In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown
“the book reads almost like a Tom Clancy thriller, with political intrigue, international machinations, and suspense keeping the pages turning even if the reader is already basically familiar with the story.”
Nathanial Philbrick has written a magnificent capstone to his Revolutionary War trilogy, which began in the towns and villages around Boston, continued with a fascinating look at the intertwined careers of George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and now concludes with the highly improbable and near-miraculous Franco-American victory at Yorktown.
In this book, like his previous volumes, he examines many long-held myths while exploring lesser known threads that helped weave together the outcome of the American Revolution.
Many Americans many not grasp how close the Patriot cause was to collapse by the summer of 1781. After six long years of war, the British still occupied New York, had defeated the colonists in the majority of the battles fought, and give no sign of giving up their rebellious subjects.
More significantly, the colonial economy was near collapse, Washington’s Continental Army was roiling with mutiny from unpaid, underfed, and poorly clad troops. The hoped for assistance from France had not produced any tangible results, and the colonists continued to bicker about taxes, supporting the army, and matters of grand strategy.
All of these crises came to head during the winter of 1780–1781 as Washington sought to combine land and sea power to achieve a final decisive victory that would bring King George III to the negotiating table. Although he originally set his sights on attacking the British garrison of New York, long an obsession of many Patriot leaders since its capture in 1776, a fortuitous set of circumstances sent his army into Virginia to eventually lay siege to British forces under Lord Cornwallis.
When reading through the deliberations, marches, and other events, for modern readers the most challenging concept to grasp is the absolute tyranny of time and distance that all the combatants had to struggle through. As Philbrick’s narrative highlights, Washington had to think months ahead to try and put his joint Franco-American army in the same location as the French fleet.
A near amazing series of events, including the timely intervention of a Spanish diplomatic fixer who played a key but largely unknown part in getting the French fleet to the Chesapeake, brought all the pieces together and the British forces were forced to surrender. As Philbrick believes, the naval Battle of the Capes that turned back a relief force to rescue the trapped British is the most critical naval victory in American history and it was won by the French Navy.
Of course, even the victory at Yorktown did not guarantee peace. The narrative continues by examining the crucial 18 months after Yorktown. While the British were clearly waning in their power in the colonies, they still occupied New York, and only the desire of the British to protect their more economically vital colonies in the Caribbean convinced King George and his government to make peace.
In addition, one of those little known, but critical moments in American history occurred during this period as the officers of the Continental Army, furious at what they felt was Congress’ betrayal of their promises to provide pensions, started grumbling about marching the Army on Congress to demand satisfaction. The Newburgh Conspiracy, as it has come to be called, was a potentially calamitous moment in American history when our Revolution could have gone down the same road as the later French Revolution, dissolving into anarchy and the likely imposition of a military dictatorship. Only the political acumen and statesmen like presence of George Washington defuses their anger and allows the situation to be resolved peacefully.
Finally, by November 1783, the last British troops sail for home, and in the ultimate act of patriotism and self-sacrifice, the following December George Washington resigns his commission as General-in-Chief and returns to Mount Vernon for a well-deserved, but short retirement.
Philbrick’s writing is just superb, and while he manages to incorporate many marvelous and little know stories and vignettes, the book reads almost like a Tom Clancy thriller, with political intrigue, international machinations, and suspense keeping the pages turning even if the reader is already basically familiar with the story.
The stormy relationship between the Americans and their erstwhile allies the French, the in-fighting between both British and American military and political leaders, and the sheer chance that turned events in the American’s favor may surprise many readers accustomed to the usual tale of America’s inevitable independence. As this narrative shows, one or two different decisions could have made American history turn out far differently, and there seems to be more than a touch of Divine Providence involved in the final outcome.
As the final volume in his Revolutionary War trilogy, this book will delight, educate, and entertain while it brings to light the genius, chance, and sacrifice that finally brought about America’s independence.