I’ve often thought that the study of the Civil War has taken up too much of our popular interest and academic energy compared to the Revolutionary War.
Maybe the differing causes of the two conflicts have driven our views, the Civil War’s moral struggle over slavery versus the Revolution’s fight over taxation and political control, or maybe the varying popular perceptions of the two wars could be as simple as the impact of Matthew Brady’s astounding Civil War photographs and the absence of that technology in earlier times.
Whatever the reasons, Rick Atkinson may change that a bit by refocusing our attention on the war that made the American experiment possible in the first place. Atkinson is a former journalist and editor for the Washington Post who in recent years has taken on writing definitive military histories. Born in Germany the son of a U.S. Army officer, Atkinson is probably best known for his 10-year long effort to produce the Liberation Trilogy, a history of the U.S. military campaign to free Europe in World War II. He is now working on a comparable series on the American Revolution. The first volume, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, was published earlier this year with two more to follow.
Atkinson begins with a lovely description of the English summer day in 1773 when King George III reviewed Royal Navy ships of the line at their base in Portsmouth. The occasion was the start of a multi-day celebration of the fleet that had bested the French and Spanish navies and propelled the British Empire to the peak of its power and influence to that time. The ancient enemy France had been humiliated in war, driven to near bankruptcy, and stripped of its North American empire, among other holdings, and the Royal Navy was without peer on the seven seas.
The 35-year-old George III, confident and happy, had no idea what would soon befall him. Within two years, he would find himself and his government entangled in a nasty eight-year long unwinnable war that would shake his prosperous new empire to its very foundations. The American colonies too would find themselves in uncharted waters, economically spent, wrangling amongst themselves, and unsure whether to continue as separate statelets or join in confederation and, if so, in what form.
As every American schoolchild knows, the shooting war began in the spring of 1775 with skirmishes on Lexington Green and at Concord Bridge. It then escalated to a full-fledged fixed battle as the British dislodged the Americans from the Charlestown heights across the river from Boston. In his own exhaustive way, Atkinson continues a narrative march through the Continental Army’s siege and eventual British evacuation of Boston, Arnold’s heroic but ill-fated march through the frigid Maine woods to Quebec City, and the defeat and destruction of Montgomery’s Northern Army in Canada.
Using both his gift for description and excellent map work, Atkinson then details the shift in operations to New York, the subsequent skirmishes and battles on Long Island and in and around Manhattan, and the Continental Army’s near-miraculous escape from disaster both in Manhattan and near White Plains. Atkinson ends his account of the New York campaign by poignantly relating the hanging of Nathan Hale, the first American spy executed in the line of duty (and whose statue stands today outside CIA headquarters). This first book of three ends with the British pursuit of the wounded and demoralized Continental Army across central New Jersey and George Washington’s subsequent snapping back at his tormentors at Trenton and Princeton in 1776 and early 1777.
With two dozen well-done maps and nearly four-score illustrations, Atkinson takes the reader inside the battles and the people in and around them. He may have cut his teeth on small-city crime reporting in Kansas and the daily grind of big-city newspapering in Washington D.C., but Atkinson the military historian writes with a novelist’s flair for language and a police reporter’s gritty detail. He describes combat clinically, the way a forensic investigator would describe a gruesome murder scene.
In one passage he explains the carnage of the British charge up Bunker (Breed’s) Hill this way: “A man five feet, eight inches tall and weighing 168 pounds had an exterior surface of 2,550 square inches, of which a thousand were exposed to gunfire when facing an enemy frontally at close range . . . [and] . . . men miraculously unharmed by bullets or buckshot were splattered with wedges of tissue, dislodged teeth, and skull fragments.” The British eventually took the high ground and routed the Americans, but suffered over 1,000 casualties in doing so, including over 100 officers killed in action—American sharpshooters concentrated quite successfully on picking off officers. It was a shocking blow. British General Clinton later confided to his diary, echoing Greek General Pyrrhus of Epirus, that “a few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.”
The British Are Coming is a masterful work of research, exposition, and narrative that results in an extraordinary reconstruction of the times. Atkinson not only quotes noted scholars of the American Revolution, but he has also dug through the personal letters and diaries of participants and their families and associates, through the dispatches and notes of generals and private soldiers on both sides, and through official records of the British monarchy and government and the Continental Congress.
This meticulous research allows Atkinson to spin the story as an interviewer would, rich with quotes and emotive personal detail. The effect is to set a tone of intimacy and immediacy rare in historical writing. The British Are Coming is history as an everyday first-person witness would see it.
With his previous World War II liberation books and now with the Revolution Trilogy, Atkinson will join David McCullough, James M. McPherson, and others among the pantheon of popular historians of the American experience. The British Are Coming is a must-read for anyone who would understand American origins and the sacrifices it took to birth this nation.
Ed Guest lives in East Burke and reads everywhere.