In 1781, discouraged after five years of war, George Washington finally saw the tide turn.
National Book Award winner Philbrick (Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, 2016, etc.) reprises the protagonists of his last history of the War of Independence in a meticulously researched recounting of the events leading up to the colonists’ victory at the Battle of Yorktown. Focusing on naval and military strategy, Philbrick—like Tom Shachtman in How the French Saved America (2017)—reveals the critical contributions made by the French navy, a fleet that had improved substantially since its defeat by Britain in the Seven Years’ War. In France’s Académie de Marine, students were taught “to think of a naval battle in terms of a chess game rather than a brawl,” inciting, “for the first time in centuries, a whisper of doubt” in the “collective psyche of the British navy.” Although British commanders were determined to win, they were faced with passionate French military men, such as the young Marquis de Lafayette, the Comte de Grasse, and the Comte de Rochambeau, as well as recalcitrant colonists. British successes emboldened, rather than intimidated, patriots. “Broken up into thirteen largely self-sufficient entities,” the author asserts, “the United States was a segmented political organism that was almost impossible for the British army to kill.” However, American soldiers were in a weakened state, starving and unpaid. Washington, who had recently learned of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal, feared mutiny. But, Philbrick argues persuasively, Arnold’s treason actually strengthened the patriots’ resolve “by serving as a cautionary tale during one of the darkest periods of the war.” The author portrays Washington as an aggressive, undaunted leader—even when facing distressing personal problems—who emitted a “charismatic force field.” One British officer reported feeling “awestruck as if he was before something supernatural” in Washington’s presence. Philbrick, a sailor himself, recounts the strategic maneuvering involved in the many naval encounters: ships’ positions, wind direction and strength, and the “disorienting cloud of fire and smoke” that often imperiled the fleet.
A tense, richly detailed narrative of the American Revolution.