The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian shifts his focus from modern battlefields to the conflict that founded the United States.
Atkinson (The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, 2013, etc.) is a longtime master of the set piece: Soldiers move into place, usually not quite understanding why, and are put into motion against each other to bloody result. He doesn’t disappoint here, in the first of a promised trilogy on the Revolutionary War. As he writes of the Battle of Bunker Hill, for instance, “Charlestown burned and burned, painting the low clouds bright orange in what one diarist called ‘a sublime scene of military magnificence and ruin,’ ” even as snipers fired away and soldiers lay moaning in heaps on the ground. At Lexington, British officers were spun in circles by well-landed shots while American prisoners such as Ethan Allen languished in British camps and spies for both sides moved uneasily from line to line. There’s plenty of motion and carnage to keep the reader’s attention. Yet Atkinson also has a good command of the big-picture issues that sparked the revolt and fed its fire, from King George’s disdain of disorder to the hated effects of the Coercive Acts. As he writes, the Stamp Act was, among other things, an attempt to get American colonists to pay their fair share for the costs of their imperial defense (“a typical American…paid no more than sixpence a year in Crown taxes, compared to the average Englishman’s twenty-five shillings”). Despite a succession of early disasters and defeats, Atkinson clearly demonstrates, through revealing portraits of the commanders on both sides, how the colonials “outgeneraled” the British, whose army was generally understaffed and plagued by illness, desertion, and disaffection, even if “the American army had not been proficient in any general sense.” A bonus: Readers learn what it was that Paul Revere really hollered on his famed ride.
A sturdy, swift-moving contribution to the popular literature of the American Revolution.