A fictional military tribunal illuminates a pivotal moment of the American Revolutionary War.
Cusumano (In Search of the Grail of Hope and Knowledge, 2005, etc.) invents a court martial of the real-life British Gen. Sir William Howe in order to make the case that he, in May 1778, squandered the best opportunity Great Britain had to end the American rebellion. It’s a familiar argument among historians. At the time, the general, having tendered his resignation as commander of the British forces, was less interested in fighting than in partying, and he was preparing to sail home from Philadelphia. So when George Washington divided his meager forces, sending 2,250 men with Gen. Lafayette on a reconnaissance mission to Barren Hill, Pennsylvania, Howe failed to capture the Frenchman. He also didn’t exploit his numerical advantage by ordering his 16,000 troops to attack Washington’s 3,000 beleaguered soldiers at Valley Forge, just 12 miles away. The fictional trial is set in 1789, a decade after an inconclusive parliamentary inquiry, and it reprises arguments made in real life by American Loyalist Joseph Galloway. In the introduction, Cusumano, a retired teacher, says he was inspired to write the book to combat historical illiteracy among today’s students. Mock trials are indeed established teaching tools, but blending fact and fiction always risks confusion. The author does minimize the fictional elements, but the book’s question-and-answer format constrains its narrative development. That said, the author packs abundant historical information into his witnesses’ answers while keeping the flavor of individual testimony. Larger themes, such as Britain taxing the Colonies to recover French and Indian War costs, also emerge smoothly. From a fictional standpoint, however, readers may question the plausibility of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin appearing at such a proceeding to defend Howe. Modern language occasionally intrudes, such as Jefferson’s doubtful use of the term “wakeup call” and a question about how to treat a soldier who’s “brain dead.” Otherwise, the historical scholarship is solid, and this compact volume serves its educational purpose well.
A quick read that may serve as an introductory or refresher course in early American history.