A nicely paced and richly detailed account of the final months of the American Revolution.
In 1780, writes noted historian Ketchum (Divided Loyalties, 2002, etc.), victory was very far from certain for the insurgent Americans. The revolutionary army had gone unpaid for months and years, food and supplies and arms were in constantly short supply, and a brutal winter had taken a vicious toll on the men in the field. France had been promising intervention since signing a treaty of alliance in 1777, but so battered was his force, George Washington feared, that “when the French finally did arrive, they would immediately see the desperate condition of the Continental Army and the helplessness of America, and sail away.” He had good cause to worry, for certain French officials had been putting in the word to Louis XVI that the best course of action was to let the English and Americans “exhaust themselves reciprocally” and then take the continent for France. But French troops and fleets finally did come, providing the citizens of Philadelphia with a splendid parade before taking to the field. Washington’s tiny army—a French officer estimated its strength at only 3,000—rallied, thwarted Benedict Arnold’s plan to turn West Point over to the British, and began a long campaign of harrying Lord Cornwallis’s army in the south, gathering reinforcements as they pummeled the enemy. Ketchum capably reconstructs these dramatic events, giving equal weight to large historical currents and the small accidents of personality alike; on the latter, for instance, he reveals that Cornwallis would forever hold a grudge against his superior officer, Sir Henry Clinton, for failing to break the siege of Yorktown, inasmuch as “nothing but the hopes of relief would have induced me to attempt its defense.” Ketchum delivers a few surprises as well, revealing, for one thing, that the desperate British once seeded the plantations of Tidewater Virginia with smallpox-infected slaves “as instruments of germ warfare.”
Solid Revolutionary War scholarship.