Historian John Ferling sets out to define the causes for American victory in the War of Independence on the broad canvas of his magnum opus, Almost a Miracle. The author uses a remark General George Washington made after Yorktown - that American victory seemed almost a miracle - as a starting point for his dissection of just how the American rebels were able to defeat the greatest empire on earth. Almost a Miracle is a very well-written, well-argued historical work that sets out not only to narrate facts but to ascertain what they mean and whether or not the actual outcome was indeed a miracle, or only seemed that way at the time. The author handles this material deftly, but there are two issues of bias in his approach that may cause readers familiar with this subject to bristle. First, the author has a tendency to emphasize defects with familiar heroes of the Revolutionary era (Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, Franklin), while praising men (Lee, Gates) who ended up with less than stellar records. Second, the author - who lives in the south - tends to exaggerate the importance of the south while neglecting to mention colonial demographics, that the percent of the population in the Carolinas and Georgia was small. Overall, Almost a Miracle succeeds in laying out a well-argued explanation for the American victory and if readers can overlook some of the author's bias, they will find a very satisfying intellectual look at why the American Revolution turned out the way it did.
Almost a Miracle consists of four main parts (Going to War, 1775-1776; the War in the North, 1776-1779; the War in the South, 1780-1781; and American Victory, 1781-1783), which are sub-divided into 25 chapters. The book also includes 25 maps, an 8-page bibliography and 75 pages of footnotes. Each chapter lays out part of the chronological narrative and the author uses the clever device of intercalary chapters labeled "choices" to discuss each sides strategic options and plans for the next year. While the author's writing style tends toward the academic, it is unencumbered enough to keep the narrative flow moving at a brisk pace.
Although this is primarily a strategic history, covering the war from both the British and American viewpoints, the author does provide a fairly comprehensive history of military operations, as well. The tactical detail varies and the early chapters on fighting in the north are far less detailed than chapters on fighting in the south, which is clearly the author's presence. Some battles, like Freeman's Farm in 1777, are covered primarily through first-person quotes which are interesting, but tell little about the overall action. The author provides enough detail to explain why a given battle turned out the way it did, but he spends comparatively little effort detailing the inner organization of each army or tactical lessons learned.
The author's characterization of key individuals is often difficult to accept, since most seem unduly harsh. While the author avoids outright hero-bashing, he clearly wants to take Washington and his key officers off their pedestals. I particularly found the author's constant snide remarks about Washington's "cronies" and "sycophants" (i.e. Alexander Hamilton, Lafayette) to be over-the-top. We all know about Washington's military deficiencies in terms of command experience and mistakes made, but these seem balanced by the battlefield victories he did achieve and in keeping an unpaid army intact for years. By any definition, Washington was a great commander, which explains why he was admired. The author also wants to elevate Gates and Lee, saying they "were among the few truly talented generals in the army" but were undone by Washington's resentment of military competitors. Where was that military talent ever demonstrated? Other than acting in the role of senior advisor to Washington in 1775-76, it's hard to see what Lee accomplished before he was captured. The author holds up Gates as the "victor of Saratoga" - denigrating the real heroes, Arnold and Morgan - and suggests that he too, was skewered by a whispering campaign by Washington's inner circle. When Gates runs away from the battlefield at Camden, the author makes excuses for him. When Lee's efforts lead to a near-rout at Monmouth, the author excuses him. While the author skewers one Revolutionary hero after another (even poor Ben Franklin), Gates and Lee enjoy immunity from criticism. This aspect of the book is irksome and does not add to the author's thesis.
So why did the Americans win? The author sees the key reasons as a string of British strategic mistakes: not committing enough troops to North America, failing to appreciate the extent of the rebellion early on, and failure to protect the Loyalists. The author agrees with several traditional conclusions about the over-caution of British commanders and the role of the French. He states that, "Britain possessed the capability to score a knockout punch during the war's early years...that the rebels were not crushed in1776 was due largely to General Howe." And, "French help was the single most important factor in determining the outcome of the War of Independence." Actually, these explanations tell us why the British lost the war, not how we won it.
The author favors the idea that the Southern Strategy adopted by the British in 1780-1781 might have salvaged a British victory by allowing them to hold onto 2-3 of the 13 original colonies. However, a British presence in the lower south after the war would have only pushed the newly-independent colonies to push more quickly for a federal constitution and regular army. The author's interpretation that the war "was won in the south" appears designed more to please regional tastes than to pass a test of analytic rigor (was an alternate hypothesis tested?). Overall, a good book on the Revolution, but not without its quirks.
on June 24, 2007
Bringing to this book nearly forty years of teaching and writing experience, John Ferling is one of the premier authorities on the history of early America.
