Friday, July 17, 2020

Review: In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown

It seems that nearly everything I know about the American Revolution is either incomplete or flat out wrong.

Take militias. Yes, this common man force had its moments of glory. But it had more than its fair share of failures and was often an ineffective fighting force. The Continental Army that I pictured in rags was indeed under staffed and underfunded. But that wasn't solely because the country was poor or lacked fighting age individuals. At the time, Congress didn't have the power to raise taxes and there were large swaths of Americans who simply didn't want to fund, much less fight, in the war.

The fighting force that did help win the day: the French. And it wasn't just land troops that made the difference, but the French Navy played a key role as well.

And that image in my head of soldiers facing off in straight lines opposite each other is only part of the story. Creative battle tactics were employed, including massive sieges where armies deployed engineers to help strategically strangle a city.

My understanding of how black soldiers participated in the war was also incomplete. On a positive note, there were black soldiers who served with distinction. On the troubling side of things was George Washington's relationship with slavery. His behavior goes beyond ignorance or being blinded by the time he lived in. He saw black troops performing well and knew of proposals that would add much needed soldiers to his ranks by allowing slaves to earn their freedom by serving their country. He had none of it. He was a slave owner through and through, working hard to track down his own runaway slaves and insuring others could do the same. His opinions apparently softened later in life.

Before you write off Washington, however, it's worth noting that one long held fact of mine does continue to hold true. It really was suggested that Washington take on the role of king, and he really did vehemently oppose the idea. Washington was a true believer in the idea of self governance long before anyone imagined such a scheme could work. In that respect, he was a man far ahead of his time.

Perhaps the greatest bit of misinformation I carried with me has to do with the state of our Union after the war. Ready for this: at the time the war ended the constitution hadn't been written, much less ratified. We were a collection of states winging it. The fact that 13 states constructed and agreed to the constitution before the American experimented fizzled out due to infighting is nothing short of miraculous.

So why am I bubbling over with American Revolution trivia? I listened to In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown by Nathaniel Philbrick and was blown away by both how little I know about this pivotal war, as well as how interesting it all is. Given the local history and my own research I've come to appreciate that the Civil War was packed with courageous fighting, unlikely victories and riveting tails of history hanging in the balance. Philbrick shows that the same can be said about the Revolutionary War.

A big part of my blindspot associated with this war is the fact that I've often studied the opening chapters. Philbrick's book skips all of this and focuses on the build up and execution of the final pivotal battle: Yorktown. There's no Paul Revere and Minutemen. Instead, there's a beloved, but exhausted General Washington wheeling and dealing to try keep the fight and his very country alive. Though perseverance and more than a good bit of luck, spoiler alert, he pulls it off.

The fact that I happened to read Philbrick's book on the end of the war was a happy accident. From the looks of it, he's written other books that when combined provide a complete narrative of the war.

I'm thankful that Philbrick's book was so well written. Not just because I enjoyed his recounting of this pivotal time in American history, but because he opened my eyes to a topic I know so little about. I look forward to fixing that.

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