Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: Whirlwind - The American Revolution and the War That Won It, By John Ferling

I've enjoyed two other John Ferling works: Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 [2004] and Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation [2013].  I can now add Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It [2015] to that group. Ferling, a retired history professor from the University of West Georgia, has compiled a masterful study of the Revolutionary War. There are two main themes to the book. The first is that the colonial unrest from 1765-1775 was not one, uninterrupted natural progression leading to a 'declaration'  of independence. The second theme is to that there was nothing preordained about an American victory in the war. While most wars seem easier to predict with the hindsight of knowing who won, the Revolutionary War has been particularly susceptible to that temptation.  Because the Revolutionary War became so tied to the story of our birth as a nation we - subconsciously perhaps - simply treat it as a given that "we " were going to win.

Ferling places the blame for the war solely on Great Britain. He argues that - from the very beginning of the American protests against the Stamp Act in 1765 straight through the entreaties of redress sought by the Continental Congress ten years later - Britain's leaders never even attempted to reconsider how they governed the colonies - a refusal that Ferling aptly calls "a fatal intransigence". Britain gambled that they could keep everything the way it was by "bludgeoning" the colonists in what they felt would be a short and easy war.

Ferling maps out the pre-war history and how we got to Lexington and Concord.  The colonial anger over the Stamp Act in 1765 is often cited as the beginning of the move for independence. Ferling argues, though, that in 1765 there was no movement for independence. First, the colonies were not united and political leaders in one colony were largely unaware of the leaders in other colonies. Second, in 1765 there were no citizen militias. Finally, there was still a war-weariness among colonists after the Seven Years' War, which had concluded only two years earlier. .

Even after the Boston Massacre in 1770, Ferling argues that anti-British feeling had actually settled down.. Indeed, Sam Adams was doing all he could to find an issue that would reignite popular resistance. One such effort was the very public and solemn anniversary remembrance of the Boston Massacre that Adams orchestrated every March 5th from 1771-1775. Adams - perhaps more than any other revolutionary - realized the need to connect the city of Boston's popular revolutionary leadership with residents of the backcountry communities in New England, to create a sustained insurgency.  To do so, Adams created a critical organization, the Boston Committee of Correspondence, in 1772. British effrontery would now quickly be communicated from Boston throughout New England.

Continual bungling by the British toward the colonists - and the firing of shots at Lexington and Concord - quickened the desire for independence.  As Ferling writes, "nothing reshaped [colonial] thinking so profoundly, and so quickly, as the War" itself.

Ferling's opinion of George Washington as a general is favorable, He praises Washington's strategy of keeping the army alive to fight another day - called the Fabian strategy. The theory was that, so long as there was an army, then there was a revolution. That theory was put to the test, as for almost four years - from 1777-1781 - Washington's troops fought no battles whatsoever. Considering the high mortality rates during the war [more on that in a moment] it makes one wonder just how high those numbers might have risen had there been battles during those four years. Troops died during those years from disease, certainly; but the carnage that didn't occur from four years of battle that never happened is immeasurable.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ferling's work is his study of the British government's strategy and policymakers - an angle often overlooked by American historians studying the war.  According to Ferling, by 1778 [after British disasters at Battle Road, Trenton-Princeton. and Saratoga] the British government and most members of Parliament had concluded that Britain could not win the war as it was currently being fought.  That gave birth to a new strategy: Britain  abandoned the idea of conquering New England and the mid Atlantic. Instead British forces would concentrate on the pacification of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. True, if the strategy was successful it could still result in an American nation. But that new nation would have been made up of only nine states and would have been surrounded by Britain to the north (Canada) south, and west.

While initially the British strategy worked, and they retook Georgia and South Carolina and made significant inroads into Virginia, the British army made several missteps.  Ferling cites as a key error a decision made by Sir Henry Clinton in South Carolina: after taking Charleston in 1780, he kept the inhabitants under military rule instead  of restoring a central civil government. The dread of military law alienated a considerable portion of a population that had Tory leanings and might have remained loyal to England had civil law been returned.

Britain's southern strategy was costly.  Lord Charles Cornwallis fought five major battles with Americans between June 1780 and March 1781 - Charleston, Camden, King's Mountain, Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse.  Between those five, Cornwallis lost 3,500 men - about half of his total force. This led to Horace Walpole's famous quote, "Lord Cornwallis has conquered...himself out of troops."

Ferling does a wonderful job of outlining the war's final months and explaining just how the war was won. By the summer of 1781, Washington was determined that he would make his stand by retaking New York City. Others argued that fighting Cornwallis in the south was the best strategy to end the war. It all hinged upon the French fleet led by Francois Joseph comte de Grasse - where would he and his troops land? If in the north, then Washington would use these reinforcements to try to retake New York City.  If de Grasse and his desperately needed troops landed closer to the south, then Washington would agree to a southern campaign.  When de Grasse and his fleet arrived at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay on August 14, 1781, the decision was made to head south.

Once Washington knew where de Grasse had landed, he created a complicated and effective illusion for the British troops around New York City, making them think that he was coming to retake the city.  In the meantime, Washington's troops began heading to Virginia and a showdown with Cornwallis.  The Battle at Yorktown began October 9, 1781. Cornwallis had 7% of his men killed or wounded and by October 17th he waved the flag of truce.

The war - for all intents and purposes - was over.

In looking back at the numbers, Ferling says that more than 100,000 men served in the Continental army; thousands more served in the navy and in state militias.  Most historians believe about 30,000 in the army died - a percentage roughly equal to the toll of regulars killed in the Civil War; but nearly ten times greater than in World War II. It's important to note, though, that nearly a third of those deaths were non-battle related and came from disease. Historian Elizabeth Fenn has estimated that another 130,000 noncombatants died just from small pox alone. On the other side, 10,000 British and 7,500 Germans died in the war, as did about.4,000 American Tories. Taken as a whole, over 50,000 who served Great Britain around the world died, as did more than 20,000 Frenchmen. Adding in Spanish dead takes the death toll close to 100,000 - and that doesn't include civilians, where accurate tallies have proven impossible to get.

Ferling concludes that the American Revolution - as outlined above in the tallies of dead - was truly a world war. There were many factors that influenced the conduct of the war. But, at it's very heart, the genesis was the idea that Americans would not allow themselves to be governed by a distant government; and that distant government simply refused to change how it governed. The ideas led to the war, but the war took those ideas to places where few if anyone could have seen when they first bubbled up in 1765 with the Stamp Act. The revolution and the war that won it are indivisible, as documented in this excellent work from John Ferling.

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