Ferling is the author of numerous books and articles on the American Revolution, including Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution; The World Turned Upside Down: The American Victory in the War of Independence; and A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (2003), which won the Fraunces Tavern Book Award as the year's best book on the American Revolution.
In Almost a Miracle, Ferling, professor emeritus at the University of West Georgia, has written an engrossing, fast-paced military history of the Revolutionary War, from the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
At the end of this eight-year war, George Washington remarked that the American victory was "little short of a standing miracle."
How did America emerge victorious?
Ferling's assessment of George Washington is a double-edged sword. Often out-generaled, Washington made several egregious blunders that, had the British commander (Howe) acted aggressively, would have ended the war almost before it began. Washington also was slow to recognize the importance of Britain's "Southern Strategy," believing that military action in the "backwater" South was of small importance.
And yet, Washington's Fabian strategy and tactics (employing frequent "hit-and-run" retreats and a defensive war of posts), held the tattered American forces together, through brutal winters at Valley Forge and Morristown, to live and fight another day.
"Washington alone," writes Ferling, "had the preparation for the office of commander in chief at the outset of the war and the intelligence, temper, and character necessary to grow in the office. His defects notwithstanding, fortune smiled on the infant nation when Washington was selected to lead it into the war."
Ferling points out that, although there was no turning point in the Revolutionary War, there were, however, significant victories that enhanced the American cause, such as the battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton, Saratoga, and King's Mountain.
Inclement weather was also an important factor, causing both the British and the Americans to revise their battle plans, resulting in missed opportunities for success or narrow escapes from disaster. (Providence seems to have been confused as to which side to favor.)
"Battles often hinged on intangibles," writes Ferling, "such as leadership under fire, heroism, good fortune [luck?], blunders, resiliency, planning, tenacity, and surprise."
Above all, Ferling asserts, "French help [financial and military, especially the French fleet] was the single most important factor in determining the outcome of the War of Independence." While this is true, one should not sell short the sacrifices made by numerous soldiers and sailors who fought in the patriot cause.
In addition to military matters covered by other writers, Ferling provides a bonus: a more detailed coverage of the war at sea (including the heroic exploits of John Paul Jones) and, especially, of Britain's Southern Strategy and the partisan war (guerilla fighting) in the South, led by audacious and aggressive Nathanael Greene.
This book is a gripping chronicle of the epic struggle that gave birth to our nation. If anyone reading this book did not already know the outcome, he or she would fear for the patriot cause. The fact that America triumphed is, indeed, "almost a miracle."
Previous Books by John Ferling:
--A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic
--Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution
--The World Turned Upside Down: The American Victory in the War of Independence
--Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America
--A Wilderness of Miseries: War and Warriors in Early America
--The First of Men: A Life of George Washington
--John Adams: A Life
--John Adams: A Biography
--Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800
--The Loyalist Mind: Joseph Galloway and the American Revolution
--Compromise or Conflict: The Rejection of the Galloway Alternative to Rebellion
on June 18, 2007
Almost A Miracle is terrific telling of the Revolution, including its details, strategies, participants, daily human realities, the roles of luck and chance, and the might-have-beens of history. As a New Yorker I could actually picture Ferling's recreation of Washington's eight-abreast march down the Post Road as it proceeded from place to place and finally to Broadway as the last Continentals, black and white, re-took York Island in November 1783. That's good writing. I finally learned why a small city in South Carolina would be named for a Rhode Islander. Buffs and newcomers alike will enjoy the flow and perspective in Ferling's version of this oft-told tale. No Founding Era collection could be complete without it.
Reviews require criticisms too, and I have two: a book like this would benefit greatly by an Appendix or two that included a timeline and a cast of characters (sort of like White's Bitter Ocean). Secondly, all books have typos and grammatical faux pas - this one has too many.
on January 3, 2008
Unlike many of the previous reviewers, I know very little about the war of independence, other than that it was a war about being freed from British rule; I am not an American and have very little interest in military history. So, I will not be able to comment on whether Ferling is biased or not, or to the accuracy of the facts presented in the book.
