Carol Berkin’s latest book is “A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism.”
Since 2014, Nathaniel Philbrick has been narrating the story of America’s struggle for independence. In “Bunker Hill,” he focused on the earliest confrontation between the British and American armies, and in “Valiant Ambition,” he reconstructed Benedict Arnold’s path to treason. In his latest book, “In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown,” he picks up this saga in 1780, as Washington and his Continental Army, low on supplies, idle and restless, wait anxiously for the French navy to come to their aid. What follows is a tension-filled and riveting account of the alliance that assured American independence.
Philbrick is a master of narrative, and he does not disappoint as he provides a meticulous and often hair-raising account of a naval war between France and England and a land war that pitted American and French troops against British regulars and Loyalist volunteers. The French government, Philbrick reminds us, was driven less by a commitment to American liberty than by a desire for revenge against its imperial rival, England. This explains why its navy expended much of its energy in 1779 and early 1780 on thwarted hopes to invade England and on plans to take back what was lost in the Caribbean in the aftermath of the recent French and Indian War.
With no navy of their own, the Americans remained confined to land operations in 1780 and 1781, as they had been throughout the war. By the winter of 1780, Continental Army morale was low — and it would sink even deeper in early 1781 when news reached Washington that Benedict Arnold had escaped capture after pillaging Richmond. Although the British soldiers serving under Arnold viewed him with disdain, their feelings paled before the hatred nurtured in American hearts. As one captured militia officer declared to Arnold, if he had fallen into the hands of the Americans, they “would first cut off that lame leg, which was wounded in the cause of freedom and virtue, and bury it with the honors of the war, and afterwards hang the remainder of your body in gibbets.”
But the loss of Arnold was far from the only thing troubling Washington. For many months, he had nurtured a fervent wish that the French navy would mount a joint effort with his army to recapture New York City. The French, however, had other plans: an assault on Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown. A bitter Washington knew he was in no position to argue. In late July 1781, Washington received word that a French fleet was headed to the Chesapeake; it was now up to the combined American and French ground forces to cover by foot the 550 miles from White Plains, N.Y., to rendezvous with Adm. Comte de Grasse. The Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French troops traveling with Washington’s Continental soldiers, was not optimistic about their success. As Washington’s translator, the Marquis de Chastellux, put it, Rochambeau “sees everything darkly . . . never foreseeing anything but a total defection on the part of the Americans.”
Rochambeau would prove wrong. Ragged and driven beyond endurance, Washington’s men persevered, and together, the revolution’s military and naval forces would bring Cornwallis to his knees. This is the moment Philbrick has been building to, and he re-creates the battle between de Grasse’s navy and Adm. Thomas Graves’s British warships and the military siege of Yorktown with all the drama they deserve.
Not everyone will find Philbrick’s detailed coverage of naval and military engagements easy to follow or fully engaging. A landlubber like me felt overwhelmed by some of the nautical language. This should not deter readers, however, for despite the author’s obvious relish in recounting the battles on sea and land, those engagements are not the entire focus of the book. Philbrick has a second, perhaps more compelling theme: how the character of men shapes the history they make.
Hurricanes may destroy ships as if they were matchsticks; the sea may swallow up men; the topography of the land may defeat armies. Yet how men respond to the man-made hurricanes that whirl around them lies at the heart of the story. In developing this theme, Philbrick offers finely drawn portraits of men whose characters shaped history. These include the self-absorbed Adm. Mariot Arbuthnot, the bloodthirsty cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton, the genial Marquis de Lafayette and the callous Lord Cornwallis, but the central figure — the man who overshadows all others — is Gen. George Washington.
As the commander in chief, Washington knew he must live up to the image of a man whose “brow is sometimes marked with thought, but never with inquietude.” In the face of mounting frustration with the French, intense disappointment with the American public’s response to the Army’s needs and a growing fear that the American cause would be lost, Washington struggled to maintain his equanimity. His victory over his temper, Philbrick suggests, was as important as his victory over Cornwallis.
To his credit, Philbrick resists the temptation to descend into hagiography. Washington, he admits, defended slavery and was not free of racial bias. But the contrast with Lord Cornwallis on the treatment of black refugees is illuminating. In the final days of the Yorktown siege, Cornwallis summarily exiled the African American refugees in his encampment, sending them into the woods without weapons or supplies. An American soldier recalled the result of this decision. “We saw in the woods herds of Negroes which Lord Cornwallis . . . had turned adrift with no other recompense for their confidence in his humanity than the smallpox for their bounty and starvation and death for their wages. They might be seen scattered about in every direction, dead and dying with pieces of ears of burnt Indian corn in the hands and mouths, even of those that were dead.” Washington was willing to let masters reclaim enslaved men and women, but he was never willing to send them directly to their doom.
In “In the Hurricane’s Eye” Philbrick occasionally succumbs to the lure of historical fortune-telling that marred his previous book. Here he declares that Yorktown “was where the road to the Civil War began.” Most historians who have studied and debated the origins of the Civil War have found it far more difficult to define where X marks the spot. But such pronouncements — offered largely, one suspects, for dramatic effect — do not detract from the authentic drama of the story Philbrick has to tell, a drama that ultimately centers not on nature but on Washington. From his anguished question “Whom can we trust now?” after learning of Arnold’s treason to his “silent adieu” to his troops at New York’s Whitehall, Washington remains the true eye of the hurricane, the calm within the storm.
By Nathaniel Philbrick.
Viking. 366 pp. $30