European allies supplied arms, ammunition, uniforms, savvy commanders, engineers, and soldiers to aid the American Revolution.
The newly proclaimed United States was not the only nation that wanted Great Britain out of North America in 1776. After being defeated by Britain in the Seven Years’ War, France and Spain were eager to show their strength against their adversary. Ferreiro (History and Engineering/George Mason Univ., Stevens Institute of Technology; Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition that Reshaped Our World, 2011) mounts a deeply informed, authoritative, and compelling argument for the importance of two major European powers to American independence. “Instead of the myth of heroic self-sufficiency,” he writes, “the real story is that the American nation was born as the centerpiece of an international coalition.” At the time, America’s militia was “ill-equipped” and undisciplined. In July 1775, George Washington became commander in chief with no military training and quickly crammed by studying translations of European military books. When he needed engineers and artillerists, he looked to France, which reputedly had the best. He came to rely most on Louis Lebégue Duportail, an engineer whom he promoted to major general. It was Duportail who persuaded Washington to set up a camp at Valley Forge, strategically located 20 miles from British forces in Philadelphia. The encampment, speedily built by soldiers, with more than 1,000 huts, “became America’s fourth-largest city” within six weeks. Besides offering a vivid chronicle of combat, the author traces the tense negotiations between American emissaries in Europe—notably Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane—and their French and Spanish counterparts. Other nations were involved, too: Dutch merchants were part of a long supply chain providing arms and “some of the finest gunpowder in the world”; the Prussian Baron von Steuben carried out relentless drills to professionalize the continental soldiers. But as Ferreiro shows, French aid was foremost: Franklin did not exaggerate when he called France’s King Louis XVI America’s “friend and father.”
A largely untold, engrossing history of our nation’s fraught, and unlikely, path to liberty.