Having said all that, this is the best non-fiction book I have ever read. I read it only because I had just returned from a wonderful stay in north east US and my husband had the book lying around. So, when I returned home, I started reading Ferling's book.
I found Ferling's narrative writing style to be very engaging (not all narrative style are engaging). His description of the battles reads like a thriller and better than some fiction thriller novels. I found it difficult to put the book down until I knew the outcome of the various battles he described, probably reflecting my lack of knowledge in America's history, but the fact that his writing could have this effect on someone with no interest in military history, reflects on how well Ferling writes.
Ferling made me feel the continental soldiers' anxiety leading up to battle, feel their elation when they won and their sorrow when they lost. My heart went out to the continental soldiers; most weren't properly clothed, some weren't paid while they fought. All this while they endured terrible conditions tracking hundreds of miles from one place to another, particularly during the summer, to do battle with the British.
I cannot comment on whether he treated Washington favourably or spent too much time writing about the battles in the south, etc, but I can say that Ferling made the reader see that the sacrifice made by the more courageous militia men and soldiers were just as important in these battles as the tactics of some of the generals.
I highly recommend Ferling's Almost a Miracle, particularly to those like me, who has no background in this subject matter.
I am now a big fan of Ferling and plan to buy more of his books.
on June 28, 2009
I know my mediocre review of this book is against the mainstream and I understand that Mr. Ferling's attempt to cover such a vast topic in just one book is a difficult task, but having said that, I found the book a little disjointed and lacking the detail I have come to expect from Mr. Ferling's other books. A simple example is The Battle of Brooklyn where the moraine running along (Guana Heights and Flatbush Pass) is barely touched upon. This battle as well as the others, are so fascinating that to just brush on them does no justice to the battles nor the hardships the "rebels" faced. This is NOT a book where the reader will sit with the map and be able to follow every step of the battle-far from it.
The topics are too fascinating, at least for me, who has read many detailed accounts of The Revoluton, to accept a summary approach with a few quotes stuck in for authenticity.
I could go through the same as it pertains to Ticonderoga, NJ, etc. but you get the picture.
If you are looking for a general overview of the Revolutionary War this is as good as it gets, but if you are looking for a book that involves you in a "being there" perspective wanting a copy of the map by your sided so you can literally follow the treks of the armies over and around the geographical and often geological obstacles, this is not it.
Mr. Ferling, also, in my opinion, throws in many quotes that I found out of place and somewhat slowing the reading process.
In summary, while I respect Mr. Ferling as much as any contemporary in early American History, this book is a far cry from his others, particularly A Leap in the Dark.
on August 16, 2007
George Washington remarked that America's victory in the Revolutionary War (1776-1783)was almost a miracle. The Father of our Country was correct!
The story is well told in this one volume military history of the war. Author John Ferling, who has written several well received books on the colonial and early American period has produced his magnus opus
with this 600 page small print volume!
The Revolutionary War was not about stuffy looking wealthy gentlemen in ivory towers pontificating about the need for American independence! The war was long, bloody, costly in lives lost, injuries, money spent and
divisive. In a real sense, it was a civil war, as loyalist to King and country battled the rebels.
Ferling divides the book into several sections:
a. The War in the North-We follow the action from Lexington & Concord to Bunker Hill to the American army's miraculous escape from New York. We
see Washington triumph at Trenton and adopt his Fabian strategy to perplex General Howe. Howe's sluggish fox chase against the rebels across New Jersey was not successful as the wily Washington kept his army together. Washington rarely won battles but he never gave up!
We suffer at Valley Forge, Morristown in horrible winter encampments. We
suffer the betrayal of Benedict Arnold. New York was occupied by the British until the very end of the war. Important battles such as Brandywine, Germantown and Brandywine are covered in depth with maps included. Due to the American victory at Brandywine the French decided to support America with money, troops, ships and much needed supplies. Without the French the patriot cause would have come a cropper.
b. The War at Sea featuring John Paul Jones the doughty Scot captain who made raids on Great Britain and defeated the HMS Serapis at Sea. John Adams is the Father of the Navy. We see how difficult a life it was at sea for the sailors who fought on salt water.
c. The War in the South. We see how great American general Nathaniel Greene and his friend General Daniel Morgan defeated the British in key victories at King Mountain, Cowpens and Guilford Court House. The British took and held Charleston and Savannah but were defeated by Americans who refused to surrender. General George Clinton hoped to win the war for the British in the South by having the assistant of General Howe. Howe never linked up with Clinton prefering the safety of New York.
d. Ferling does a fine job in explaining diplomacy during the era. We see men like Ben Franklin, John Adams and Silas Deane winning French support in Paris; Lord Germaine and Prime Minister North trying to run the military show from London and see 18th century power politics up close.
