By Rick Atkinson
Published by Harper Collins
This exceptionally valuable volume opens in June 1773, when King George III travels from Kew Gardens to Portsmouth to conduct a grand inspection tour of the English fleet – a four-day extravaganza to celebrate the arm which had served to defeat France and Spain during the Seven Years War. After a grand luncheon on the warship Barfleur, the king was rowed back to the dock amid cheering crowds and salutes of naval gunfire, later to recall that he had ‘never had a finer day’.
George, so content at the military glory and successful expansion of the British Empire, could not know that within two years the Empire would be faced with an intractable challenge that would pare away a large portion of its possessions.
With his description of the events at Portsmouth, Atkinson once again justifies a New York Times review of a previous volume which described his work as ‘a tapestry of fabulous richness and complexity… Atkinson is a master of what might be called “pointillism history”, assembling the small dots of pure colour into a vivid, tumbling narrative…’.
And that is just the beginning. This marvellous book goes on to delineate the tortuous path that Great Britain and its American colonies would follow for the next few years, at the start of a conflict that would last until 1783. With this first book in his proposed ‘Revolution Trilogy’, Atkinson takes the reader through the opening phases of that war. The scholarship displayed here is nothing short of wonderful, and the thoughtful prose draws the reader ever deeper into the complex and sometimes maddening events leading to war.
With the Exchequer in need of replenishment following the Seven Years War – fought in large part for possession of North America – Parliament passed legislation requiring additional revenues to be collected from the colonies in the form of taxes on goods, including stamps and tea. When American colonists reacted badly, Parliament responded with more repressive legislation, which would come to be termed ‘the Intolerable Acts’.
Tensions in the colonies mounted, and it appeared that an application of military force would be required to enforce the legislation. Addressing the House of Lords in January 1775, elder statesman William Pitt, the architect of victory during the Seven Years War, cautioned, ‘The very first drop of blood will make a wound which will not easily be skinned over.’
Pitt’s warnings went unheeded, however, as Parliament determined that the Empire should stay the course. As one MP, noted historian Edward Gibbon, would observe, ‘With firmness all may go well. But sometimes I doubt.’ The MP’s doubts proved well founded. Within months, the first shots would be exchanged at Lexington and Concord, engagements that would not turn out as the British commander-in-chief had hoped.
After a costly British victory at Bunker Hill, the rebellious colonists isolated His Majesty’s forces in Boston and eventually forced their withdrawal. Much to the surprise and annoyance of George III, this was just the beginning of what would be a long, costly, and ultimately unwinnable struggle.
In what can only be called a masterwork, Atkinson goes on to detail in gripping and electrifying prose the opening phases of what would prove to be a titanic struggle. Here the reader will find fascinating accounts of many engagements, from battles on Long Island to the disastrous attempt to seize Quebec and convince Canadians to join the American colonies in the struggle for independence.
Yet this volume goes deeper, looking at the towering difficulties faced by the antagonists in supplying their respective forces, from muskets to molasses, salt pork to beans, flints to gunpowder, all the while dealing with contrary tides, winds, snow, and mired or non-existent roads.
There are riveting excerpts from the journals and letters of the participants – combatants, politicians, observers, civilians – and fine accounts of discussions in Parliament and American negotiations with the French at Versailles.
But there is so much more: for example, a brilliant account of
Brigadier-General Benedict Arnold’s masterful delaying action on Lake Champlain as his forces retreated from Canada, which saw his small assortment of ‘gundalos’ (diminutive barge-like gunboats) exchanging shot for shot with British warships.
One of those gundalos, the Philadelphia , remains on display in the Smithsonian Institution today, with one of the cannonballs that sank her still embedded in the hull.
Here also is a detailed account of the first, albeit unsuccessful, use of a submarine (the Turtle) against a British warship, Admiral Howe’s Eagle , anchored off Manhattan.
All the while, Britain’s land and sea forces are stretched to the utmost, with the Royal Navy straining mightily to supply the Army while at the same time imposing a blockade along North America’s eastern seaboard.
The Army, diffidently led and deployed to attempt to control a huge landmass, is woefully ill prepared and undermanned for a most challenging task. Parliament must eventually foot the bill to obtain the services of mercenary Hessian forces – at great cost to the Exchequer, and to the horror of the colonists.
In many ways, this might almost be called a civil war, as loyalties were strongly divided, with many colonists wishing to remain under the wing of the British Empire – neighbour turned against neighbour, father against son.
Benjamin Franklin’s son, for example, remained a staunch Loyalist as Governor of New Jersey, and newly minted American generals Charles Lee, Richard Montgomery, and Horatio Gates all had long, distinguished records of service in the British Army. Old ties were stretched and broken.
George Washington had himself served as an aide to British General Edward Braddock at his disastrous defeat near the Monongahela River. One of his friends at the time had been Thomas Gage, now Britain’s commander-in-chief and supreme authority in North America.
With divided loyalties and passions running high, excesses by both British authorities and rebellious colonists became the norm, much to the dismay of cooler heads. The garrulous John Adams, a future president, would complain bitterly to his wife Abigail, ‘Virtue is not in fashion. Vice is not infamous. I am ashamed of the age I live in.’ This was indeed ‘the world turned upside down’.
The rebellious colonists’ fortunes began to turn when a Virginian planter, George Washington, was named by Congress to command the Continental Army – though, in truth, at the time it was more unruly militia than army. Washington had not seen active service for 20 years, but he had an inspiring aura, with one soldier noting, ‘His appearance alone gave confidence to the timid and imposed respect on the bold.’ Adams’ wife Abigail, who had invited the new commander for coffee soon after his arrival in Massachusetts, described him to her husband: ‘Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman and the soldier look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face.’
But Washington faced a daunting task. His army was little more than a ‘rabble in arms’, in need of leadership, training, direction, and basic soldiering skills. Further, he would make a great many mistakes in the field as he adjusted to the task set him. But he was able to learn from those mistakes and turn the experience to his advantage.
TURNING OF THE TIDE
To this day, the American Revolution remains an almost incredible tale of ‘American troops – badly housed, badly clothed, and badly equipped… at war with the world’s greatest commercial and military power’ in a desperate struggle for independence.
This amazing piece of scholarship follows the course of the early part of that war. It finishes with Washington and his army, having been defeated in New York and chased mercilessly across New Jersey into Pennsylvania, turning unexpectedly on their foes and recrossing the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas Eve to win stunning victories at Princeton and Trenton, before going into winter quarters in Morristown.
Unlike too many books, this volume is wonderfully supplemented with excellent maps throughout, and a plethora of beautiful colour plates, all of which help to bring the events and personages to life.
The author, Rick Atkinson, is a former reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post who has turned into one of the foremost historians of our time. The author of several books, including The Liberation Trilogy, which recounts the American struggle in North Africa, Italy, and north-west Europe during the Second World War, he has twice been awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
He has now turned his attention to the American Revolution. An absolutely brilliant piece of scholarship and literary skill, The British Are Coming is without doubt the best book I have read this entire year.
Not a volume to read casually and discard, it is one to be treasured and preserved as we await its companion volumes. It cannot be recommended too highly.
Review by Frederick Chiaventone
This article was published in the August 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about how to subscribe to the magazine, click here.