyond the tragic fate of the Cherokees. If recent histories of the war have taught us anything, it is that the rebelling motivations of the colonists were fragile and multi-causal, and not least among them was their fear of Indians. North and South Carolinians in particular were somewhat removed from the political fire of their New England brethren, and what brought many of them on board was the threat to slavery and the threat of Indians. Atkinson is aware of the problem of slavery, and he has two more volumes planned in which he can deal with it. In general, however, he homogenizes the rebelling Americans, missing not least the differences between the coastal and backcountry populations. In his hands we see mostly Britons and rebels on the stage, with occasional appearances by loyalists. But in reality, politics and motivations were much more local and much more variable.
For sheer dramatic intensity, however, swinging from the American catastrophes at Quebec and Fort Washington to the resounding and surprising successes at Trenton and Princeton, all told in a way equally deeply informed about British planning and responses, there are few better places to turn.
By Rick Atkinson
776 pp. $40