France, England, Spain were the key players moving the chess pieces of political and military power. The fledging United States would benefit from these rivalries.
e. Ferling devotes several pages to the life lived by the typical soldier in the British and American armies. We see the importance of African-Americans and women in the conflict.The attitude of native Americans is examined.
Ferling gives George Washington high marks but at times is critical of his indecisveness and thin-skinned jealousy of other leaders such as Horatio Gates the victor at Saratoga. He concludes that Washington did the job better than anyone else could have done.
The book is well illustrated with maps and an extensive bibliography. Any course on the American Revolution would do well to consider using this book as a textbook. Excellent!
on August 17, 2012
I agree with most of the positive reviews already submitted by others--this is a fine book, full of details and drama of a long and tedious war condensed into a readable 600 pages. I particularly liked the analysis of the War at the end of the book, speculations on the key turning points of the war, the quality of the participants, and the many "what if" scenarios if certain alternative actions been pursued. It makes one aware of the tenuousness of the outcome of any war, but this one in particular, with its endless vascillations. But the book suffered from one major flaw that partially ruined it for me...the lack of maps. I found the trivial number of maps and their location in the book to be a constant irritant--not just battlefield maps and diagrams, but overview maps of major areas and campaigns. Many times, I had no idea where the action was happening, such as the paths of the armies , key rivers and inlets, towns and cities and critical movements of troops. Yes, I used a modern atlas and a set of maps but the overlay of modern America pretty much obscures the details discussed in the book--very frustrating because the descriptions of battles and campaigns were often discussed in dramatic and chapter-length detail but were unsupported by readable maps. For example, I suspect only a Southerner could really have followed the fascinating flight of Cornwallis through the South. What I later found was that there are actually very few maps of the entire war that are easily available, except for The Atlas of the Revolutionary War, a godsend that came too late for me, and wouldn't have been all the relevant to much of the information in the book. I realize that a small-format paperback is handicapped by space considerations, but the author could have tossed many of the endless portraits of obscure generals, and replaced them with helpful maps.
on July 12, 2007
In his masterful work, Almost A Miracle, author John Ferling yanks you out of
your favorite chair, hurling you back in time to be there with Washington, in
the thick of battle, the smell of gunpowder thick in your nostrils, men and
horses dying all around you, cannon firing as though they were announcing
Judgment Day. This is the War for Independence, sans make believe, sham,
romantics or posturing. This is how it was for the colonists in their
struggle, and Ferling spares us no pain or agony yet reminds of us of what
a heroic breed we can be. Though I have read many accounts of this period
in our history, none comes closer to the truth than Almost a Miracle. Get
it, read it, live it. It should be required reading for all Americans!
on June 27, 2008
I greatly enjoyed "Almost a Miracle", which reviewed the Revolutionary war from the point of view of the military. It is intended by the author as a companion volume to "A Leap in the Dark" (2003) which covers the political side of the war. (Full disclosure: I have not read the earlier book.)
Plusses: + The military focus filled in for me a side of the war that I was not as familiar with. + The book covered military action throughout the country, including that in the South. The latter is presented as pivotal in the outcome of the war; the other books I have read on the war gloss over much of the Southern action and focus on the North. + The book features biographical summaries for many senior officers on both sides, along with portraits, who are not given much attention in most Revolutionary War books.
Minuses: - The author can sometimes be excruciatingly repetitive, as evidenced by his use of the words "Fabian strategy" at least 10 or 20 times throughout the book. - About half-way through the book, the author starts using an excessive number of idiomatic phrases. Two examples, of the many scattered throughout the text: one general was "hot under the collar"; two others where "not on the same wavelength". I felt that the latter phrase was especially egregious due to its anachronistic nature; radio waves were not even invented until the late 19th century. These may be nits; however, a good editor could have cleaned them up.
on December 4, 2008
Having read close to 20 books on the revolutionary years in the past four years, I wasn't expecting much that was new.
While most of those other books received deserved good reviews, their focus was so narrow that it is hard to see their story within the larger context.
This well written and energetic account not only ties together all the years of the revolution, the author provides valued and welcome analysis: the whys and outcomes and not just the history.
A welcome addition to the genre.