For anyone betting on the outcome of the American Revolution in October 1780, the smart money would have been on King George. A year later, against all the odds, Britain was vanquished—a turnabout that forms the lively subject here.
Historian Hallahan bookends his The Day the Revolution Began: 19 April 1775 (2000) with this popular study of tides turned and heroes made and unmade. He begins in November 1780 with the turncoat Benedict Arnold’s revelation of a “master plan for personally finishing the revolution”—namely, by seizing Philadelphia with a force of redcoats and American loyalists, burning the Continental Army’s supplies and ships, and hauling the Revolution’s leaders in chains across the ocean to stand tall before the king. For whatever reason, Sir Henry Clinton, Arnold’s commanding officer, chose not to accept Arnold’s offer, instead committing him, and the forces of Cornwallis and other British commanders, to a safer course of warfare that entailed comparatively little risk. That strategy, Hallahan suggests, was a mistake. (Certainly Cornwallis thought so; after the war was over, he wrote a scornful memoir blaming Clinton for the loss of the colonies.) Clinton’s failure to seize the initiative against a weakened rebel army roughly coincided with the reversal of fortunes in the South, where revolutionary forces were now crushing loyalist guerrillas and regular British troops. The emboldened rebels eventually broke Cornwallis’s southern flank, and the British general found himself cooped up on the heights of Yorktown, where he, too, failed to break out when the opportunity presented itself. Cornwallis’s surrender on October 19, 1781, effectively brought the Revolutionary War to an end. Hallahan defuses the drama a little by ending not with British officers weeping in shame at their defeat, but instead with an appendix reporting the postwar fortunes of the principal players—material that might have been better woven into the main narrative.
A reminder, for general readers, of the high stakes at risk in the Revolution, and of the chance turns that changed the course of the game.