The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775–1777 (The Revolution Trilogy)
“The British Are Coming is history written in a grand style and manner. It leaves one anxiously awaiting the next two volumes.”
Rick Atkinson is emerging as America’s most talented military historian. His three-volume history of U.S. forces in the European theater of the Second World War—known as the “Liberation Trilogy”—combined careful scholarship with insightful judgments and page-turning readability. The first volume of that trilogy—An Army at Dawn—won the Pulitzer Prize. He has now turned those same talents to a study of America’s War for Independence.
Volume one of what is being billed as the “Revolution Trilogy,” entitled The British Are Coming, has just been published. In it, Atkinson covers the first two years of the war, from Lexington and Concord to the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. The American Revolution has been called a “glorious cause,” but Atkinson shows that it was fought in a most inglorious manner.
As in every war, there was plenty of bravery, courage, and devotion to duty, but also cowardice, callousness, and atrocities. Towns and villages were burned. Women were raped. Looting, thievery, and pillaging were commonplace. Disease, hunger, and fatigue were everpresent.
Atkinson notes that the War of Independence lasted 3059 days, involved 1300 actions, 241 naval engagements, and between 25,000 and 36,000 deaths, “a larger proportion of the American population to perish in any conflict other than the Civil War.”
The American colonies fought to break free from British rule and, as Atkinson notes, “[t]he odds were heavily stacked against the Americans: no colonial rebellion had ever succeeded in casting off imperial shackles.”
Atkinson describes the conflict as a “civil war,” fought between “two peoples of a common heritage.” It emerged from decades of benign neglect by England followed by measures designed to deal with the financial problems of the empire brought on by the Seven Years War, the American part of which was known as the French and Indian War.
When the New England colonies resisted Acts of Parliament requiring the colonies to pay their fair share for war debts, London, against the prudent counsel of William Pitt, Edmund Burke, and a few others, imposed more restrictive laws and sent troops to quell any further rebellion.
Atkinson judges British policy at that time to have been based on three critical false assumptions: “that most colonists remained loyal to the Crown . . . ; that firmness, including military firepower . . . would intimidate the obstreperous and restore harmony; and that failure to reassert London’s authority would eventually unstitch the empire.”
“When once these rebels have felt a smart blow,” remarked Britain’s King George III, “they will submit.” Most in Parliament agreed, including a new member of the House of Commons named Edward Gibbon who was working on the first volume of his magisterial history of the Roman Empire.
Atkinson describes a last-ditch unsuccessful effort at diplomacy by colonial envoy Benjamin Franklin, who came away from the experience frustrated and “angry at what he called the ‘insolence, contempt, and abuse’ of arrogant British officials toward his countrymen.”
What comes shining through on page after page of this book is that a sizeable portion of the population of the colonies (perhaps a third or more) thought of themselves as a separate people, a separate nation. For them, there was no turning back to direct rule by London. They were Americans who had, as the Declaration of Independence would later declare, inalienable “rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
What is more, they were willing to give all and risk all to achieve their independence. These sentiments were not appreciated by King George and the British political establishment, who continued to believe, and base their policies on, the notion that the rebellion was caused by a relatively small radical element mostly in Massachusetts.
To be sure, there were plenty of “loyalists” who wished to remain under British rule, and others who sought a safe neutrality, but the “radicals,” as King George called them, set the tone in America and drove events.
After briefly describing the political context that led to the conflict, Atkinson details the war’s initial battles in a geographical theater that stretched from Canada to South Carolina: Lexington and Concord; Boston Harbor, Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill; Montreal and Quebec; Lakes Champlain and George and the Hudson River Valley; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island; Charleston Harbor; Trenton and Princeton.
Atkinson provides character sketches of the key military leaders of both sides: Britain’s Thomas Gage, Guy Carleton, William Howe, Richard Howe, Henry Clinton, John Burgoyne, Hugh Percy, and Charles Cornwallis; America’s Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, Israel Putnam, Philip Schuyler, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, John Sullivan, and Benedict Arnold.
And, of course, there was George Washington. Washington is the dominant figure of the War for Independence. It was he, Atkinson points out, who forged the American army that ultimately won the war. He was, Atkinson writes, “a talented administrator, with a brain suited to executive action, thanks to a remarkable memory, a knack for incisive thinking and clear writing, and a penchant for detail.”
Washington also saw, Atkinson notes, “the glory of the American cause: a continental empire to be built upon republican ideals, buttressed with American mettle, ambition, and genius.” He could have been a dictator, but instead he submitted to the will of Congress. He was, as biographer James Flexner wrote, the “indispensable man” of the American Revolution.
Washington was not without flaws, especially in generalship. He made critical errors in the battles for New York. “He had come within a chin whisker of losing the war on several occasions,” writes Atkinson. He gradually learned “the merits of strategic defense.” He came to understand that Britain had to win the war whereas he had only not to lose it. The survival of his army was paramount.
To that end, Washington displayed, Atkinson notes, a “gift for improvisation and the deft escape, an ability to grab ‘the occasion by the forelock.’” Washington’s greatest talent, the author believes, was as a political general—“he would have few equals and no superior in American history.”
The American army gained victories in Boston, New Jersey, and South Carolina, suffered defeats in Canada and New York, and always lived to fight another day despite logistical and manpower difficulties that would have doomed other armies. In the throes of defeat in New York, Washington rallied the army by telling them: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves . . . The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.”
Atkinson ends this first volume of the Revolution Trilogy after America’s victories at Trenton and Princeton in early January 1777. Those victories came after Washington planned and executed a daring crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas of 1776. Washington had forged and held together an army for 18 months against the world’s greatest empire. There would be much more fighting and dying before independence would be achieved.
The British Are Coming is history written in a grand style and manner. It leaves one anxiously awaiting the next two volumes.