Sunday, November 15, 2009

Almost A Miracle

Among several books I am currently reading, I recently finished John Ferling’s Almost A Miracle. I started it a couple of weeks before our trip to Boston, more or less in anticipation of the trip. I know very little about the American Revolution (the only other book in my library on the subject is Robert Leckie’s George Washington’s War) and Ferling taught me (and reminded me of) much.

The British were so arrogant that they entered into the war without any real strategy on how to win it. “Incredibly, North’s government had led Britain into a faraway war without a plan for waging it. All along it had presumed that the Americans would back down when faced with British force. The government also believed if the rebels were so foolish as to resist, their army could not possibly be a match for regulars. It, and the rebellion, would be crushed in short order. Lexington-Concord, and especially Bunker Hill, awakened most ministers from their reverie.” (page 62)

While General George Washington deserves credit for maneuvering the British army out of Boston, his response to the redeployment of the British to New York was a near disaster in 1776. His army lost every battle. Only the incompetence of British General William Howe saved the Continentals. “For the second time in less than three weeks, Howe’s men had an opportunity to score a major, perhaps decisive victory. Had they moved quickly to seal off every road that linked the Continentals in the city with their comrades in Harlem Heights, one, and maybe both, divisions of Washington’s army could have been eradicated. There can be no question that the Continentals who were still in the process of evacuating New York City – roughly one-quarter of Washington’s army – would have been trapped. Perhaps never during the entire war was the Continental army in such mortal danger as at mid-day on September 15, but it was saved by excessive caution of the British command.” (page 141)

But, the British would retain New York as their primary base for the rest of the war.

A few months later, however, Washington redeemed himself with a “sensational victory” at the Battle of Trenton, possibly his greatest military moment of the entire war. “Its success energized the American rebellion. Four months before, the British high command had expected to inflict one blow after another on the rebels. A month earlier – at a time that General Howe was knighted by the king for his victory in New York – few British officers had believed the Continental army would even exist by the start of 1777.” (page 186) Instead, the British now abandoned New Jersey and sought fortifications along the coast, leaving the vast colonial interior to Washington.

This was followed by the catastrophic British invasion of that interior out of Canada which resulted in the great rebel victory at Saratoga in 1777. Even though Howe managed to capture Philadelphia later that year, it proved a hollow victory. So what? Howe’s army was pinned in the city and could not maneuver. Washington, though losing the Battle of Brandywine, kept his army intact. The British parliament began to waver and the first debates on peace took place. Howe ultimately retreated and gave up position of the port city.

In truth, things were bad for both sides at this point. The British were no closer to squashing the rebellion and the Americans were grimly hanging on to their resistance efforts, their army stationed at Valley Forge. There in 1778: “Upward of 2,500 of Washington’s men perished that winter, very nearly one in seven of the Continentals that were with him late in December. (In contrast, about one American in thirty who were involved in operations in the Battle of the Bulge, one the deadliest American engagements of World War II, dies in battle). More than seven hundred of the army’s horses perished as well.” (page 280)

At Valley Forge, Washington did not share in the deprivations of his army. He often dined exquisitely and maintained an aristocratic stature throughout his command and his life. But, significantly, Washington kept an army, some army, any army in the field and that was enough to afford continued legitimacy to the rebellion. This was no easy task considering that 1779 brought the worst economic conditions in American history.

“The most rapid currency depreciation in United States history occurred that year, a faster free fall than followed the stock market crash of 1929. In January 1779, eight dollars in Continental currency had been needed to purchase one dollar of specie. By October, thirty dollars were required. By December, forty-two were needed. Washington’s letters to Congress portray an army so emasculated by the economic collapse that his ability to wage war was adversely affected. By mid-1779 the number of Continental soldiers was down by some three thousand from the previous autumn, yet Washington was not immobilized by the sudden financial crisis. He entered the campaign season of 1779 with some 12,000 Continentals under his command, a force that could be augmented – as it would be in future campaigns – by the militia.” (page 351)

Yet, for the most part, Ferling points out Washington did little with his force and fought no major battles for over three years. After he fought British General Henry Clinton to a draw at Monmouth in 1778, Washington did not commit to another major battle until Yorktown in 1781.

Ferling calls Washington “indecisive” and “insecure”, often his judgment was “clouded.” He points out that, for most of his life, Washington was not a military man. He suggests that more aggressive British leadership could have trumped Washington’s operational skills. As it was, however, the British lacked such capacity.

Washington remained so fixated on New York and on the possibility of an American invasion of Canada that he concentrated very little on the more important military activity in the South until the opportunity at Yorktown presented itself. By then sufficient French forces had joined the Continental cause and the activity of General Nathanael Greene, among other commanders, in the South made it obvious where he should direct the forces under his command.

This is not to minimize the considerable actions of Washington. Ferling is clear that “Britain’s suppression of the American rebellion was foiled in the fighting in the North between 1775 and 1778.” But this did not win America’s independence. Ferling gives a great deal of credit to Nathaniel Greene and to the fighting particularly in the Carolinas as the campaign that tipped the scales in favor of the Continentals. “In the final analysis…American victory was won at last in the South in 1780-1781.”

The fighting in the North was generally along traditional European linear tactics perfected by Frederick the Great. After years of effort, Washington ultimately drilled his Continental Army into a competent tactical force. Meanwhile, in the South the war became unbelievably savage for the times. The South Carolina interior was swarming with rebels in spite of the British capture of Charleston, in fact, perhaps because they had invaded the colony.

British General Charles Cornwallis won the Battle of Camden. Then all hell broke lose.

“But by mid-summer Cornwallis was no longer calling the shots. Even before Camden, he had reported to New York that the ‘whole country’ along the border and in northeast South Carolina was ‘in an absolute state of rebellion.’ Rebels were pouring out of the woodwork to take up arms under one leader or another. Six engagements were fought in the last two weeks of July, more or less the inaugural salvo of partisan resistance. Sixteen more battles of varying size were fought in the seventy-five days that followed.” (page 456) It was the American Revolution’s most intense, constant, day-after-day type of fighting. Not European-like at all. Almost tribal.

Ferling’s style is not just factual but cultural, which is one reason I like his book. “By its nature, war is harsh, brutal, and pitiless, and while it can call out the best in humankind, it can also awaken the darkest side of human nature, arousing many participants in coldhearted callousness. For most, danger begets fear. For some, fear sires ferocity, and ferocity spawns a ruthlessness that subsumes compassion. For still other men, more than is gratifying to acknowledge, soldiering is a license to unleash iniquitous qualities that they had struggled to suppress in peacetime.” (page 453)

Cornwallis entered a war against largely partisan forces. Such partisan warfare reached its terrible apex at the Battle of Waxhaws.

Unprecedented carnage (for this war) was the aftermath of a British cavalry charge against a lesser trained Continental force from Virginia. “Battlefields are horrid places, but this one was especially ghastly. Here were men with severed hands and limbs, crushed skulls, and breached arteries. Some men were decapitated by the slashing cavalrymen. Others were trampled by maddened horses. The bellies of many were laid open by bayonets. Although resistance ended within seconds, the carnage continued. Tarleton did not order the slaughter that ensued, but he did not stop it either. As the Virginians screamed for ‘quarter,’ for mercy, Tarleton’s men waded among helpless rebels hacking and bayoneting in a saturnalia of bloodshed. It was a massacre. (‘I have cut 170 Off’rs and Men to pieces,’ Tarleton said straightforwardly in his report.) In a war in which rarely more than 6 or 7 percent of combatants fell on the battlefield, nearly 75 percent of the Virginians fell victim to the horror in the Waxhaws.” (page 436)

Over time, however, actions like this took their toll of the British command. The total number of troops dropped dramatically as the British tried to secure their supply line in addition to finding and combating Greene.

Cornwallis faced Greene alone for the last time at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781. The Continentals had become interlocked with the British army. Hand-to-hand fighting and Greene had the momentum. “In the end it was Cornwallis who took the boldest step. With his army buckling in the close quarters fight with the rebels, Cornwallis cruelly – but necessarily – ordered his artillery to fire into the brawling mass of friend and foe alike. Grapeshot tore down men from both sides. The British commander took his brutal, ghastly step to stop the fighting and retreating, and with it the ominous likelihood of being overwhelmed. Technically Cornwallis was the victor, as he held the field, but Greene provided an accurate assessment of the outcome. The ‘Enemy got the ground…but we the victory,’ he said a few days later. The British had captured all the American artillery – ‘all horses being killed,’ the field pieces had to be abandoned, Greene later explained – and 1,300 stand of the rebels’ arms. But Cornwallis had lost nearly 550 men, about twice the number of his adversary. Everyone on the American side, and not a few British, thought the battle a rebel victory.” (page 499)

Cornwallis limped through North Carolina, through more partisan action, and headed for the coast of Virginia. Greene got behind him and headed southward guaranteeing that the once strongly loyal British colonies of the south remained in firm rebellion. Outside of port towns like New York, Charleston, and Savannah, the British had little control over anything. Inland loyalist regions were shrinking. In the end, of course, the about one-third of the total British army in North America got bottled up at Yorktown. A French naval victory over the British fleet made the resupply of Cornwallis’ army difficult if not impossible. The army surrendered to superior Continental and French forces. By this time parliament had had enough and called it quits in order to concentrate on other pressing issues within the great British Empire.

Ferling gives a terrific account of a very interesting story that occurred in the aftermath of Yorktown and the general British surrender in the war. Washington remained a general but he essentially had no army. The Continental forces disbanded soon after the British surrender. The strange thing is that the British military force remained in an essentially defenseless America for over two more years after their defeat. What were the former colonists going to do with them?

The Red Coats couldn’t simply vanish. They had to be systematically transported out of wherever they were stationed. Most of them were at the tip of Manhattan Island were New York City is today, but a small port town at the time. On November 25, 1783, twenty-five months after Yorktown, numerous troop transports had assembled and were carrying away last 20,000 British soldiers in the new American nation.

Several weeks before, in anticipation of this event, Washington left Philadelphia, the capital of the new United States, and gathered what troops he could along the way up to New York. In the end he managed to cobble together an “army” of 800 infantrymen, mostly from New York and Massachusetts. There was little interest on the part of the revolutionary colonies for army service in 1783.

“When the voyage of the huge British fleet commenced, the Continental army resumed its march, coming down the Boston Road into New York under the flawless blue sky. On and on the army marched toward the lower end of the island, down Pearl Street, then west on Wall Street, and ultimately to Cape’s Tavern on Broadway, where the commander in chief alighted from his great horse and entered the inn to enjoy the first of a week-long spree of dinners and ceremonies.” (page 558)

There’s so much more in Almost A Miracle. The bold, bright military mind of Benedict Arnold, one of Washington’s most admired lieutenants, a hero at Saratoga. He could not see how the rebels could win and turned coat. The daring and brilliant naval exploits of John Paul Jones. The various failures of the war by both sides on the very active Canadian front. The politics of how France become involved. The geopolitical complexities of the war in relation to world events, particularly in the Caribbean. You have to view the war in a wider context to understand why the British were willing to cut their losses with America.

Ferling tells a fascinating historical story in a rich, expressive, factual style. I thoroughly enjoyed his book.

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